Sir Alastair Morton

Pugnacious executive who saw the Channel Tunnel to completion
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The Independent Online

Robert Alastair Newton Morton, industrialist: born Johannesburg 11 January 1938; managing director, British National Oil Corporation 1976-80; chief executive, Guinness Peat Group 1982-87, chairman 1987; co-chairman, Eurotunnel 1987-96, group chief executive 1990-94; Kt 1991; Chairman, Chancellor's Private Finance Panel 1993-95; Chairman, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain 1994-2004; Chairman, Strategic Rail Authority 1999-2001; married 1964 Sara Stephens (one son, one daughter); died Bosham, West Sussex 1 September 2004.

Alastair Morton will be remembered as the man without whom the Channel Tunnel would never have been completed.

The millions using the tunnel every year should be grateful that this uniquely qualified and determined man was in charge of what for two centuries had seemed like an impossible dream. Previously Morton had been responsible for a number of successful industrial and financial rescue efforts, but these became overshadowed by his achievements as co-chairman of Eurotunnel from 1987 to 1996. Moreover the enemies he made during his career prevented him from being fully recognised, not just as a brilliant troubleshooter but as one of the outstanding financial and industrial leaders of his generation.

He was often described as "acerbic," a "bruiser", a "battler", a "fighter" and indeed he demonstrated all of these attributes when he felt that he needed to. Nevertheless the key to his character was, as one friend put it, that he was

frighteningly intelligent and that he calls a spade a spade . . . he had the gift of telling it like it is . . . He likes a fight. If someone wants a fight, he'll happily take you on.

He also saw no reason to suffer fools at all. Included in his contempt were greedy and deceitful contractors, silly questions asked by journalists simply to provoke him, not to mention stupid bankers - he once dismissed the chairman of a major clearing bank as "a bear of very little brain". Not surprisingly his faxes, phone calls, letters and fights became legendary. His basic philosophic formula was simple: logical analysis followed by decisive action. As he used to say: "Things don't just happen because you say they've got to happen, but because you ensure they happen."

There was a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality about him. He recognised that he had had the luck to be talent-spotted at an early age and ensured that he did the same for a younger generation, helping promising young people by promoting their careers - without ever mentioning the fact, for his loyalty to friends and trusted colleagues was total. In private he was genial, witty, cultivated, relaxed, with a happy home life centring round a wife of 40 years. For the last 10 years he even found time to be a very active chairman of the National Youth Orchestra, "the pinnacle", he said, "of young classical music in Britain". His friends were not on the whole from the business community; they included the few journalists he respected, writers, television producers and architects.

Much about him can be traced back to his ancestry. He was born in Johannesburg in 1938, the son of a Scottish oil executive and a mother who came from one of the country's oldest Afrikaner dynasties, dating back to the 1650s - one of his cousins became foreign minister in apartheid South Africa. His ancestry provided a double dose of toughness to his character - as he liked to point out, on his father's side he was descended from a fearsome clan figure, the Black Douglas. His parents divorced when he was still young and his mother remarried twice.

Morton showed early signs of brilliance, going to Witwatersrand University at the age of 16 to study Classics and mathematics. He then won a scholarship from the Oppenheimer group, who controlled De Beers and Anglo American, to study, first Law at Worcester College, Oxford, and then at MIT. He returned to South Africa and worked for a short time in what was then Rhodesia, part of the ill-fated Central African Federation. Not surprisingly he left when Ian Smith took over and declared unilateral independence. He returned to South Africa for only a few months. "Had I stayed," he once said, "I'd have gone to jail to no effect."

For the three following years (1964-67) he worked for the World Bank in Washington. There he first showed his qualities: as a liberal South African, one who had worked with African leaders during his short spell in Rhodesia, he was able to insist on the importance of supporting the newly independent states of French West Africa. This experience enabled him to acquire the fluent French that was to prove such an asset at the Channel Tunnel.

In 1967 he was recruited by Sir Charles Villiers to join the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation as one of a group of brilliant young technocrats who tried, sometimes successfully, to reorganise much of British industry. There he showed his style. "We weren't there to make friends for life," he said. "We aroused opposition and we aroused fears."

Not surprisingly he left when the return of a Tory government in 1970 was clearly going to put a stop to the IRC's efforts. But by then he was destined for the top, and for the next 17 years the Bank of England, which saw in him a highly effective operator, ensured that he was involved in a series of difficult jobs. These created problems for him. Until then Morton had always moved among able people who respected each other sufficiently to be pretty frank with each other; he found it difficult to cope with people - generally less intelligent and often simply self-seeking - who were unable to indulge in the fierce intellectual arguments that came naturally to him.

His first job in the City was not a happy experience. He joined the 117 Financial Group, which included fund management, investment and unit trusts and a number of industrial companies built up by the financier Harley Drayton. There he raised the hackles of his fellow - and more senior - directors through his arrogance, none more than the chairman, Sir Philip Shelbourne, described as a "feline City grandee". Shelbourne effectively banished Morton to create a (not wholly successful) venture capital outfit in partnerhip with the merchant bank Samuel Montagu; for he never had the City temperament, and never subscribed to the City ethos, remaining a believer in the idea of public service.

His most explosive job was when he was recruited by Frank Kearton, his old boss at the IRC, to the British National Oil Corporation in 1976. As managing director of the publicly owned BNOC, set up to exploit the newly discovered gas and oil fields in the North Sea, Morton fought Shelbourne, who succeeded Kearton as chairman, to prevent the company being privatised when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. The next year he felt obliged to resign on principle and spent two years in the wilderness before being called in by the Bank in 1982 on a rescue job, in this case the merchant bank Guinness Peat.

The bank was a mess - a group centred round its founder and major shareholder, the charismatic Harry, Lord Kissin, himself at heart a commodity trader whose activities often threatened the financial stability of a group which included Guinness Mahon Bank, a substantial presence in fund management and the aircraft leasing company Guinness Peat Aviation. Within a few years - and in the teeth of Kissin's hostility - Morton had sensibly restructured the group, separating its diverse activities. This resulted in a 1987 takeover, which he fiercely fought, by a New Zealand group, leaving him available for his best-known job at the Channel Tunnel.

Getting the Chunnel built, first as co- and then sole chairman of Eurotunnel for nine years until 1996 (by which time the tunnel was fully operational), required all his qualities and all his experience, especially as Margaret Thatcher had laid down that the project would have to be built without government money. To do that you needed what his colleagues at Eurotunnel described as "an extraordinary man who always leads from the front" - as well as one with amazing stamina who required only five hours' sleep.

He was always fiercely loyal to the hundreds of thousands of investors who had subscribed to Eurotunnel shares. This was perhaps best demonstrated after the tunnel was completed when its debts had to be refinanced. He managed to do a magnificent deal with the banks. "They wanted over 90 per cent of the equity, I wanted to give them 38 per cent, so we compromised and they got 43 per cent."

When he arrived in 1987 he faced two immediate crises. One was to ensure that the second issue of shares in Eurotunnel ("Equity 2") got off the ground in the face of a hostile financial community. To solve the short-term financial crunch he promptly accepted the offer of a £75m bridging loan from the Midland Bank, in the face of opposition from the other banks involved. By December that year he was able to launch Equity 2 successfully despite the stock-market crash only a couple of months earlier.

But the financial troubles concealed a much more fundamental problem: until he took charge the project was "contractor-led". As he said later:

The greatest mistake made in the Channel Tunnel programme was not to have a real client . . . [which] should have been an organisation which was motivated by making a success of the operation of the tunnel. Instead the client was made up of the engineering companies who were contracted to build the tunnel . . . It was a project with a hole in the middle where there should have been a client.

The contractors - a consortium known as TML (Trans Manche Link) - naturally found it difficult to work with a chairman who saw no reason to let them get away with anything. As one friend put it, "if this had been a government project, the contractors would have rolled the Government over."

Not surprisingly, the six and a half years required to build the tunnel were marked by continual battles with the contractors and the banks, numbering over 200, who were financing the project. Morton had one advantage, which he exploited ruthlessly with a typical mix of charm and threats, that neither the banks nor the members of TML could afford to let the project go under.

As the timescale slipped and costs doubled to nearly £10bn - partly because of the soaring interest rates in the early 1990s due to Britain's troubled membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, but also because of the extreme and idiotic safety regulations imposed on Eurotunnel - Morton's temper grew ever shorter. He and TML "fought like rats in a sack". TML eventually agreed to take some responsibility for the cost overrun.

In May 1994 the tunnel - at 50km the longest in Europe - opened, less than a year late. In an imaginative stroke the celebrations included an unforgettable lunch at the halfway cross-over point with trains arriving more or less simultaneously from London and Paris. The lunch, modelled on the one given by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to mark the completion of the first tunnel under the Thames over a century and a half earlier, was an appropriate tribute by (and to) a man who had realised a project that had taken nearly 200 years to achieve.

But the strain had affected him more than anyone except his family suspected - he once confessed that he had pessimistic thoughts many a night about the possible success of the tunnel; as a colleague put it, "he carried this project on his back for six years". It did not help that he found it difficult to delegate. Worse were the threats to his children from psychopathic xenophobes, threats which were particularly upsetting for his wife. The result was a severe thyroid problem - and a six-month break spent bird-watching in the South Seas.

Once the tunnel had opened Morton was able to take on other tasks, notably helping the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, to pioneer attempts to involve private finance into public projects - an idea Morton felt should be "the intelligent use of public money" for the public good rather than private profit.

But his last task - and one in which he largely failed because of the inability of the Government to think through, let alone act on, any realistic policy towards Britain's rail system - came in 1999 when, at the instigation of John Prescott, whom he respected, Morton took on the chairmanship of the newly formed Strategic Rail Authority to create a vision of "integrated transport".

He was, surprisingly, something of an innocent, who could not comprehend the duplicity of civil servants and politicians. As usual his view was straightforward:

We have a remarkably good public transport system - considering [that] we failed to invest for a very long time and what we've got is struggling to do as well as it does.It has taken 35 to 40 years to get into the mess we are in and it will take a decade to get out of it, if not more.

Not surprisingly his dream was comprehensively defeated by the short-sightedness and narrowness of vision of the people he had to deal with.

At first he tried to act by consent through the impossibly complex and fragmented system created by the privatisation of the system, trying to get Railtrack and the operators to "raise their game". But his bluntness got in the way of effective action. He grew increasingly fed up with the sheer unreality of the situation - and with the transport minister Stephen Byers's refusal to include him in discussions over the future of Railtrack, which, as he later told Sir David Frost, had "virtually imploded". Worst of all, he said, there was no strategic plan. He left in November 2001, three months early. "The Treasury had not dared face him directly," says a friend, "so they had to manouevre all around Whitehall to get him to resign."

Since then everything he said has been proved right and has led to a considerable simplification of the railway system, with the Government, as he had urged, taking some of the responsibility, above all through the proposed abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority.

He died of a heart attack. Not his first - that one he had suffered, ironically, at the Gare du Nord in Paris, the French terminal of Eurostar.

Nicholas Faith