Sir Nigel Mobbs

Chairman of Slough Estates ('Come, friendly bombs') and no-nonsense all-round businessman
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The Independent Online

Nigel Mobbs liked to have things his own way. As chairman of the property company Slough Estates for three decades, he acquired a reputation as a hands-on and controlling figure. Mobbs brooked no nonsense either from his staff, or from the directors who sat with him on numerous company boards. But it was this very approach that turned the company founded by his grandfather into a multi-billion-pound enterprise with interests in Europe and North America. "I tend to be more like my grandfather than my father," he told the property magazine Estates Gazette in 2000. "My grandfather was more autocratic than collegiate."

Mobbs's grandfather Sir Noel Mobbs, the first in the family to receive a knighthood, had established Slough Estates in 1920. Along with Sir Percival (later Lord) Perry, who had set up the Ford Motor Company (England) for Henry Ford before the First World War, Mobbs led a small group of investors to buy "The Dump", a site on the Bath Road in Slough.

The Dump was well named. After the war it had been used by the military to store 17,000 trucks, cars and motorcycles. Mobbs and Perry planned to refurbish the vehicles and sell them to Britain's growing number of motorists. But it was the site itself that would shore up the Mobbs fortune.

As well as 600 acres of well-positioned wasteland, the Dump also had nearly two million square feet of covered workshops - roughly the size of two Canary Wharf towers. With surprising foresight, Noel Mobbs planned to refurbish the space and let it out to local businesses, and the Slough Trading Estate was born. The estate's position on the edge of London meant that it quickly became an industrial power-house in the South-East. Not to everyone's delight, however. In 1937, as a direct response to the sprawling industrial estate and its fume-belching chimneys, as well as the anodyne communities that had grown up around it, the poet John Betjeman penned one of his most scathing attacks in "Slough":

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough

It isn't fit for humans now,

There isn't grass to graze a cow

Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens

Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,

Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans

Tinned minds, tinned breath.

This was Nigel Mobbs's inheritance. He joined the company in 1960, the year his grandfather died, and started as a humble gopher - "I did most of the jobs those days. I had nine months at [the property advisers] Hillier Parker to see what the property business was like, and then I joined with no qualifications whatsoever," Mobbs said.

Indeed, although Mobbs had attended Marlborough and Christ Church, Oxford, he had failed to get his degree in Engineering, largely because he found the subject "extremely boring". Once he was installed in the family company, it would be another 16 years before he would take over from his father as chairman and chief executive. But Mobbs was already filling his grandfather's shoes.

"When I joined the business," he said,

my grandfather had just died and I had his secretary for the first six or seven years, which was a very frightening thing. She was a very large woman and she used to say that I dictated the same way my grandfather did: when I was lost for a word, I would invent one.

After a year at the company, aged 24 Mobbs married Jane Berry, the daughter of the press baron Viscount Kemsley, whom he had met at a hunt. Two years later, in 1963, he joined the board of Slough Estates as a director. In 1976, when his father, Gerald, died, Nigel Mobbs moved into the dual role of chief executive and chairman. He continued in both roles until 1996, when Roger Carey, who had been managing director of Slough Estates for 18 years, resigned.

Relations between Carey and Mobbs had soured long before Carey left to join the metals-to-property company J. Saville Gordon. Carey, citing the common complaint made about Mobbs, said that he was too controlling. Although Mobbs made guarantees that the new chief executive, Derek Wilson, would have more autonomy, he remained the company's executive chairman and refused to be moved until ill-health forced his retirement in August this year.

Mobbs was still very much in the driving seat in 1998 when Slough Estates launched a hostile bid for Bilton, a south-east industrial property company set up by Percy Bilton. Mobbs's strong-arm style led to accusations of foul play after the Bilton family refused to sell willingly, but Slough was still able to complete the £275m deal later that year, and, in doing so, outstrip its competitors.

He showed similar mettle in 1995 when, as deputy chairman of the retail giant Kingfisher, which owns B&Q, Woolworth's and Superdrug, he orchestrated a boardroom coup that removed the chief executive Alan Smith and put the chairman Sir Geoff Mulcahy in Smith's former role. Mobbs promptly made himself interim chairman before appointing the McKinsey man Sir John Banham to the role. In 1998, he was equally decisive when Martin Taylor resigned as chief executive of Barclays Bank, where Mobbs was the senior non-executive director. Although he could not stop Taylor from resigning, Mobbs was credited with being a steadying influence on the bank as it went through this "rough patch", and spent two years as chairman.

In 1960 the Slough Trading Estate had around 240 tenants. By the time Mobbs stood down, the estate comprised 7.5 million square feet, capitalising on its proximity to the M4, M40 and M25 motorways and Heathrow Airport, and included shops and its own power station. Other properties in the US and mainland Europe took the total up to 30m sq ft and 1,500 tenants.

Mobbs was knighted in 1986, and appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire in 1997. He was a long-term supporter and fund-raiser for the Conservative Party, and was the party's treasurer from 1993 until 1996. As well as chairing the right-wing pressure group Aims of Industry, he was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher's government on property affairs between 1980 and 1986.

A portfolio executive, Mobbs was chairman of the Charterhouse banking group for seven years and became chairman of Bovis Homes in 1996. He was a director of the electronics manufacturer Cookson, and also a director of and adviser to the Howard de Walden Estate, which owns most of Marylebone in central London.

Despite this frenetic business life, Mobbs preferred to spend his time on his estate near Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire with his wife, three children and assorted animals.

Piers Wehner

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