People: Humble origins of the pounds 5bn man from the Woolwich

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The Independent Online
Around 2.5 million people may today feel a debt of gratitude to John Stewart. As chief executive of the Woolwich Building Society he has steered it to a pounds 5bn stock market flotation, giving its investors an average shares windfall of pounds 2,000.

But as the City toasts Mr Stewart (right), whose annual pay packet is thought to be worth around pounds 500,000, he may reflect on a career that has taken him from a grimy tenement block that might as well have been a million miles from the Square Mile, via that most old Labour of jobs - that of a trade union official.

Indeed, his meteoric rise through the Woolwich ranks belies his humble past. He is the son of a motor mechanic and shop assistant and grew up in a Edinburgh's tough Gorgie district. In 1977 he started out at the Woolwich's Glasgow office, making tea and opening post.

Now, 20 years later, he is the youngest chief executive the Woolwich has had. He was appointed last year when Peter Robinson was unceremoniously turfed out, under a cloud of allegations relating to abuse of expenses.

It was thought that an impressive record in launching new ventures for the Woolwich won him the top job.

"I am a bit of a workaholic but a happy one," he says. I thoroughly enjoy my job, but I must say I'd give it up in a flash if I was offered a sailing job. The trouble is I can't find anyone daft enough to offer me one."

Mr Stewart's love of sport cost him his education. The Hearts fan won a place to study chemistry at Heriot-Watt University when he was 17, but he dropped out with ambitions to become a scuba diver. However, it soon dawned on him he wasn't going to make a career from deep-sea diving.

"I had to get a job and I learnt ever so quickly that hard work really does pay off. The penny dropped - the harder I worked, the better I got on," he said. "And what's more I enjoyed it."

Stewart knows the Woolwich intimately. In Glasgow he did every job in the branch, which gave him "terrific confidence".

In 1983 he first came to prominence within the Woolwich as chairman of its independent staff association, a registered trades union.

"I probably learnt more in that job than any other. I learnt a lot of people skills and the fine art of negotiating, which has been invaluable," he says.

Two years later, Stewart took a gamble and moved south of the border. "When I started in England I didn't really have a job as such. But I had a few ideas and was given a few opportunities."

The father-of-two now lives with his wife, Sylvia, in Bromley, Kent, and has a sailing boat moored at Medway.

"The flotation has been hard work and a long time coming but this is no excuse to sit back and relax. We're going to be busier than ever."