During the Kraft bid for Cadbury in 2009, selected journalists were invited to meet Irene Rosenfeld, head of the US food and confectionery giant, at a discreet set of offices in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields. They were shepherded in to see Rosenfeld, who had never previously dealt with the British press. Doing the introductions and keeping a firm hold on the direction of the conversation was Alan Parker.
It was quite a contrast: on the one hand, the ice-cool, mannered corporate chief; on the other, the warm, infectiously friendly founder of the Brunswick PR agency. Parker was his usual ebullient self, irreverent but carefully so, never crossing a line that might offend.
There were some deliberate touches. Visitors to the Brunswick headquarters would normally be greeted by bowls of sweets, books of poetry and fresh flowers on the tables; they still were, but the sweets, poetry and flowers had been augmented by plates of Oreos, Kraft’s best-selling biscuit.
Today, Sir Alan Parker – he was knighted five months ago for services to business, charitable giving and philanthropy – is doing his odd-couple act again. He’s advising the US pharmaceutical behemoth Pfizer on its proposed £63bn takeover of AstraZeneca. Now, as then, he is up against Brunswick’s main rival, Finsbury, led by Roland Rudd. But whereas Rudd is a more high-profile figure, appearing on the BBC’s Question Time and known for his pro-European views, Parker, 58, has remained resolutely in the background.
As a result, outside the City and Westminster, he is largely unknown. But he is someone who commands enormous influence in boardrooms across the globe, who advises a sizeable chunk of the FTSE 100, and whose second wedding in 2007 (to Jane Hardman, who is well connected in Tory circles) was attended by both the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, and leader of the opposition, David Cameron. He’s holidayed with Cameron and has accompanied him on a trade mission to China. For a while he employed Sarah Brown, Gordon’s wife, and Gordon is godfather to Parker’s son, William. But Parker himself remains in the background.
Brunswick is an international concern, with offices around the world. Parker’s agency employs hundreds of people, and he owns the majority of the shares in the business, making him worth more than £100m.
To think that his father, Sir Peter Parker, the former British Rail chairman, once contacted a City pal and asked if he could help his son at a time when he was intent on forging a career managing rock bands. Alan had been at the private Bryanston School, then to Holland Park comprehensive, where he obtained four A-levels. A place at Oxford was in prospect, but apparently his anti-establishment views proved too much. The friend his father called was Brian Basham, then the doyen of what was a fledgling corporate PR industry. Basham ran Broad Street Associates, which advised on a string of 1970s and 80s mergers. “I taught Alan the lesson of control,” said Basham. “We developed a very powerful position for financial PRs, where we came to be seen as controllers of a very valuable commodity: company news.”
Not that Parker, who soon rose to become Basham’s deputy, needed much tuition. He was a natural – blessed with a cheeky chappy persona. That, plus permanently boyish features – he has a toothy grin and speaks with a slight lisp – make him appealing, certainly when put alongside some of his stiffer clients.
He swears a lot, likes to kick his shoes off during meetings, and conveys a relaxed, confident air. His favourite form of greeting is to hail someone as “Boss”. It’s hard not to be drawn in, even though you just know that everyone he speaks to receives the same treatment.
From growing up with Sir Peter – who was affable, popular and a superb networker – Alan was unafraid to voice his opinions. But he also knows when to listen, when to bide his time, then step in and speak his mind. He revered both his father and mother, Gillian, a GP.
An arch-capitalist and ruthless in many of his work dealings, Parker has a softer streak. Away from the office, he chairs Save the Children UK, is a keen theatre-goer, and has a collection of Henry Moore drawings and Oscar Wilde first editions. He is passionate about William Blake, a love he inherited from his father, and he would like to buy the former London home of the poet and painter to preserve it for the nation. He is an enthusiastic fly-fisherman, and part-owns a stretch of the River Tay.
The Parkers are multi-talented. Alan’s first wife, Caroline (known as Boo), is a painter. Alan’s brother, Nathaniel, is an actor, best known as Inspector Lynley (they look very similar) in the TV detective series; another brother, Oliver, is a film director; and sister Lucy has made TV documentaries and led the Prime Minister’s taskforce on talent and enterprise.
In 1987, Parker parted company with Basham to form Brunswick, an idea “drawn up on the table in my mum’s kitchen”. With his connections and his drive, he always was going to succeed.
Typically, a company will pay Brunswick a retainer of £20,000 to £50,000 a month, depending on their size and the volume of work they generate. Above that, if they’re involved in a major deal, takeover or crisis, extra fees kick in. These can be enormous. Brunswick made a substantial sum from advising BP on the fallout from the Gulf of Mexico disaster, for example.
Parker is clever, said a client. He will ensure that the team acting for a client is complementary, so there will be one partner (they’re called partners even though the bulk of the equity is held by Parker) who is adept at dealing with the media, another who may be better at handling the City, another whose speciality is public affairs. Brunswick covers all the bases, so it has a media training arm and a division that specialises in sponsorship of the arts.
If a drama occurs, then Parker will throw himself into the cause. On Pfizer, the letter to Cameron detailing assurances that the US company will make to sweeten the bid bears all the Parker hallmarks. With Kraft, a row ensued after the takeover went through when the US purchaser was accused of breaking promises to keep a Cadbury factory open. This time, the bidder has gone on the front foot, stating to the Prime Minister in black and white its intentions. There are those, however, who question if that was not a move too soon. Before news of the pledges emerged there was an air of inevitability that Pfizer would succeed.
But the manner of the letter, hinting at some sort of cosy stitch-up with the Government, may have backfired. Labour and the press are focusing on the promises made and Pfizer’s track record in previous deals. Pfizer might have been better advised to wait, to keep quiet, then make the statements in the letter further down the track, possibly at a select committee hearing. Now, those opposed to the bid are asking for further commitments.
The danger for Pfizer is that Cameron is likely to follow public opinion. So, far from having secured some sort of private, tacit approval, Pfizer might find itself having to deal with an openly hostile Prime Minister. These, however, are early days. If past form is any guide, Parker will bring other levers to bear. It would be foolish indeed to underestimate him.
A life in brief
Born 3 May 1956, London.
Family Father was Sir Peter Parker, the former boss of British Rail; his mother, Gillian, was a GP. Married twice.
Education Bryanston School; Holland Park, London. Passed Oxford entrance exam but did not get a place.
Career Worked on oil rigs, managed rock bands; went into City PR with Broad Street Associates. Formed his own Brunswick PR agency in 1987; grew it to become a major global PR firm, representing corporate clients.