Singed whiskers, but the fattest cat lives to fight on

Chris Blackhurst on Sir Desmond Pitcher
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The Independent Online
Fat cats do not come much bigger than Sir Desmond Pitcher, victim of an arson attack at his Cheshire home yesterday. Neither do they come more unapologetic or unabashed about their wealth.

When Labour dubbed him "King of the Fat Cats" they chose him for his total salary and taxable benefits since 1993, when he took over the chair at North-West Water, of pounds 978,300; a performance-related bonus of pounds 281,700; pension contributions of pounds 70,300; share options worth pounds 450,000. Grand total in less than four years: pounds 1.78m.

As head of United Utilities, formed by merging North-West Water with Norweb, he lives in a mansion in Cheshire, and has another house in one of the most exclusive parts of Surrey and a pounds 500,000 yacht in the Mediterranean.

But Sir Desmond is more than a rich man who lives well. He is a tough- talker who brooks no opposition, be it from left-wing MPs or the unions, who loathe him for the job cuts he has made at United.

While Cedric Brown, the former head of British Gas, cut a forlorn, crumpled figure in the face of vilification from the left and the mostly tabloid press, Sir Desmond appears to relish the fight. Last year, his pay rose by 21 per cent and the then Labour employment spokesman, Ian McCartney, said: "Sir Desmond Pitcher has taken over the throne as king of the fat cats."

Until recently, Sir Desmond rejoiced in the soubriquet of "Mr Merseyside" in tribute to his work for the area's development corporation and his earlier running of Littlewoods, Liverpool's biggest commercial employer.

His refusal to be cowed stems from the fact that unlike some of the other utilities fat cats, who feel less comfortable with their new-found wealth, Sir Desmond was a successful businessman long before he took over the reins at North-West Water.

At Littlewoods, for instance, he was one of the highest-paid executives in Britain and did much to save the family-owned football pools, stores and mail-order group from hitting financial disaster.

He was born on a Liverpool council estate at Knotty Ash, and worked for Leyland Trucks and Plessey before Littlewoods. He has stayed loyal to Liverpool and is the proud possessor of his own coat of arms, the centrepiece of which is three liver birds, symbol of his native city.

Before yesterday's attack there was little sign that the onslaughts were getting to him. A little irritation, maybe, but fury or shattered nerve? Not yet. "I don't mind being vilified," is what he said.

Throughout his career he has shown resilience. When the Merseyside development corporation was censured by a House of Commons committee for losing taxpayers' money on an operatic gala concert that went horribly wrong, Sir Desmond brushed it aside.

He is sustained by a strong self-belief. When he became chairman of North- West Water in November 1993, he reportedly said: "It's the largest company in the North West. It was a natural for me."His pay, he says, is not a matter for public debate. He admits that he earns 40 times as much as his most junior typist but points out that he often works a 70-hour week and has the responsibility of a major employer and stock-market company on his shoulders.

"If you want a good company which is well run, you have got to have good people running it," is his message. Yesterday's attack may shake him but it will not shift him.