Big Wheel: The social circle of Sir Anthony Bamford

The JCB tycoon is one of Britain's leading power players, boasting celebrities, royals and politicians on all sides among his friends. Guy Adams reports on a man accused of using his £950m fortune to buy power and influence
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The Independent Online

Sir Anthony Bamford stood triumphantly on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah yesterday, celebrating the fulfilment of a lifetime dream: his family firm, JCB, made a diesel-powered vehicle travel at 328mph, a new land speed record.

The Dieselmax car, powered by two JCB engines, beat the existing land-speed record for diesel vehicles by more than 90 mph.

"This is thrilling, better than I ever expected," he said. "It shows that British engineers can do a world-beating job. They're a brilliant team, who worked through adversity and faced heartbreaks. They got through it so well. I am very proud of them."

An ordinary captain of industry could now expect to return home to a hero's welcome. But there are unlikely to be cheering crowds at Heathrow next time Sir Anthony's private jet lands: the head of the family that owns JCB is no ordinary captain of industry.

In recent years, the yellow-digger tycoon has achieved a social standing virtually unrivalled in modern Britain. He has vast wealth, clout in aristocratic circles, and influence in politics at the very highest level. Bamford is rich and powerful - and more than a little controversial.

Sir Anthony is on first name terms with the Prince of Wales, who has used his helicopter; Tony Blair and David Cameron. His wife Carole lunches with Joan Collins, Sir David Frost, and Nick Mason. Various Goldsmiths, Weinbergs and Rothschilds were said to have attended her lavish 60th birthday party in April.

Power and money don't guarantee you an easy ride in the public eye, though. Bamford has been accused of using his £950m fortune to garner political and social influence; he figured on Tony Blair's notorious Chequers dinner-guest list. People who break bread with him have a nasty habit of ending-up in the news for the wrong reasons.

On Monday, the Prime Minister met with accusations of freeloading after being photographed drinking bottled lager at Heron Bay, Bamford's holiday home in Barbados. The Blair family is reported to be using the £5m pile as a "glorified beach hut" while staying at Sir Cliff Richard's nearby villa.

A week earlier, it had been the turn of David Cameron to feel heat from his relationship with Sir Anthony, who gave £1m to the Tories before last year's general eection. Cameron and his Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, announced plans to open JCB's £25m new factory in Poonah, India, next month. Labour MPs accused them of improperly endorsing a commercial venture linked to a benefactor.

The environmentally conscious Tory leader has also been called a hypocrite for having made frequent use of Bamford's gas-guzzling Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, along with the Tory Party chairman Francis Maude. Meanwhile, William Hague is paid £50,000 a year to act as parliamentary adviser to JCB - a job that leaves him vulnerable to accusations of helping concrete over swaths of rural England.

On the home front, Bamford and family cause occasional ructions in rural Gloucestershire, where they live at Daylesford, a handsome Georgian property near Stow-on-the-Wold, surrounded by a 1,500-acre estate.

In October, Daylesford Organics, a farm shop created by Lady Carole - and patronised by David Cameron, Kate Winslet, Liz Hurley and Kate Moss - was at the centre of a planning dispute, after locals opposed plans to expand its operations into selling clothes and gardening and "lifestyle" goods. Others have publicly raised objections to the drone of helicopters ferrying guests to the family home, and wondered why Daylesford Organic Farms Ltd, the firm's sister company, should be registered in the Republic of Liberia.

"People with the money and profile of the Bamfords are always going to attract critics, but a lot of it's down to jealousy," says a family friend. "Daylesford is actually a fantastic and profitable enterprise that employs a lot of local people. It has been a great success story.

"Other people go on about the family's noisy helicopters and Ferraris and say the house at Daylesford is a bit naff. I think the words 'Footballers Wives' have been used to describe it. But when you get there, it's tastefully done up, and you'll find that people who say otherwise generally haven't seen it for themselves."

The Bamfords' extraordinary success story began in 1945, when Sir Anthony's father, Joseph Cyril Bamford (his initials spell the company name) started a business in Rocester, Staffordshire, selling excavating machinery. The firm prospered on the back of the post-war building boom and, by 1975 when the 30-year-old Sir Anthony was allowed to take over the reins, boasted annual sales of £44m.

By 1979, that figure was £120m and JCB had successfully been transformed into one of the most valuable private companies in Britain. Sir Anthony, meanwhile, had been named young businessman of the year.

"Anthony was, and still is, a tremendously gifted industrialist," says a former colleague. "He's always had tons of energy, and experienced his fair share of lucky breaks but the real skill in this industry, which he's got in spades, is the ability to spot trends a year or two before everyone else.

"The JCB factory, which is still in Staffordshire, was computerised in the early 1980s, several years before most of its rivals. The machines they turn out have always been a step ahead of everyone else's in terms of design and value for money."

Bamford's other masterstrokes have included moving his firm's production into the US and India at times when road-building and construction were flourishing. David Cameron's speech at the firm's new plant opening in India will underline the success of British industrial exports.

Today, JCB remains in the family's hands. It employs 6,300 people worldwide and in June reported that profits had doubled to £110m, beating its previous record of £103m set in 1995. The company has 17 factories, 10 in the UK, three in India and others in the US, Brazil, Germany and China, where a Shanghai plant has been rapidly expanding.

"Just like he always has done, Bamford got into China before everyone else," adds a colleague. "He actually sent his son Joe out there for a time to see what was going on, because that's very much where he sees the future of the business."

Sir Anthony often commutes to work by helicopter from Daylesford, or commutes from his £24m house in Chelsea. When in Staffordshire, he stays at Wootton, a 3,000-acre estate near the JCB headquarters, which remain in Rocester.

According to associates, the world record attempt yesterday underlines the pioneering spirit that Bamford and his family have bought to British business.

"It has taken huge balls," said an onlooker in Utah. "JCB had no background in this sort of thing and has really put its reputation on the line. It's been brilliant PR, too, and the Americans have loved us. It could have been seen as snooty Brits coming over to set a record, but instead, they've absolutely lapped it up."

Back in Britain, Bamford has always been prone to displays of flamboyance. In the 1990s he celebrated a successful year by commissioning a JCB ballet in which 12 diggers danced to Tchaikovsky. More recently his younger son, George, a photographer, filled gossip columns with his £400,000, James Bond-themed, 21st-birthday party.

In some circles, Sir Anthony and his family have suffered from their share of snobbery, though. "They are basically from a solidly middle-class background, and in the past were accused of social climbing," says one commentator. "Carole was nicknamed 'doors to manual' on account of the fact that she used to be an air hostess. But funnily enough, the success of Daylesford Organics seems to have put a stop to that. She may be an air hostess, but she's pretty clever, and was recently awarded an OBE."

A burgeoning friendship with the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, whose Highgrove estate is handily close to Daylesford, has not harmed their social standing, either.

Meanwhile, the next generation of Bamfords are preparing to take over the reins. Eldest son Joe - jokingly known as "Bungalow Joe" at university because "people thought he didn't have much upstairs" - is seen as heir apparent to Sir Anthony's role. "Joe's had his problems, both personal and professional, but being sent off to work at the family firm seems to have sorted him out," says a contemporary from Edinburgh University. "Alice, Joe's sister, is the bohemian one. She's got a colourful circle of friends, and has set up and now runs a hip-hop label called Emancipated."

In private, Bamford is described as a genial and generous host, who tempers Thatcherite Tory politics (he was knighted in 1990 by the Conservatives) with an ability to strike up a relationship with all political shades.

"Anthony puts much of his success down to anti-union policies adopted at JCB over the years, and has spiritual reservations about Labour," says a political acquaintance. "But on a personal level, he finds Blair pretty charming, and is obviously happy with the direction he has taken the party in. It's a measure of the remarkable guy he is that he can be friends with Blair, Cameron, and the Prince of Wales, all at the same time."

Back in Bonneville, Sir Anthony may be given to reflect that money, charm and ambition can win you friends at each end of the political spectrum.

Additional reporting by David Tremayne