Meet Sir Des, the fattest Fat Cat of the lot

United Utilities' Desmond Pitcher has made pounds 1.78m in less than four years - and Labour is outraged. Chris Blackhurst reports
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The Independent Online
Relax, Cedric Brown. Mix with the public. Wander down to the pub; feel free to pop into the supermarket. The title of Britain's Fat Cat King may soon no longer be yours.

The Labour Party has another target in view to replace the unremarkable engineer who rose to the top of privatised British Gas and found that his hefty pay and benefits package made him the most pilloried man in Britain, with a pig being named after him and dragged along to his company's annual general meeting.

Meet Sir Desmond Pitcher (Des to his friends). Here is a softly-spoken, ageing, balding Liverpudlian, a man born on a council estate who now controls most of the electricity and most of the water in the North, but who is so publicity-shy that you may well never have heard of him.

You will, if Labour has its way. He is the party's number-one hate figure for the next general election, after John Major and his Cabinet.

Until now Sir Desmond has revelled in the nickname 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. By repute he has done more to breathe life back into his home city than anyone else. But Labour is determined pin the label of Fat Cat King squarely on him.

To that end, the shadow Treasury team say that new research published this weekend shows Sir Desmond way out on his own in the privatised-utility pay stakes. Consider, they say: 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, at last week's prices, pounds 453,702. Grand total in less than four years: pounds 1.78m.

Another piece of new research shows that if the Government were to abolish capital gains tax on share options, as it has indicated it wants to do, Sir Desmond stands to save pounds 179,081.

Perhaps mindful of what is to come, and anxious to head off a Labour windfall tax, which would hit his company hard, the normally press-shy Sir Desmond has embarked on a discreet public-relations campaign, wining and dining political editors and hosting a grand party.

The dinners are unlikely to be enough. Were there a Labour victory, United Utilities, the giant company that Sir Desmond created by merging North- West Water with Norweb, the region's electricity supplier, would be a prime target for any fiscal revenge. In the meantime its taciturn chairman will have to contend with being harried from pillar to post.

Unlike some of the other utilities fat cats, Sir Desmond was a rich and 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.

Yet as far as his opponents are concerned, such incidentals are immaterial. As head of United Utilities, 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. And his approach is no-holds-barred. Sir Desmond makes little attempt to apologise for or excuse his wealth, almost inviting criticism and jealousy in equal measure. To add some extra venom to the attacks, he has not been scared to shed jobs while at United, or to take on the unions.

He is more personable than his slow, quiet manner makes him appear, but his image is not helped by a tough big-businessman style of talking. Conflict has never been far away: he does not shirk a fight, he does not suffer fools. At Littlewoods he was not scared to fall out with members of the Moores family, who owned every share in the company.

Born on a Liverpool council estate in Knotty Ash, he worked at 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.

There is little indication, so far, that Labour's onslaughts are getting to him. A little irritation, maybe, but fury or shattered nerve? Not yet. "I don't mind being vilified," is what he says, determined to confront Labour head-on.

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.

He will need all the ebullience he can muster in the months ahead. Despite theatrical yawns from the Tory side, Labour will not let the fat-cat row go away. In Sir Desmond and his kind the party believes it is on to a vote-winner. "The Tories' failure to stamp out boardroom excesses in the privatised utilities means the fat cats are rolling in monopoly money," says Alan Milburn, shadow Treasury spokesman. The share option totals, he claims, show that "by hardly lifting a finger, and thanks to their companies' monopoly position, the utility bosses have been able to build up overnight fortunes".

The putative new Fat Cat King is made of sterner stuff than Cedric Brown. Labour will have to do a lot more if it is to land a direct hit.