OBITUARY: Lord White of Hull

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The death of Gordon White brings to an end one of the most famous business partnerships of recent years, the 30 years during which White and James Hanson built the Hanson group into one of Britain's biggest companies, and, unusually for a British group, a big success in the United States as well. Hanson and White were the archetypal businessmen of the Thatcher years. "Gordy" White received his knighthood in Margaret Thatcher's first honours list and later she ennobled both of them.

They combined entrepreneurial daring with a deliberate policy of not venturing into risky business sectors. They were attacked as "asset- strippers" where in fact what they did was to strip away the fat surrounding the heart of their victims' core businesses. But their strategy precluded investment in technologically advanced industries, or indeed any involving risks or long-term investment.

The partnership was based on a family tragedy - the death of James Hanson's brilliant younger brother Bill in 1954. Gordon White was Bill's best friend: "We inherited each other," was how White put it. "He became my surrogate brother," is how Hanson put the relationship, "we're twins really. Gordon and I talk on the telephone several times a day, although he doesn't always tell me what is going on. I don't have his flair for spotting winners. He's the one responsible for the creative side." "James is more cautious than I am," White said. "If he were climbing a mountain, he'd follow the footpath. I'd look for a short cut."

Their joint business career started in 1964 with a greetings card business and the purchase of a stake in the Wiles group, a modest agricultural supplier. It was their second company, Scottish Land Development, that they transformed into the Hanson Trust.

Before he teamed up with Hanson, White had a business career confined to the chairmanship of a small family publishing company, which he took on in 1947 at the age of 24, when he was a war veteran, having served with the Special Operations Executive in the Far East. He remained a member of the exclusive Special Forces Club until he died.

Over the years White and Hanson perfected a technique which made them legends even on Wall Street. Fortune magazine gave them both four fins in its evaluation of shark-like qualities in business leaders.

Hanson, White, and their astonishingly small staff looked for badly managed companies in stable, unexciting, basic industries (like coal, bricks, timber, cigarettes), made a bid and then stripped the business down to its essentials, often selling off unwanted parts of the original business for as much as they had paid for the whole.

The two men divided the task. White was the lead in doing the deals ("You had to count your fingers after you'd done a deal with Gordy," one notoriously tough businessman once told me) but was not interested in the management, which he left to Hanson.

They also divided the world. In 1973 White moved to New York under an arrangement by which he was promised a 10 per cent stake in the - then purely notional - Hanson business in the United States, a stake which he later exchanged for shares in the parent company.

White claimed that at the time he was broke, although he managed to establish his first office in the fashionable Hotel Pierre, where he clogged the switchboard with calls. New York remained his home for the rest of his life. His attitude to Britain was complex: he combined a fierce hatred of the political atmosphere of the 1970s with a genuine attachment to a romanticised vision of his home country: he never entirely lost his Yorkshire accent; his office waiting-room featured a huge picture of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar; and naval mementoes were scattered throughout the office. But New York was his spiritual home: "You feel you can conquer the world if you live here," he told one interviewer.

White pursued an ever- bigger range of target companies, winning bids through his own deal-making talents and without the panoply of advisers that surrounded less confident entrepreneurs.

Because Hanson was then so small - making profits of under pounds 10m a year - White had to rely on borrowing on a large scale to finance the firm's bids. Characteristically he persuaded banks to rely not on Hanson's own, then minimal, assets but on those of the potential victim. His first deal was typically lucky. He managed to buy a company making fishmeal, unaware that the idea had been turned down by some 40 other investors. Oil prices soared and so did the company's profits.

White remained totally uninterested in the management of the companies he took over, never visiting their factories ("I don't need to see them," he once said, "there are no royal visits"), and remained in New York even when Hanson Industries, the group's US subsidiary, moved to New Jersey.

In recent years the Hanson-White technique became increasingly difficult to apply, as target companies had to be of ever-increasing size to have any effect on Hanson's earnings. The partners' image was badly dented by the failure of a bid for ICI three years ago and the separation of many of Hanson's US subsidiaries into a separate quoted company, US Industries, was greeted as a sign that the group was slowing down and becoming more like a normal industrial conglomerate, albeit one which proved capable of extracting ever-increasing profits from a wide range of industries.

In that context the present bid for Eastern Electricity, the largest electricity distribution business in Britain, was greeted as merely an attempt to reduce Hanson's tax bill, since Eastern is regarded as a well- run company, unable to produce the cost savings that had been the hallmark of the Hanson technique over the past two decades. Lord Hanson could have been writing the obituary of his tactics when he said that "predatory tactics will become outdated only when there aren't any companies with inefficiency in management" - ones, at least, where the inefficiencies were so glaring as to provide predators with the opportunity for large profits.

White also suffered from an unwise newspaper interview in which he suggested that the National Health Service should be privatised. Worse, he compared Hitler with Franklin Roosevelt as "providers of work and developers of self-respect". His - and the group's - reputation suffered another severe blow when it was revealed that the firm had invested pounds 12m of company money in a racehorse syndicate part-owned by White.

White and Hanson had raised City eyebrows in recent years by stating their intention of remaining with the group until 1997, especially as White was growing increasingly frail and nearly fell off the platform at a shareholders' meeting three years ago.

White's personal life matched that expected of a proper tycoon. He was proud to have a licence to pilot helicopters, but his great interest was in racehorses and Hanson's subsidiary Ever Ready sponsored the Epsom Derby for some years.

He married three times. His first marriage, to Elisabeth Kalen, the daughter of a Swedish diplomat, produced two daughters, and the second, to an American actress, Virginia North (whom he divorced in 1979), gave him a son, Lucas, who ran a polo team for a year. After the divorce he lived with a former model, Victoria Tucker, 40 years his junior. The relationship had its stormy moments (including a threatened prosecution for battery after Ms Tucker had been admitted to hospital in the fashionable ski resort of Aspen, Colorado, with severe bruises). But despite this episode, and White's alleged statement "Never marry a young woman, they only want babies", the couple married in a registry office in Hamilton, Bermuda, in 1992, 20 years after he had bought a burial plot on the island.

Nicholas Faith

Despite his undoubted business acumen, Gordon White was never quite able to replicate his industrial success rate in the sport of horse racing, writes Richard Griffiths.

White was a hugely keen racehorse owner, but made his biggest impact on the racing world through one of the Hanson group companies, Ever Ready, which became the first ever sponsor of the Derby in 1984. The cost of sponsoring the meeting, which also included the Oaks and Coronation Cup, was pounds 600,000 each year.

Appropriately it was at Epsom, in the Derby, that White enjoyed his greatest success as an owner. He bought a share in Reference Point from Louis Freedman before the colt won the 1987 Derby. Despite that victory, White ploughed fortunes into racing without the returns' ever quite justifying the investment. A year after Reference Point's triumph, White announced that he was having a "real crack" at winning the Classic with a horse carrying his own colours: red and white stripes with a yellow cap.

He bought half-shares in nine horses bred by the influential Head family in France, and also had another dozen yearlings in England, which he sent to the stables of the leading Newmarket trainers Michael Stoute, Henry Cecil and Luca Cumani.

White's involvement started small, with point-to-pointers and hunters. Once he moved into the world of Flat racing it took him two years to have a winner. Despite some disillusionment at the lack of success, White stuck with it and had horses in training in France and the United States and Britain.

The best horses to carry his colours were the 1989 Champion Stakes winner Legal Case, the leading miler Scottish Reel, and Lord Charmer, who never lived up to a tall reputation despite a dazzling debut win.

White's ownership of horses took a controversial twist in 1991 when it emerged that some of this horses were owned by three syndicates, Cheval 1, 2 and 3, which were owned by Hanson, although some shareholders were not aware of the company's involvement in bloodstock. The issue came to light during a shareholders' meeting that year when it was revealed that the syndicates made a loss of over pounds 7m.

White was involved in a number of deals with the highly successful owner/breeder Robert Sangster, although again White was often out of luck, making the 1990 Derby runner-up Blue Stag his 10th choice when buying nine yearlings from Sangster.

White was a strong supporter of the Derby's being run on a Sunday and argued that the sport should receive a greater financial return from bookmakers and the Government.

Vincent Gordon Lindsay White, businessman: born Hull 11 May 1923; chairman, Welbecson 1947-65; deputy chairman, Hanson Trust Ltd 1965-73, with special commission to open Hanson Trust's opportunities overseas 1973-83; KBE 1979; chairman, Hanson Industries 1983-95; created 1991 Baron White of Hull; married 1958 Elisabeth Kalen (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1968), 1974 Virginia North (one son; marriage dissolved 1979), 1992 Victoria Tucker; died Los Angeles 23 August 1995.