Pension Scandal: Rise and fall of an empire founded on ego and expansion: David Bowen examines the dramatic career of a man who personified the Eighties' culture of instant success

FEW people epitomised the get- rich-quick culture of the Eighties better than John Ashcroft. Young, brash, boastful, he assembled a vast industrial edifice which increasingly became a monument to his own ego.

Two weeks after the decade had turned, his Coloroll group admitted it was in deep financial trouble. Six months later it went into receivership - the edifice, it emerged, had been built on sand.

Mr Ashcroft was born in 1948 in Wigan, the son of a quarry worker. He went to grammar school and then to the London School of Economics. After a training scheme at Tube Investments, he moved to Crown Wallcoverings, where he showed his unusual turn of mind by conducting unprecedentedly complex analysis on export markets.

He joined Coloroll in 1978 as export manager. The group was already making a name for itself under the leadership of John Bray. Mr Ashcroft became managing director when he was 30 and set about installing computer systems that analysed every possible facet of the business. In 1982 he became chief executive and two years later floated Coloroll on the stock market. He used the ever-increasing share price to snap up company after company.

He bought makers of mugs, duvets, curtains and carpets - suppressing the original brand names and applying the Coloroll look and management style to each. His own ego was always evident: a mug, including a picture of himself, was handed out internally. He applied the same techniques to his flock of sheep - working out their diet on computer.

The Guardian made him Young Businessman of the Year in 1987, but even as the City feted Mr Ashcroft, there were those who had doubts. Rival wallpaper makers believed Coloroll was buying business with unfeasibly low prices, while John Bray was surprised to find that he had been written out of the company history. Coloroll was brought down by the 1988 purchase of John Crowther, a group that had grown even more rapidly than itself. Worms emerged from both cans: it emerged that real losses were being concealed by clever accounting.

Mr Ashcroft's powers of analysis, it appeared, were no longer being applied. This was in part because he had been spending more time becoming one of the great and the good, and winning a CBE in the New Year's Honours list of 1990. He resigned three months later, and after a period in hibernation emerged to take control of an outdoor clothing company, Survival Aids. In March last year the group, inaptly renamed Survival Group, went into receivership.

He is now living in his Lancashire farmhouse, doing a PhD in economics at Manchester university - but it would be foolish to believe Dr John will keep his head down forever.

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