Sir Leslie Porter

Shrewd and uncompromising chairman of Tesco

Leslie Porter was a notably successful chairman of Tesco. During his chairmanship, from 1974 to 1985, he and Ian MacLaurin (now Lord MacLaurin), his managing director, initiated the policies which transformed Tesco into the most successful British retailer of the last decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he was dominated by his wife Shirley, and after he retired he shared her disgrace and life in exile from Britain because of her policies as leader of Westminster City Council in 1983-91. Her difficulties must have contributed to the heart problems from which he suffered for the last years of his life.

Leslie Pasamount (Leslie Porter), businessman: born London 10 July 1920; managing director, J. Porter and Co 1955-59; director, Tesco Stores 1959-64, assistant managing director 1964-70, deputy chairman 1970-73, managing director 1972-73, chairman 1973-85, president 1985-90; Kt 1983; married 1949 Shirley Cohen (DBE 1991; one son, one daughter); died Tel Aviv 20 March 2005.

Leslie Porter was a notably successful chairman of Tesco. During his chairmanship, from 1974 to 1985, he and Ian MacLaurin (now Lord MacLaurin), his managing director, initiated the policies which transformed Tesco into the most successful British retailer of the last decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he was dominated by his wife Shirley, and after he retired he shared her disgrace and life in exile from Britain because of her policies as leader of Westminster City Council in 1983-91. Her difficulties must have contributed to the heart problems from which he suffered for the last years of his life.

Like so many Jews of his generation Henry Pasamount, Leslie's father, was in the textile business in north London. But Leslie Pasamount's first job, as a salesman at the Rolls-Royce dealers HR Owen, enabled him to indulge his love of motoring and demonstrate his capacity for salesmanship. During the Second World War he saw action in North Africa, Crete and Italy, ending up as a quartermaster sergeant. After demobilisation he went into his father's business, then renamed J. Porter Textiles.

In 1949 Leslie Porter's life was transformed through his marriage to Shirley Cohen, one of the two daughters of the founder of Tesco, Jack Cohen - later knighted and known as Sir John Cohen. She was only 17, 10 years younger than her husband, of whom she said in 1994, "He looks a bit like Paul Newman. Women still swoon." For 20 years, his wife concentrated on bringing up their two children before entering local politics, eventually becoming leader of Westminster City Council in 1983.

Leslie Porter was naturally under pressure to go to work for his father-in-law, but resisted for some years while he built up a successful business running Harrow Stores and a business importing textiles and piece goods. But in 1959 he joined Tesco as a director and head of the newly formed Home'n'Wear department.

At Tesco, Porter was inevitably caught up in the tense relationship between Sir John Cohen and his two sons-in-law, Hyman Kreitman and himself, a relationship which owed a great deal to the older man's policy of divide and rule. Kreitman was too gentle a character to cope with his father-in-law and the old man successfully sabotaged the implementation of a reorgansation of the company on orthodox lines proposed by McKinsey's.

In September 1973 Kreitman resigned and Porter, who had become deputy chairman in 1970, stepped up, while his father-in-law, by then 75, retained the meaningless title of life president. "In Leslie Porter," MacLaurin wrote in his memoirs Tiger by the Tail (1999),

Jack believed that he had found his natural successor. Not for long, however. A wheeler-dealer just like himself, Leslie's chairmanship was all too soon to be damned by Jack's jealousy, but where Hyman Kreitman would suffer Jack's spite in silence, Leslie would give as good as he got.

On at least a couple of occasions Porter and Cohen actually fought, the tensions between them increased by their resemblance, for they were both shrewd and uncompromising characters. Nevertheless Porter remained loyal to the memory of his father-in-law. The publication of Tiger by the Tail prompted him to write a dignified letter to The Times, criticising Lord MacLaurin's "gratuitously offensive comments" and defending his father-in-law as a great business leader.

But his father-in-law was not the only family burden he suffered. Throughout his married life Porter was also hampered by his wife's bullying, according to MacLaurin. As soon as he became chairman, she "began to meddle in the business and, in the process, made his life and ours hell".

Monday was his worst day, after he had spent a weekend at home. Normally the most easy-going and affable of characters, he would arrive at the office like a bear with a sore head, and grumble his way through to lunchtime, by which time he had finally recovered from the shock of being over-exposed to Shirley's strictures.

Not surprisingly Porter, who enjoyed his social life, was fond of "a Scotch or three" and at parties his wife would threaten "in a voice as sotto voce as a buzzsaw . . . 'Leslie, if you don't behave I'll take you home.' "

When Porter became chairman in 1973, he appointed two managing directors, Laurie Leigh, a close friend and colleague from the Home'n'Wear business and MacLaurin. Leigh died suddenly of a heart attack, and the accidental partnership this created between Porter and MacLaurin proved a triumphant one, with the affable Porter acting as front man and, in MacLaurin's words, "taking the flak" from press and City alike.

Porter's qualities were soon tested by their first major gamble. In 1977, they abandoned the Green Shield Stamps which had previously made Tesco's fame and fortune. In "Operation Checkout", they replaced the stamps with a policy of deep and continuing price cuts designed to counter the growing success of discount retailers and reduce Britain's then rampant inflation. The step was met by universal disapproval among city commentators, for Tesco had to increase its market share substantially to compensate for the loss of profits involved. It did, with sales increasing by nearly two-fifths, far more than even the optimists had believed possible.

The very success of "Checkout" involved two major transformations. The first was to rationalise the sprawling range of merchandise Tesco had been offering, a decision that led to the decision, accepted by Porter, to shut the Home'n'Wear departments which had been the reason for his joining Tesco in the first place. MacLaurin recognised that Porter was "quick to accept the rationale of my team as he was to support us in our efforts to reposition the company".

But the most costly step was to abandon the founder's policy of concentrating on small stores, their location determined by the cheapness of the premises, for Porter inherited a policy of short-termism. As he put it, "If you look at some of the precincts where our shops were, you will see that, because the property side was so frightened of the Old Man saying 'How can you pay that sort of rent?', ours were not in the best position."

Porter and MacLaurin promptly went in for a policy of opening much larger stores in better positions. During the 10 years that Porter and MacLaurin were in charge, Tesco's share of the food market had climbed to within a mere 0.3 per cent of that enjoyed by Sainsbury's, then far and away the market leader. Leslie Porter was knighted in 1983.

Not surprisingly, when MacLaurin succeeded Porter as chairman of Tesco in 1985, he successfully resisted pressure to appoint Lady Porter to the board. In doing so he accepted, tongue-in-cheek, that "I may share some responsibility for what happened later at Westminster City Council, though there is some consolation in the fact that, if she hadn't ruined the City's reputation, she could have ruined Tesco instead".

At the local elections of May 1990, at the height of the furore over the poll tax, Westminster was one of the few councils where the Tories actually increased their majority. Shirley Porter had been one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite council leaders, and she became a Tory heroine, made a Dame in 1991 by John Major. But the triumph was short-lived. A formal complaint was made in which she was accused of "gerrymandering", of having cleared key wards in Westminster of council tenants, and having replaced them with owner- occupiers more likely to vote Tory. The resulting row forced the couple into exile - although Dame Shirley claimed that this was the result of her need to comfort her daughter Linda following the death in 1993 of her grandson Daniel.

The Porters lived for part of the year in the Californian resort of Palm Springs and the rest in Herzliya Pituach, a favourite resort of wealthy Israelis on the coast a few miles from Tel Aviv. Their problems in their native country did not affect the respect in which they were held in Israel. Leslie Porter became Chancellor of Tel Aviv University, where the Porters set up scholarship funds, made annual donations for books and equipment, and founded the UK Building for Life Sciences. The university also houses the Porter Institute for Poetics, the Shirley and Leslie Porter School of Cultural Studies and the Cohen-Porter Family Swimming Pool. Down the coast in Jaffa, the couple funded the Porter Senior Citizen Centre. Nor were they shunned by the British Embassy, where they were invited to annual parties and even, in 2003, to dinner.

Despite all this demonstration of the couple's wealth, Dame Shirley claimed that her assets were a mere £300,000, preventing her from paying the £27m compensation for the money lost by the Council as a result of her activities. In 1994 the couple had taken the precaution of transferring their assets, reckoned at £60m, from British jusrisdiction. The same year Sir Leslie resigned all his directorships, including that of a property developer based in Panama, as a result of heart problems. Two years later he and his son John, a financier, sold their 50 per cent share in Chelverton Properties which had specialised in building stores for retailers, most notably Tesco.

Last year Dame Shirley Porter agreed to make a payment of £12m after private detectives investigating Redbus International, a firm with which John Porter had become involved, had found evidence that the wealth she had inherited from her father, which included five million shares in Tesco, had been squirrelled away in off-shore tax havens.

Nicholas Faith

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