The new barons: A new breed of local hero is emerging in Britain's cities - all-powerful, championing businessmen. Chris Blackhurst and Nigel Cope investigate (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 10 JANUARY 1993) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

THE FIRST barons were landed gentry. In late Victorian times, they were iron and rail magnates. In the earlier half of this century, they were manufacturers, engineers and shipbuilders.

Not any more. In 1993, the regional barons are jacks of all trades, who made it big with a local company or in property, and now dabble in media, sit on the board of the development corporation, and chair the football club.

The Independent on Sunday asked CBI representatives, chambers of commerce members and local journalists from 20 leading commercial centres in Britain to name the most influential business people in their area. The same names kept recurring.

Move outside London to a regional centre and everybody knows the local Mr Big. He is a hero: a man - always a man, unfortunately - who more often than not started with nothing and now dominates business life in the area. Often maverick and outspoken, they are the first names that spring to mind when talking about business. To coin an increasingly well-worn phrase, they are the movers and shakers.

The idea for this article came from a visit to Owen Oyston, the media and property tycoon at his base in Preston, Lancashire. Should you not have Mr Oyston's office address to hand when coming off the train, it does not matter. Just ask for him by name and the taxi driver will take you straight there. It could not happen in London, but in Preston, a medium-size town of 100,000 souls, it does.

The new barons may not run the largest enterprise in their area - in Oyston's Preston, for example, the local British Aerospace boss is a bigger employer. But unlike the heads of branches of bigger companies, they have their fingers in more than one pie.

There is more to the new barons than mere financial muscle, though. Some have shown the same grand vision as their Victorian predecessors. Like Sir John Hall in Newcastle. Who would have thought that Britain's biggest shopping centre would be built in Gateshead, of all places? He did it, and the success of the Metro Centre, coupled with the resurgence of Newcastle United Football Club, which he also chairs, has brought renewed pride and confidence to the North-east.

Or take the Richardson twins in Birmingham, who developed the Merry Hill shopping centre and are now turning their attentions to a relic of a great industrial past, the derelict Fort Dunlop plant. Or Sir Desmond Pitcher in Liverpool, who, not content with running Littlewoods, the city's largest employer, and the Merseyside Development Corporation, wants to build a barrage across the Mersey.

In Manchester there is Bob Scott, who everybody thought was mad for wanting to bring the Olympic Games to Coronation Street but now has the backing of the Government and north- west business leaders. Mr Scott is a typical new baron. He does not just make money; he also makes things happen.

Birmingham

DON AND ROY RICHARDSON

Some say of Don and Roy Richardson: 'They're Black Country, not Birmingham.' True, the twin brothers started out trading army vehicles in Dudley and cut their teeth as property developers in the local area, but the pair are now making their mark on central Birmingham.

Aged 62, the twins are chiefly known as the developers who built the huge Merry Hill shopping centre on the site of a former steelworks.

Now, together with Tarmac, they are concentrating on redeveloping Fort Dunlop, Birmingham's landmark building on the M6 near Spaghetti Junction. The plan - still to be confirmed - is to turn it into a hotel, leisure and housing complex that will retain the existing facade. The Richardsons are also hoping to convert the old Lewis's department store in the city centre into offices and shops and buy back Merry Hill. Mountleigh, who bought it from them, went into receivership earlier this year. Unburdened by delusions of grandeur ('Oh, I'm just doing the post,' Roy Richardson said when contacted), the pair let their developments do their talking. 'We're not committee men,' says Roy. 'We're entrepreneurs.'

Manchester

BOB SCOTT

There are richer businessmen, and men running bigger companies in Manchester, than Bob Scott, but none are more responsible for putting the city back on the map. The head of Manchester Theatres, he is the impresario who breathed life back into the city centre by converting the old Corn Exchange into the spectacularly successful Royal Exchange Theatre. He was also the driving force behind the reopening of the Palace Theatre and the Opera House. The statistics speak volumes for his success: when he arrived in Manchester in 1967, after Oxford and a short acting career, fewer than 10,000 people a week went to theatres in Manchester; these days, the tally is well over 40,000. He has become best known, though, as the leader, brains and inspiration behind Manchester's bid to hold the Olympic Games. What was first viewed as little more than a joke by Mancunians, the city fathers, north-west business chiefs, the Government and the International Olympic Committee, has now turned into something like a local crusade. There cannot be a company chief in the North-west who has not been contacted by Mr Scott. In most cases, despite the recession, they have given him support. The Government has also stumped up pounds 55m, with a promise of more.

Glasgow

LORD MACFARLANE

Good-naturedly described as a leading member of the 'Glasgow mafia', Lord Macfarlane, 66, is a patriotic Scot who has been at the forefront of many initiatives to regenerate his home city. Clean-cut and charming, he shot to national prominence in 1987 when he was appointed deputy chairman of Guinness and given the job of steadying the ship after its previous captain, Ernest Saunders, fell.

But Lord Macfarlane, then Sir Norman, already had a string of local directorships. He is chairman of Clansman Holdings, the stationery business he founded in 1949. He also heads United Distillers (he resigned his Guinness deputy chairmanship in May), was on the board of the Scottish Development Authority for over 10 years and was instrumental in Glasgow's successful application to become the European City of Culture in 1990. A patron of the arts, he is a former vice-chairman of the Scottish Ballet and currently Scottish patron of the National Art Collections Fund. A keen golfer, he plays every Saturday, attends church every Sunday and allows himself a glass of Royal Lochnagar, his favourite malt whisky, most evenings.

Liverpool

SIR DESMOND PITCHER

Not for nothing is Des Pitcher's nickname 'Mr Merseyside'. Chief executive of Littlewoods, the local stores, mail order and football pools group, head of the Merseyside Development Corporation and the Mersey Barrage Company, and deputy chairman of Everton Football Club, he was knighted last year for his part in regenerating the area.

Born and bred in Liverpool, his early business career was spent overseas. When he returned, to run Plessey Telecommunications, based in the city, he was devastated. 'The biggest single shock I ever experienced was the rapid degeneration of Merseyside. I've never seen anything go to hell as quickly.'

His business acumen and devotion to Merseyside impressed Sir John Moores, who asked him to take charge of Littlewoods, the family firm. As it has prospered, he has become one of the highest-paid executives in Britain, with an annual salary of over pounds 800,000. But lucrative offers of other directorships away from the area have been turned down flat: whatever he does must have a local connection. In April, when he hands over the reins at Littlewoods, he will take the chair at North West Water, which has a pounds 500m plan to clean up the Mersey estuary.

Leeds

LESLIE SILVER

A few years ago Leeds's Mr Big would have been Tony Clegg, but his departure from property group Mountleigh to concentrate on farming has left a void. Well-known names still prominent on the Leeds business circuit include: Arnold Ziff, chairman of Leeds-based Town Centre Properties and Bradford footwear group Stylo, former High Sheriff of West Yorkshire and ex-president of the Leeds Permanent Building Society; and Victor Watson, chairman of John Waddington, the printing, packaging and games company. But enjoying a higher profile at the moment is Leslie Silver, the multi- millionaire former head of Kalon Paints and chairman of Leeds United. He recently paid pounds 260,000 to restore Ridings House, the setting for Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre.

Edinburgh

ANGUS GROSSART

If there is one man who has his finger on the pulse of everything that happens in the Georgian terraces of Edinburgh's ultra-discreet and powerful financial quarter, it is Angus Grossart. As the managing director and co-founder of Noble Grossart, the small Edinburgh merchant bank, he appears to be involved in almost every corporate transaction of any size north of the Border. Quietly spoken, he oozes caution and authority - qualities that have clients flocking to Noble Grossart's door. He sits on the board of the Royal Bank of Scotland and three other major Edinburgh companies. In addition he was a member of the Scottish Development Agency, chairs the board of trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland and has restored several fine Georgian houses in Edinburgh.

Bristol

SIR JOHN WILLS

Of the three most important institutions in Bristol - the local mortgage lender, water company and newspaper publisher - Sir John Wills is chairman of two and deputy chairman of the other. He chairs the Bristol & West Building Society and Bristol Waterworks and is deputy at Bristol United Press.

Sheffield

NORMAN ADSETTS

Norman Adsetts is the man who helped to mend the fractured relations between the private sector in Sheffield and the local Labour council. Mr Adsetts is chairman of a local company, Sheffield Insulation, a major employer in the city. It was in the mid-Eighties, when he joined the council of the local chamber of commerce, that he realised the full extent of the rift between public and private. 'I was appalled,' he said. 'There was no communication at all.'

He got the two talking and became chairman of Sheffield Partnerships, a public-private joint venture to promote investment in Sheffield. He is also deputy chairman of Sheffield Development Corporation.

Bradford

ROGER SUDDARDS

'Everywhere you go in Bradford, you bump into Roger Suddards,' says one local director. Mr Suddards, a solicitor and town planning expert, seems to have a hand in everything in this West Yorkshire city. Aged 60, he was awarded the CBE for his role in setting up the Bradford Fire Disaster Appeal Trust, which raised over pounds 4m. Since then he has advised on more than a dozen disaster trusts. A former pro-chancellor of Bradford University, he is a non-executive director of Yorkshire Building Society and on the committee of the Bradford-based National Museum of Photography, Film and TV. He is also chairman of Bradford Cable TV, which is currently pumping pounds 100m into the city.

'I love this city,' he says. 'It's a great place.' While Mr Suddards rejects the tag of modern city father, it would suit him well. 'I can remember when the textile barons used to run the mills in the morning and the city in the afternoon,' he says. 'Now too many of the people in the top jobs just don't have the time.'

Newcastle

SIR JOHN HALL

Dubbed variously 'The Uncrowned King of Tyneside' and 'The Martin Luther King of Shopping', Sir John Hall is a self-styled city spokesman who preaches the gospel according to Newcastle with evangelical verve.

While Sir Ralph Carr-Ellison, a descendant of a Northumbrian land-owning family and current Lord-Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear, represents old money in Newcastle, Hall stands for new. A miner's son made good, it was Sir John (then just plain John Hall) who built the Metro Centre, a monolithic shopping centre in Gateshead. It was the first American-style shopping mall in Britain and according to Sir John 'broke the cycle of decline' in the North-east.

Later, after an acrimonious struggle, he took over Newcastle United and installed himself as chairman. He brought Kevin Keegan back to the club as manager and the Magpies are currently top of the First Division.

He is redeveloping the estate of Wynyard Hall, a stately pile set in 7,000 acres in Cleveland, and looking at redeveloping the area around St James's Park, Newcastle's stadium.

Cardiff

ALF GOODING

When sociologists ponder why the Japanese lighted on South Wales as an outpost for their factories they will concentrate on two people: Peter Walker, the former Secretary of State for Wales, and Alf Gooding, the multi-millionaire head of Race Electronics. His company deals with nine large Japanese electrical manufacturers: one of them, C Itoh, is a substantial shareholder in Race, and the company has another joint venture with Sanken Electric, which includes a guarantee of the transfer of technology from Japan. An outspoken figure, Mr Gooding, the son of a Rhondda miner, appears frequently on TV discussion shows in the region. A former head of the CBI in Wales, his calls for more government intervention to support industry have won him few friends in Whitehall.

Nottingham

SIR DAVID WHITE

In a city where the most famous names are Robin Hood and Brian Clough, it is sometimes hard for others to get a look in. A small city with a wide spread of industries, Nottingham does not lend itself to the city father dominance that exists elsewhere, but one who has made a mark is Sir David White. A product of Nottingham High School and a keen Notts Forest supporter, Sir David White was formerly deputy chairman of National Freight Consortium. Now he is chairman of three significant local bodies: Nottinghamshire Health Authority; Nottingham Development Enterprise, and Nottingham Trent University.

Hull

CHRIS HASKINS

Though not, strictly speaking, a mover and shaker, Chris Haskins matters in Hull because he heads the biggest locally based business: Northern Foods.

Under Mr Haskins's stewardship, the company has grown from a modest family business when he joined in 1962 to a company with sales of pounds l4bn, and a client list that includes Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer. Very much on the left of politics (he must be the only chief executive of a FT-SE company to have marched for CND), he does not sit on any boards of his own, but has become heavily involved in the Transpennine organisation, a group promoting the development of the M62 corridor, and he regularly crops up on television airing his firm views on the flaws of market economics. Would have preferred to have been a journalist or farmer, and he likes nothing better than walking with his dogs on his 700 acres in Yorkshire.

Belfast

JOHN MCGUCKIAN

While terrorists wreak their havoc, John McGuckian presses on regardless. He is chairman of Ulster TV; the Industrial Development Board, Northern Ireland's main jobs promotions agency; the International Fund for Ireland, set up to encourage reconciliation between Unionists and Republicans, and is deputy head of the Laganside Corporation, the body responsible for renovating Belfast's river basin.

A property developer and farmer, he now spends much of his time softening Belfast's image overseas, mainly in the US. As well as being the king-pin of the Northern Irish business community, he has built up a formidable array of contacts outside the province.

Stoke

STUART LYONS

It is appropriate in this region that power and influence is still associated with one of big pottery companies. Stuart Lyons is chairman of Royal Doulton, Staffordshire TEC and Staffordshire Development Corporation and seems to be involved in everything in Stoke.

Coventry

GEOFFREY WHALEN

It is companies rather than individuals that seem to hold the whip-hand in Coventry. No surprise, then, that two of the city's most influential figures are the managing director of the largest local employer, Peugeot Talbot, and the chief executive of a financial institution that supplies half the local mortgages, Coventry Building Society. Geoffrey Whalen of Peugeot, based in Coventry, is also chairman of the local TEC and a lead spokesman for 'Coventry's Making It', an initiative spearheaded by a local newspaper, the Coventry Evening Telegraph, to promote a more positive image of the city.

Sunderland

SIR PAUL NICHOLSON

A product of the old school (Harrow, Cambridge, Coldstream Guards), Sir Paul Nicholson is a key figure on Wearside. He is chairman and managing director of the Vaux Group, the brewing and hotels group based in Sunderland. He is also chairman of the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, and a director of Tyne Tees Television, the Northern Development Corporation and Northern Electric. He was knighted in this year's New Year's Honours List 'for services to north-east England'.

Plymouth

ERIC DANCER

Eric Dancer, 52, is a key player in Plymouth. Managing director of Dartington Crystal, he is also chairman of the steering group that is working to create a West Country development corporation to co-ordinate economic development and job creation in the region. Mr Dancer also chairs Devon and Cornwall TEC, the second largest in Britain, which recently picked up a pounds l5m bonus from the Government for hitting training and enterprise development targets.

Aberdeen

IAN WOOD

With his rakish long sideburns and crumpled suit, Ian Wood, 50, stands out among the crowd of big company oil men in Aberdeen. But Mr Wood wields more power than all of them. His energy services company, John Wood Group, has sales of pounds 173m and employs more than 2,000 people in Aberdeen and offshore. In addition, he still runs the old family firm, J W Holdings, the largest fishing company in Scotland.

In Aberdeen, where the offshore industry is the domain of large American corporations, Mr Wood is the sole local success story. His interests now range far beyond making money: he was a driving force behind the formation of Aberdeen Beyond 2000, a private sector group which helped develop what Mr Wood describes as 'a blueprint for Aberdeen in the 21st century'; he is also chairman of Grampian Enterprise, the equivalent of a local TEC. His aim is to reduce Aberdeen's reliance on North Sea oil and transform it into an international oil centre.

At the forefront are moves to transform Union Terrace Gardens into a city square, and Mr Wood also wants a theme park tourist attraction for Aberdeen based on oil and the environment. An unassuming teetoller, who travels economy on plane journeys, he is at pains to stress that Aberdeen is about partnerships: 'I'm not a general leading from the front,' he says. 'I'm acting as a catalyst.'

Leicester

JAYANTI CHANDARANA

The final commercial centre in our list, Leicester, is a place of many small- and medium-size businesses rather than a few giants. But one man who has interests all over the East Midlands is Jayanti Chandarana. A director of four small textile companies, all based in Leicester, Mr Chandarana, 57, is a key figure in a city with a large Asian population.

A former president of the Leicestershire Asian Business Association, Mr Chandarana is also a council member of the local chamber of commerce, a director of the TEC and a trustee of the Hindu Temple. 'The key issue in Leicester is to create employment,' he says. 'I think we are being successful and our garment district is becoming like a mini-Hong Kong.'

CORRECTION

FOLLOWING last week's article on 'The New Barons', Leslie Silver has asked us to clarify that the restoration of Rydings Hall was paid for by Kalon Group, his former company, and not by him personally.

(Photographs omitted)

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