THE REMARKABLE career of Oliver Poole, soldier, politician and businessman, ended effectively in 1974 when he was only 63 and at the height of his powers. He attended a board meeting of S. Pearson & Son Ltd, of which he was chief executive, complained of feeling tired, left the room and collapsed in the passage with a massive stroke.
Poole joined Pearsons shortly after the Second World War on the invitation of the third Lord Cowdray and was one of the unbroken chain of brilliant entrepreneurs who have driven this business forward with consistent momentum to become one of the most successful in Europe.
When it became clear that Poole would not return after his stroke, Lord Cowdray wrote, 'It is no exaggeration to say that he has been the principal architect of our expansion over the last 25 years.' This expansion included the purchase of the Financial Times, Chateau Latour, Longmans Green, Penguin, a half-stake in the Economist, Royal Doulton and a handful of smaller businesses. These large purchases were mainly financed out of retained profits and the proceeds of the sale of businesses which were no longer appealing to Pearsons. Thus Acton Bolt, a maker of nuts and screws, was sold to Guest Keen, Saunders-Roe, of flying-boat fame, was sold to de Havilland and the Greek electrical utilities were sold to the Greek government.
Poole was keen that Pearsons should not be seen to be a dealer in companies, like some of the fashionable 'conglomerates' of the day - many of whom subsequently collapsed - but the proprietor of a stable of businesses, all of them world leaders, in whom it would take a sensitive and intelligent interest. Pearsons was originally organised as a private company, owned entirely by the descendants of the first Lord Cowdray, the great engineer. The burden of prejudice against privately owned consortiums in the UK, however, became so great that in 1969 Pearsons was forced to become a public company and sell shares on the market. Poole's philosophy was that Pearsons 'is and must continue to be a unique group. Shareholders must be attracted to invest in it because they are unable to find a similar investment elsewhere.' It has retained this unique quality since.
Pearsons had owned an 80 per cent stake in Lazard Brothers, the London merchant bank, since 1919, the partners of the French and American Lazard houses owning the rest. In 1965 Lord Hampden, the chairman of Lazard Brothers, had a heart attack in the office and died. Poole, though not a trained banker, was deputy chairman representing the majority shareholder and he immediately took over and for the next seven years ran both Pearsons and Lazard Brothers. His tall, spare figure became a familiar sight in the City. His habit of doing all his telephone calls himself became equally well known. This was a time when the City, under attack from Harold Wilson's government, was undergoing one of its periodical crises of self-examination. Himself a product of Eton, Oxford and the Life Guards, Poole never liked the City 'Establishment'. 'Too many Etonians in the City,' he was heard to say. And shortly afterwards, 'too many Etonians at Lazards; we should have more Scotchmen and more Jews'. He struck up a friendship with Siegmund Warburg, another merchant banker with no particular fondness for the Establishment.
His solution for Lazard Brothers was to bring it into much closer intimacy with the French and American Lazard houses, who until 1914 had shaped its character and its style of business. He worked hard to acquire the confidence of Pierre David-Weill and Andre Meyer, both private bankers on a world scale but who had long given up the English house for lost in a fog of insularity. The seeds he sowed bore much fruit in later years, in the form of exchanges of staff, cross-holdings in each others' firms and extensive co-operation in international business.
Poole's strength as an individual was his commanding presence and great powers of persuasion. Standing 6ft 3in high and with a voice trained to command, he was a difficult person to argue with, although a most courteous listener. In his capacity as a merchant banker he conceived and executed many deals, to which more rigorous examination should perhaps have been given. This was certainly the case of the projected merger between P & O and Bovis in 1972, which Poole attempted to push through in imitation of the successful merger of Cunard and Trafalgar House negotiated by his friend Warburg. The scheme hit opposition from the outset and had to be abandoned. Poole retired hurt. But this was only one failure against many, many successes.
Those left in Pearsons and Lazard Brothers who worked with him all those years ago remember him as a figure rather larger than life, elegant, witty, powerful certainly, rash sometimes, but with a great power of generating loyalty and friendship.
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