McAlpines in bitter dispute over rival's use of family name

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The Independent Online

Since Sir Robert McAlpine, who died in 1934, made the transition from miner to founder of one of Britain's biggest construction firms nearly 135 years ago, his descendants have successfully forged a name in business and politics. But now the family name is entangled in a bitter legal dispute involving some of the most prominent members of the McAlpine clan.

Ten of Sir Robert's descendants, all shareholders in the Sir Robert McAlpine company, are seeking a High Court injunction against the rival Alfred McAlpine company, which is no longer in family hands and has now decided that it wants to "rebrand" itself by dropping the Alfred from its name and henceforth be known as McAlpine. The McAlpine family claims the decision constitutes a serious breach of an historical agreement.

Sir Alfred McAlpine, who died in 1944, set up his company with the blessing of his father, Sir Robert, on condition that family harmony would be preserved by keeping separate names.

A spokesman for Sir Robert McAlpine, whose projects ranged from the original 1923 Wembley Stadium to the Millennium Dome, said: "It is the use of the single name McAlpine to which the 10 family members object. There was a verbal agreement that the two companies would have different names.

"The agreement has been in place as long as the living memories of the present family."

He added: "The family were extremely surprised when they found the other company would be referred to as McAlpine, without consultation or warning."

Alfred McAlpine plc, which made a pre-tax profit last year of £21.7m on a turnover of £768m, left family control after Euan McAlpine departed eight years ago. The company said it had decided to change its name because less than 40 per cent of its activities were construction-related.

"The rebranding recognises its ongoing evolution from a company narrowly focused on construction to a broader service provider that will now operate under one brand," a spokesman said. "The board of McAlpine remains fully committed to the rebranding initiative and will vigorously contest proceedings."

The McAlpine clan has a colourful history. Sir William McAlpine, 67, a senior director at Sir Robert McAlpine and great-great-grandson of its founder, sold the Flying Scotsman two years ago for £1.25m after 20 years of ownership. The extent of his dedication to all things rail-related was such that he once held a board meeting on the Cathedrals Express as it left Waterloo Station. Sir William also sent a set of Christmas cards to friends and colleagues, informing them that he had separated from his wife after 22 years.

Sir William's brother, Lord McAlpine, 61, a former director of Sir Robert McAlpine, was also a successful Tory treasurer for Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties. His company was among the biggest benefactors of the party and it was famous for its Christmas parties. Westminster legend has it that one cabinet meeting had to be rearranged because most ministers were at a company function.

Lord McAlpine recently moved to Puglia in Italy with his third wife, Athena, to run an upmarket bed-and-breakfast operation. His second wife, Romilly, auctioned her collection of Vivienne Westwood dresses after the marriage breakdown last year.

The dispute over the corporate name change comes at a tricky time for the companies. Both firms are working on the next phase of the Eden Project attraction in Cornwall. The spokesman for Sir Robert McAlpine said: "They will continue to work together on the Eden Project as agreed. The legal matter is separate."

The hearing is expected in February.