The paradox in pursuit of profit and principle: Nigel Cope talks to Northern Foods' Chris Haskins about his unconventional success

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The Independent Online
SPEAK to people who know or work with Chris Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods, and the term 'maverick' crops up quite a lot. He even uses it to describe himself.

Today Mr Haskins will put on his best corporate face, marketing his management (backed up by pre-tax profits up 20 per cent at pounds 126m) to his shareholders at the company annual meeting. But Mr Haskins is quite different from the typical 'champion of the shareholder' chairman of an FT-SE 100 company.

What mark him out are his political and social views, which place him very much on the left flank. A believer in democratic liberalism and helping those who are down on their luck, he is one of the few senior figures in British business who can be assumed to be a regular Labour voter. As a youth he was quite a radical, marching for CND and falling out with the Labour Party for his extreme views. The party even tried to throw him out, until it realised he was not actually a member.

Now aged 55, Mr Haskins, who sports a toothy grin and talks in a soft Irish accent, claims to have mellowed. He describes himself as 'cautiously left-wing', though still favours the Guardian and Daily Mirror as his morning reading, and laments the political trends of the past decade that he says have seen market economics go too far. 'I want to accept that capitalism can work,' he said. 'But I don't think the type practised in the UK and the US in the last 10 years has worked.'

In many ways, he is in business by default. Born in Wicklow, southern Ireland, the son of a dairy farmer, he was denied his first two career choices - farmer or journalist. He attended St Columbas, a Protestant school in Dublin, and later studied history at Trinity College, where he met his wife Gilda. Mr Haskins' brother took over the family farm and his mother, feeling journalism an unsuitable vocation, neglected to tell him of a job offer on the Irish Times.

Instead, he joined De La Rue, the printer, but was dismissed within a year for being disruptive. He then joined Ford, where he worked in the the personnel department and enjoyed it. When he left there were 30 disputes going on at once.

He landed his job at Northern Foods in essence by marrying his future boss's daughter. Alec Horsley, his wife's father, had founded Northern Dairies during the war and was keen for Mr Haskins to join the company. Mr Haskins was asked to take over a string of dairies in Belfast in 1962, was made a director four years later (he was 29), and became chairman in 1986 after Nick Horsley, his brother-in-law, was forced to retire through ill health.

Under Mr Haskins' stewardship Northern Foods grew from a modest family business to one of the largest food companies in Britain. It has a turnover of pounds 1.4bn, is a supplier to Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury and Tesco, and owns a portfolio of brands that includes Fox's biscuits, Ski yogurt and Bowyers sausages.

In the 1980s he saw off three predators and negotiated a withdrawal from an unsuccessful foray into the United States. The acquisition last year of Eden Vale and Express Dairies made Northern the largest supplier of milk delivered to the doorstep.

But Mr Haskins' social conscience does not appear to make him flinch from painful decisions. In the rationalisation that followed the Eden Vale and Express Dairies acquisitions, for example, he closed costly London head offices and shut two dairies, resulting in more than 1,000 job losses. 'The thing to do is not to duck dealing with the issues and to give people as much notice as you can,' he said. 'Of course it causes a few qualms if you are losing jobs. But you have to believe in productivity or you're not in business.'

But his beliefs do shape the way he runs the business. Colleagues say that he likes to operate by building a feeling of trust and camaraderie. He treats Northern Foods more as a collection of small businesses than one large one, and tries to spend two days a week at the factories. For a business so large, Haskins runs it with what must be the smallest board on the FT-SE, with just three executive directors and three non- executive. 'Sometimes it still seems like a family business,' one non-executive director said.

With suppliers, too, relationships are built on trust. Although Northern Foods supplies them with goods worth millions, does not have a single contract with M&S, Sainsbury or Tesco. 'If you need to do things surrounded by lawyers, then that is a recognition of failure,' Mr Haskins said.

He feels a little trust would not go amiss in the City. 'I prefer the City of 20 years ago when business was conducted on a 'my word is my bond basis'. Now it's full of lawyers and you've got more skulduggery than ever.'

For all that, he has the reputation of being a little autocratic ('He's the chief, the rest of us are just Indians,' said Jonathan Fry, managing director of Burmah Castrol and a non-executive director of Northern Foods). He enjoys a good argument and is possessed of what friends describe as 'a sardonic wit'. He apparently does not suffer fools gladly.

He does not appear to believe in big salaries either: his own is a modest pounds 180,000. 'We have a remuneration committee,' he said. 'That's what they think I am worth. I'm quite happy with it.'

But for all his insistence that he sees no tension between his social beliefs and the pursuit of profit, it must ocassionally chafe. In the past his wife has said that he has become more introspective over the years: a result, perhaps of operating in a world whose values he does not share.

He certainly cuts a solitary figure. 'I don't think he's a great one for mates,' one colleague said. He holds no non-executive directorships and is a member of no clubs. 'They all have their rules. I'm not sure they'd like someone like me around.' His interests are restricted to a fondness for political history, cricket and the Irish football team.

What he likes best is pottering around on the 800 acres of farmland he owns in East Yorkshire, and which is managed by Peter, one of his five children.

Although he expresses no regrets at the direction his life has taken, it is difficult to suppress the thought that this individualistic Irishman, who landed in business more by accident than design, might still swap it all for a pair of green wellies and a copy of the Irish Times.

(Photograph omitted)