P-Y Gerbeau: Zut alors! The Gerbil wants to be Napoleon

The Frenchman lampooned as boss of the Dome, is now a giant of industry launching 'a personal crusade' against British binge-drinking
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The Independent Online

The Gerbil is back. This time, however, he looks more like a hamster. P-Y Gerbeau has put on a lot of weight since the spring of 2000, when the tabloids named him after a rodent. They showed no mercy in lampooning the funny Frenchman brought in to rescue that most disastrous of all millennium projects, the Dome.

"It was guerrilla warfare," he says now. "I was attacked on all sides. I thought, why the fuck are they having such a go at me? I only came here to do a job."

The red tops said the 34-year-old had been appointed by mistake, instead of someone older with the same name. They said he was a Mickey Mouse manager who had run the toilets at Euro Disney. They portrayed him as a ludicrous chancer who, as a boy, had stolen from a boulangerie, broken his brother's bike and lied to his mother. "So what?" he says, throwing up his hands. "I didn't get my thing out of my trousers like Frenchmen do!"

He can laugh about it now, seven years later, because the vilification made a glorified leisure-centre manager into a household name. Somehow he became seen as the Eddie the Eagle of industry, a plucky chap unafraid to try his best with the mess left by incompetent politicians.

He still has the specs (now stylishly rimless) and the disarming patter. "I am a short, fat, ugly Frenchman with a funny accent and a stupid spiky haircut," says Pierre-Yves Gerbeau. That's a little harsh: he's not that ugly.

He is rich though, having gone on to far better-paid things since the Dome. He wears nicer clothes, presumably under the influence of his wife, the television presenter Kate Sanderson. But his boxy chocolate-brown corduroy jacket is too big and too long at the sleeves, his white chinos sag at the knees, and he wears them both like someone too distracted to care.

Say the letters P and Y together and people will still respond, "Oh, the Dome man." He doesn't mind, and why should he? This week P-Y will combine his new wealth with his old fame to launch a new, high-profile campaign. That's why he has summoned me to the O2 Centre definitely not the newly renovated Dome, but a shopping arcade in north London to talk about his plans. "I am on a personal crusade," he says, laughing and crossing himself. "I am Richard the Lionheart!"

It's not just him, he says: the new campaign will bring schools, charities and the NHS together with celebrity role models (all funded by his money) to fight a problem that this Parisian in exile says is uniquely British: binge-drinking. "When I moved here, the biggest shock for me was people's attitude towards alcohol. Abuse. We have nothing like that in France."

The son of cultured Parisians, he had only been in London four days and still reeling from the shock of finding out how much trouble the Dome was really in when he had his first encounter with British drunks.

"I was walking to my beautiful hotel," he says, with a look on his face that suggests the Holiday Inn Express at Greenwich was nothing of the kind, "intending to jump out of the window of my shoebox room after being crucified by the press yet again, when I saw two guys, maybe 17 and 22." They were sitting against the posts on the road and the pub had just closed.

"This is so gross, it's disgusting," he warns. "The first one took a sip out of his drink, puked in the drink and drank it back." We are about to eat at an Italian caf. "I'm sorry!" he says, but goes on: "The other guy was taking a leak. Without undressing himself! I was so shocked. I said to myself it must be exceptional."

No such luck. Scenes like that happen somewhere every night. But what have they got to do with him? "I have a daughter [Clemence, 11, from his first marriage] and if she ever came to live with me in England I would have to attach her to a collar in the cellar and say: 'You're not coming out until you're 21!'"

Another answer is that many of the kids falling down drunk are doing so on his property. To understand how that could be, you need to know what he did after the Dome. The first thing was sleep. "It took me six months to recover, physically," he says. "I was totally drained and exhausted. I had some kind of irregular heartbeat. "

P-Y had been working seven days a week for months. Arriving in February 2000 on the recommendation of Michael Eisner of Disney, he had found out that there were going to be nowhere near the 12 million visitors Tony Blair had promised. "How the hell was a tent with no proper attractions or track record in the middle of nowhere supposed to do that?" he said later. Instead of breaking even, the Dome came within two hours of bankruptcy. "It was like being on death row."

They carried on however, and he went on hustling, cutting prices and doing everything he could to get people in. By the end of the year, the Dome had been visited by 6.5 million half the expected number, but still the UK's second biggest attraction and pulling in more than twice as many as went to Alton Towers. "I'm going to take credit for that," he says. "Big time."

The next thing he did when his time at the Dome stopped was play golf. Very well. A former Olympic ice hockey player for France, he took it up after his career on skates was ended by a bad accident in 1988. A scratch golfer, he sometimes plays with Colin Montgomerie. "I have been on a diet all my life," he says, devouring a Four Seasons pizza. "A professional athlete? As soon as you stop," he says, spreading his arms wide, "you go bang!"

That didn't stop Kate Sanderson, a newsreader on Five News, falling in love with him. They met in Paris in 2003, when she was hosting a business conference. Instantly smitten, he told her the true story of how a palm reader had recently said he would meet an Englishwoman, fall in love at first sight and marry her. "I think it's you," he told the new object of his desire, a French speaker who had loved France since she was a girl. So what was her reaction? "She laughed at me and said: 'Is that your trick to pull the ladies? I have to tell you, it's not a good one.'"

They marred two years later, and live in a con- verted library in Battersea. The new Mrs Gerbeau recently told a financial magazine: "My husband is my best investment to date. Not only is he wealthy, I also happen to love him."

"That's terrible," he says, unable to conceal a little pride. "Good line though." Yet, as the Dome man, he was earning less than a newsreader, and now he's buying Aston Martins. So how did P-Y get rich? The answer brings us back to those drunks being sick on the street.

The only British job offer he had in 2001 was to try to turn around a failing ski centre in Milton Keynes. It had a dome. "I said: 'You're having a laugh with me here.'" But by latching on to the taste for extreme sports and their culture he turned X-Leisure into a giant with 20 centres. Many of them are a lot like the O2, the new name for the Dome, which is owned by his rivals. They have spent 600m to almost match the 793m of Lottery funds that went on the original project, and it is thriving at last. Not that he has seen it close up. "I will never go until the day I buy it back." He means it.

His centres get 50 million visitors every year. "My credibility on binge-drinking comes from being the largest owner of leisure schemes in the country," he says. "We are exposed to the culture every weekend."

X-Leisure has limited the number of bars on its sites, to stop trouble. But he says the brewery companies who rent premises from him won't stop the happy hours and cheap drinks promotions. "They say: 'You run your business and let us run ours.'"

So P-Y is fighting back, by starting a campaign that aims to get the law changed. He even thinks he can succeed where countless agencies have failed, and bring about a cultural shift. "It's like smoking 10 years ago. It will happen." How? By starting something others will join.

The first step is a survey of adults and children at the X-Leisure centres this month. The results will shape a national roadshow involving experts from the NHS and role models such as the DJ Emma B. There will also be a new Pride of Youth awards ceremony, celebrating the most impressive young people in the country, as the campaign broadens out to include the anti-social behaviour and crime he sees as following on from drinking. "Nobody is tackling these things together," he says. "The politicians talk a lot at election time, then forget it."

What other support does he have? "None at all!" roars P-Y. "But the public agree with me." Right. Later someone from his office names an England footballer, a well-known male television star and a huge charity whose involvement would make this a very serious proposition. Then they call again and ask me not to mention those names, because the details have yet to be finalised.

So what does it all amount to in reality? It's hard to say. P-Y is a salesman of great skill but you do walk away afterwards wondering whether he has just sold you an empty box.

He might just be shooting his mouth off. Or not. P-Y has been underestimated before. And he does have the political clout of someone who serves 50 million customers a year. Ministers can do the maths.

So the second main strand to the campaign he begins this week is public and private lobbying. A ban on happy hours will find support in Parliament. But while there is a shift towards restricting pub hours again, P-Y Gerbeau actually wants to see them forced to stay open longer for up to 18 hours at a time and not allowed to close just because they are quiet. "I'm not reinventing the wheel," he says. "This is what happened in France 30 years ago. It means they have to find other ways than cheap booze to make money."

He doesn't want to become a politician "I would have to shoot myself" but does want to "carry the flag". He knows he is still an outsider, a short, loud, confident Frenchman appealing for followers in a battle to change the British way of life. It is P-Y who makes the comparison with Napoleon, not me. "They might shoot me, or they might follow," he says. "At least when I see those poor guys on the street pissing themselves I can live with myself for trying."