The scourge of English society Profile: Kenneth Murray

Dan Gledhill meets the Scottish investor who is planning to besiege Sassenach mutuals and create his own bank

Like some latter-day William Wallace, Kenneth Murray has assembled a band of financial bravehearts bent on conquering Sassenach strongholds - in this case building societies. Last week, he embarked on his first concerted attack by tabling a pounds 30.5m bid for Leek United, a hitherto obscure Staffordshire mutual. Leek's overlords did not take kindly to their Caledonian interlopers and the mutual's board promptly repelled the bid from Murray Financial, his investment vehicle. Undaunted, Murray and his men are planning to lay siege to Leek until the society's chiefs give their people, or rather members, the opportunity to decide.

The temptation to use military terminology to describe Murray's strategy is strong. Still only 40, the former City analyst has, after all, outlined a plan to create a bank with assets in excess of pounds 4bn by acquiring a string of mutuals south of the border. He has enlisted a couple of heavyweights to assist him - Chris Jones, who masterminded the expansion of Cheltenham & Gloucester, and Philip Court, who was similarly instrumental in the aggrandisement of Birmingham Midshires. John Redwood, the Opposition Trade and Industry spokesman and hardman of the Tory right, also sits on Murray's board.

So it is tempting to see Murray and his henchmen as bloodthirsty mercenaries eager to rape and pillage the nation's mutual sector just to line their pockets. Not so, he argues.

"I am neither pro- nor anti-mutual," he says. "My main analysis is always economic." Hardly the most inspiring rallying cry since Wallace's 13th- century invocations. Not a patch on the fire and brimstone rhetoric of Michael Hardern, that other great mutual-buster. Instead, Murray, armed with a degree in computer science and economics, sees his quest to convert a swathe of mutuals simply as recognition of economic reality.

"The rationale behind the bid for Leek is simple", he says. "When they borrow money, people only really care about the interest rate, and the ability to offer good rates is a function of efficiency. There is a lot of tosh talked about building societies offering better rates, but this is not about mutuality: it is about efficiency. The notion that mutuals can live without changing is nonsensical."

He cites the example of Standard Life, which has generated pounds 3bn of mortgage business in six months, more than most mutuals have managed to muster in a hundred years. Success requires investment, he believes, whether in new technology like the internet or to fund acquisitions. Only quoted companies have the access to this investment, he says. Hence Murray Financial, which still has the pounds 10m it raised from its June flotation kicking around.

If there is a strong economic case for demutualisation beyond the quick- fix of windfalls - that are likely to top pounds 500 for each of Leek's 60,000 members - then Murray's the man to make it.

After a spell in the merchant navy, this native of Aberdeen went into the City where he became a prominent banking analyst. Leaving the board of Fulton Prebon, the money broker, he set about putting into practice what he had long preached by establishing Bank of Edinburgh and now Murray Financial.

His latest venture has involved Murray and his colleagues in an exhaustive search through a database of building societies before settling on this strategy. With such pedigree and commitment, it is little wonder he disdains any comparisons with Hardern, the eccentric butler and carpetbagger extraordinaire.

"Leek is a good starting point", says Murray. "The Britannia is nearby and there is a pool of skilled labour in a cost-effective area. We want to grow Leek by acquisition, but retain the same headquarters."

This has done nothing to reassure his opponents on the Leek board who dismissed his approach out of hand last week. Although Murray has pledged to confine himself to friendly takeovers, his temperance has been tarnished by this snub.

"I think it's wrong that they haven't put our offer to members", he says. "How can you be a mutual and then not put this offer to your members? At the moment you have the interests of directors diametrically opposed to those of the members. The reason is that members may vote for conversion and these directors are frightened of losing their jobs."

Whatever their motives - and no doubt the Leek board would cite more honourable impulses than job preservation - Murray's assault has not begun smoothly. A previous approach to the Saffron Walden Herts & Essex Building Society failed, although Murray says he only walked away because the mutual's board was split. Now he is faced with another intransigent board, but Murray is sustained by his faith in the public's commitment to demutualisation.

"The public understands quite clearly the mechanism of conversion and expects to be treated in a proper manner," he says. "We have had a lot of phone calls from Leek members saying they'd heard about the offer and wanting to know what they can do, how to organise pressure groups. One of the main things motivating them is the denial of the right to vote."

Like William Wallace, Murray is sustained by an unshakeable confidence in the integrity of his mission. Eventually Wallace prevailed, but he did not live to see the fruits of his endeavour. Murray's belief that mutuality is out-dated is also likely to prove true. Whether Murray Financial will share the spoils of conversion or go down as a catalyst for others is another matter entirely.

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