Obituary: Lord Matthews
Thursday 07 December 1995
Lord Matthews, who died at his retirement home on Jersey on his 76th birthday, was the very epitome of the Thatcherite tycoon who rose to fame, fortune and a peerage from humble beginnings.
His most public role, and the one in which he made the bulk of his fortune, was as a somewhat unusual press lord, as chairman of Fleet Holdings, owners of the Express Group of newspapers from 1977 to 1985. But before he became involved with Fleet Holdings he had already made a name for himself as Sir Nigel Broackes's partner in building up Trafalgar House from a relatively modest builders into an industrial group controlling Cunard and the Ritz Hotel, among other famous names.
Victor Matthews was born in 1919 in what was then the humble London borough of Islington. Although he enjoyed all the trappings of being a tycoon, the Rolls Royces and the racehorses (his only son became a trainer), he remained a kindly and unpretentious figure - throughout his life he never lost his cockney accent and some of his boyhood habits (his nickname "Whelks" came from his fondness for them). Indeed throughout his life he retained the blunt, straightforward attitude of a builder. Editors, he once said, were like site managers. "If they give you trouble, get rid of them."
He never knew his father - "That's a blank part," he once told an interviewer, adding that his boyhood ambitions had been to play for Arsenal, the local team, and to be a reporter on the Daily Express. He started less glamorously: after an elementary education he began work as office boy in a tobacco company, attending night school to improve himself. During the Second World War he served for six years in the Navy, numbering the evacuation at Dunkirk and a spell in Combined Operations among his experiences, although he never rose above the rank of able seaman. Nor did he show any great leadership qualities in his first post-war job, the 10 years he spent with Trollope & Colls, although he rose to become a contracts manager. He did, however, rise quickly to become a director of his next employer, Clark and Fenn, whom he left supposedly after a row when he was ordered to return prematurely from a family holiday.
In 1960 he went independent by buying up a small building business. Within four years turnover had risen eight times to over pounds 2m and he attracted the notice of another up-and- coming businessman, Nigel Broackes of Trafalgar House, who bought a minority interest in Matthews' firm. For the next 15 years they worked together to build up a highly successful conglomerate. Their roles were strictly divided: Broackes, the smooth former Guards officer, was the strategist, while the blunt Victor Matthews ran the businesses. These, which included not only a number of building companies but also the Ritz Hotel and Cunard, all benefited greatly from Matthews' no-nonsense, hands-on management style - though he always said that "as you get confidence in people, you gradually relax control". Nevertheless theirs was purely a business partnership, the social gulf between them being so great that, according to one friend, they never visited each other's homes.
Matthews might have remained a relatively anonymous businessman had Trafalgar not bought control of Fleet Holdings in 1977 after a 13-year decline, following the first Lord Beaverbrook's death in 1964. Matthews became increasingly involved in the newspapers, especially after they had been floated as a separate public company.
Although his first pronouncements were typical of a press lord ("All that Beaverbrook has stood for in the past will be continued. Let us not undersell the company or the Daily Express . . . Our aim is for a family newspaper to appeal to all classes and all members of the family"), he was never at ease with journalists and never got the hang of newspaper jargon - he always referred to the lead story, commonly known as the "splash", as the "leader". Not surprisingly he was unprepared for the labour chaos which prevailed in Fleet Street at the time. According to Derek Jameson, another cockney character who Matthews appointed editor of the Daily Express, he tried to treat Fleet Street "by the rules of the builder's yard - a fair day's wage for a a fair day's work . . . but he never quite got the hang of Fleet Street". But Matthews did manage to dent union power and put a stop to the systematic thieving which had been prevalent before his arrival. As Brian Hitchen, a former editor of the Daily Star, put it, "When the union delegations knocked at his door with ridiculous wage demands they did so at their peril."
Matthews avoided confrontation by declaring that "Fleet Street was not over-manned but underemployed", and in 1978 used some of the group's excess printing capacity in Manchester to create the Daily Star, the first national tabloid newspaper to be started from scratch since 1914. The Star was attacked as taking the tabloid market downmarket but has prospered modestly.
Matthews was a natural Thatcherite and claimed to be the biggest individual donor to the Conservative Party after he had realised that you could give money in the name of a company rather than as an individual. In 1980 he got his reward in the form of a peerage, even though the previous year Trafalgar House had knocked down the famous Firestone Building in west London over a weekend to prevent the enforcement of a preservation order due to take effect on the following Monday.
In the early 1980s he was on the losing side in two major takeover bids, first when Robert Holmes a Court took over Sir Lew Grade's Associated Communciations Corporation, in which Trafalgar House had a major stake, and then in 1985, when Fleet Holdings group succumbed to a hostile bid by Lord Stevens of Ludgate. But by then the value of the group had multiplied a hundredfold to over pounds 300m. Much of this was due to the group's holding in Reuter's. Indeed Matthews is credited with being the first newspaper proprietor to understand the value of the enormous treasure trove represented by the shares held in the company by most of the national newspaper groups. He left the group with the consolation that his shareholdings were worth around pounds 8m.
Following the bid Matthews faded from the picture and retired as deputy chairman of Trafalgar House in 1985, since when the group has lost its way and suffered a series of appalling problems. He also grew disillusioned with Mrs Thatcher because of the high degree of unemployment which persisted during the mid-1980s. His last years were lonely, a state of mind accentuated by the death in October of Joyce, his wife of 50 years.
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