Maverick blood brothers of business

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The Independent Online
THERE IS unlikely to be an odder couple in British business. Brian Souter, the chairman of the billion-pound Stagecoach empire, is a deeply religious man noted for his aggressive business tactics, which have seen his company undercut competitors in the bus industry and take over no fewer than 30 rival firms.

Contrast this to the image of Richard Branson's Virgin group, which sprung up from the hippy counterculture of the Sixties and is credited as the plucky champion of consumer rights fighting big business.

In fact, the bearded Branson and the craggy-faced Souter have more in common than first impressions might suggest. Both are self-made millionaires, driven by a desire to succeed. Brian Souter, who grew up in a council house in Perth in Scotland, paid his way through university by working as a bus conductor before founding his Stagecoach company with just one vehicle.

Richard Branson came from less humble beginnings - his father was a barrister - but built his commercial kingdom on a record mail-order company.

Neither has political ambitions, but both possess sharp political brains. Souter is an unashamed backer of the Scottish Nationalists who has maintained close links with Scottish Labour aristocracy. Branson was a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, but also one of the first to turn up to Tony Blair's inaugural bash.

The two men dress to disarm. Brian Souter attends bankers' meetings in a red jacket, Kickers boots and a collarless shirt, with only a Tesco bag for his belongings. Richard Branson's jeans and woolly jumper have led many to underestimate his business acumen.

Mr Souter's exterior also belies his sharp mind and his wit. Earlier this year Scotland's richest man won over hard-line trade unionists at their conference by singing his own version of The Red Flag. Souterisms are legendary. "People say to me, 'Yours is a classic tale of rags to riches, Brian. How come you're still wearing the rags?'" is a one he never tires of repeating.

However, in one crucial respect they are completely different: public perception. Brian Souter has so far been unable to shake off the image of a ruthless capitalist pirate. Stagecoach is best remembered for paying a pounds 1m fine for cutting hundreds of train services after sacking too many drivers.

Richard Branson - despite running a train service that is at times unpunctual - has yet to be tainted by his business tactics. A reputation for honesty has been highlighted by a recent court case which revealed that he had refused a bribe offered by a rival who was bidding to run the National Lottery. Recent ads even placed Virgin's founder next to Martin Luther King and Gandhi as one of the titans of the 20th century. Perhaps it is this stain-free image, and not a portion of Virgin's train set, that Brian Souter wishes to purchase for pounds 138m.

THE WORD ACCORDING TO SOUTER

"Picture an imaginary line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash. Above that line we have the beer-drinking, chip-eating, council house- dwelling old Labour-voting masses, probably with lower car ownership. These are wonderful customers whom we greatly appreciate."

"I don't agree that having a strong faith is incompatible with believing in a free-market economy. If people feel that I should let another bus company run its buses five minutes ahead of mine so they scoop up all the passengers, forget it."

"The story is told of when I was a young boy, and a teacher was trying to help me to learn arithmetic. "She said, 'Brian, if you had pounds 1 in your right-hand trouser pocket and pounds 2 in your left-hand trouser pocket, what would you have?' I replied, 'Somebody else's trousers!'"

(Speaking to same STUC conference. May 1998)

"The Government broke the buses artificially into a lot of small companies. To me it was as natural as breathing that this market would reconsolidate." (Aug 96)

"Ruthlessness suggests you conduct business without mercy. And

we do not consider that is the way we conduct business." (Aug 96)

"I do not have many talents but I use what I have to the best of my ability. I believe that wealth is a stewardship." (Aug 96)

"My vision for the future of Stagecoach is to double the physical size of the present business within the next four years."

May, 1998

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