Alan Parker: Will the Pfixer emerge victorious in the biggest proposed takeover in British corporate history?

PR men don’t come much more powerful than the head of global giant Brunswick

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor