A £19m swing, but Mori's man of the polls hangs on to his clipboard  

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The Independent Online

After 34 years of taking the public pulse for prime ministers and newspaper editors, Bob Worcester gave little impression yesterday that a £19m pay cheque would persuade him to hang up his clipboard.

The former soldier from Kansas, who bought an obscure company called Market & Opinion Research International (Mori) in 1969 and turned it into a household name, remained driven by the lure of the questionnaire. "I work 364 days a year," he said. "The one day I don't work is Christmas Day and that's because it is my wife's birthday. I would certainly say I am a workaholic. I work an 80-hour week."

But the 69-year-old, the nation's soothsayer-in-chief, could soon be looking for a new outlet for his boundless energy after Mori confirmed that it was up for sale yesterday and was open to any serious offer.

Mr Worcester has built his reputation on a knack for posing the questions to get the answers that predict the future. The polling and research organisation, which covers subjects from general election results to the market in digital watches, has clients ranging from Downing Street to the government of Trinidad.

Experts have valued the company at £75m to £100m. The main beneficiaries of the sale will be 3i, the venture capital group that holds 41 per cent of Mori, as well as its workers - about two thirds of the 350 staff own 39.5 per cent in employee shares.

Mr Worcester, who still has 19.5 per cent of the company he built up, will earn between £14m and £19.5m to add to the money he made from the disposal of what was a 62 per cent stake nine years ago.

Mori insisted that the move was the natural conclusion of a deal sealed three years ago to stage a management buyout and allow 3i to take a majority holding. It also went out of its way to say that Mr Worcester, the company's chairman, and its senior management wanted to remain in place once the takeover was complete.

But the bespectacled pollster, who mixes his bonhomie with a straight-talking business sense, confirmed that the unthinkable was possible - that Mori and Bob Worcester could go their separate ways.

With a number of suitors waiting in the wings, said to include some of the world's biggest advertising and marketing agencies, Mr Worcester admitted he would not continue at any cost.

He said at Mori's offices in Southwark, south-east London: "This is not about money. I love the work, it is tremendously interesting. We'll have to wait and see what emerges but there are those for whom I would not wish to work."

That stance is suitably moral from a man whose descendants date back to the Rev William Worcester, a Puritan pilgrim who arrived in Salisbury, Massachusetts, from Warwickshire in 1639. But the polling business has been good to Mr Worcester, who despite being a steadfast Anglophile also retains the strong Missouri accent known to all viewers of election-night television coverage for the past three decades.

He owns homes in Belgravia and Kent, as well as a Caribbean hideaway on the island of Mustique and, where he was once a servant to his grander clients, he now moves in the same circles. As well as holding governors' posts at the London School of Economics, the University of Kent and his local NHS trust, he has a strong interest in conservation as a director of the wildlife charity WWF.

After working his way through university and serving two years with the US Army in Korea, Mr Worcester flirted with advertising and journalism before joining a research company, which sent him to London. He said: "I was working for the Prime Minister, BP, Shell, Mobil, NatWest, Midland, ICI, British Leyland, but I saw there was a gap for opinion polling so I bought Mori and have never looked back."

Apart from a hiccup in 1992 when, with the other main pollsters, Mori predicted a hung Parliament in the general election, Mr Worcester has prided himself on his independence and accuracy. And he has the sort of pedantic zeal that would make his forebears proud.

This, after all, is the man who would rather refuse to deal with billionaires - namely the late Sir James Goldsmith and Sir Robert Maxwell - than imperil the objectivity of his polling system. He said: "I have only fired two clients, Goldsmith and Maxwell. They didn't like the way I was asking the questions and wanted to ask their own questions. I told them there was not enough money in the world to make me tilt questions."

That philosophy, which is contained in a five-point list of corporate objectives - including the vow "to act with integrity in everything we do" - has helped to propel Mori to the top of the psephological and business-research tree.

Last year, the company increased its turnover from £30m to £35.8m and returned profits of £5.1m. Its annual growth rate has been 19 per cent for the past three years and Mori is the largest independent research agency in Britain.

Perhaps surprisingly, the political poll accounts for only 1 per cent of the company's revenues. The majority of its income is from studies for corporate clients, ranging from Shell to Nokia, as well as contracts with the Government and local authorities.

Mori is beginning to come under pressure from a number of young pretenders and other big pollsters such as NOP and ICM. Earlier this year, Mori lost one of its longest-standing contracts, when The Times announced that it was switching to Populus, a tiny outfit set up in 1999 by a group of former policy wonks. Populus, and YouGov - which polls through the internet - remain small, but observers say the big names have reason to be concerned.

One senior City analyst said: "This is a booming market. The demand for corporate research and polls from the media is bigger than ever but there are a number of dynamic new outfits muscling in.

"Their methods are catching the attention of some of the blue-chip clients that make people like Mori all their money. When your name is on the front page of a national newspaper, that brings in business. Consolidation is increasingly the name of the game for the big boys."

Neither of the names circulating as possible buyers of Mori - Taylor Nelson Sofres, a global market research giant, and WPP, Britain's largest advertising agency - would confirm their interest yesterday.

But Mori insisted its sale was not born of panic, saying that it was part of the general policy of venture capital firms such as 3i to sell their acquisitions within five years.

Brian Gosschalk, Mori's chief executive, said: "This is part of a normal cycle. We have excelled as a company and what we are looking for is not just a good deal in financial terms but also a strategic and cultural fit."

Who will provide that remains to be seen but Mr Worcester has no doubts about how to guarantee Mori's continued success. "We are not in a science - polling is about merging the art of asking questions and the science of sampling. And I love it," he said.

Poll star: hits and misses

HITS

General Election, June 1987: Mori predicted the exact share of the vote for each main party in Margaret Thatcher's, right, third victory in a row - Tories 42 per cent, Labour 31 per cent and the Liberal-SDP Alliance per cent. Bob Worcester said: "We got it precisely right. A friend phoned me afterwards and said 'you will never get any closer than that'."

The digital watch boom, 1975: The Swiss company SSIH, which owns the Omega and Tissot brands, contracted Mori to research demand for the first digital watches, pictured, in America. SSIH, whose digital product cost $425 (£250), refused to believe Mr Worcester's accurate prediction that costs would fall and the market would support four million sales within three years. He said: "The head of the company stood up after our presentation and said, "nothing will replace Swiss craftsmanship."

Trinidad People's Panel 2003: The government of the Caribbean island wanted an insight into attitudes among its two main ethnic groups, Indo-Trinidadians and Afro-Trinidadians, whose opposition to each other is a source of political tension. Mori set up a People's Panel to gauge opinion and found social attitudes in both groups were identical. Mr Worcester said: "There was nothing stopping this country being united - it would be wonderful if, through polling, we could achieve that."

MISSES

General Election 1992: The universally acknowledged mother of all misses for the nation's pollsters - and a nice surprise for the Tories. Mori predicted at least a hung Parliament while several of its competitors foresaw an outright victory for Neil Kinnock's Labour Party. John Major was returned to No 10 with 42 per cent of the vote and Labour slumped to 34 per cent. Mr Worcester led a pollsters panel that was set up to find out what went wrong. He admitted: "It definitely wasn't our finest hour but it didn't effect our other business - if anything, it got better."

Brecon and Radnor by-election 1985: The Conservatives had expected to retain what was a safe seat in Wales - an expectation backed by Mori, whose polling suggested an easy Tory victory. The seat was won, however, by the Liberal candidate, Richard Livesey, by the narrow margin of 559 votes. Mr Worcester said: "We got that one badly wrong - by about 16 or 17 per cent. What we found was a difference in rural opinion which we didn't take into account - the smallholders tended to be Tory and the farm workers Labour."

Foreign Office staff study, 1998: Mori was approached by the Foreign Office to conduct a staff opinion study. With Mr Worcester's reputation as the head of a sizeable company already long made, Whitehall staff were obviously surprised to see him in their department. He said: "We gave them a cast-iron assurance that I and my managing director would personally direct the work. They can't have believed us because the contract went elsewhere. That was very disappointing."

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