Calling the shots: Britain's provincial potentates

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Worth pounds 45m, Stewart Milne has made his money from creating a construction empire in the north-east of Scotland.

Together with his family, Milne, 46, owns 86 per cent of Stewart Milne Group, whose name appears everywhere in the region. The corporate headquarters, nicknamed South Fork because of its grandeur, is something of an Aberdeen landmark, adding to his lustre. Another is the stadium of Aberdeen Football Club, the main football team, and after North Sea oil, the area's most conspicuous symbol. A director of Aberdeen FC, Milne is credited as being the financial brains behind the club. Milne also sits on the board of the Scottish Advisory Council for Education and Training, and he is vice- chairman of Grampian Enterprise, charged with trying to attract new industry for when the oil runs out.



It is impossible to drive through Britain's second city and miss one of the Richardson twins' huge developments, such as Fort Dunlop on the M6 and the giant Merry Hill shopping centre. Their latest project is a pounds 50m leisure complex, next to Spaghetti Junction. They believe central government is not interested in places like the West Midlands. This was evident when the Millennium Exhibition went to south-east London, not Birmingham as they had hoped. Their response was to put the money together for an alternative event promoting Birmingham at the nearby NEC. They are probably the nearest thing the city has to royalty.



The Thomas brothers have had their fingers in virtually every pie in Wales, literally. After selling their family bakery in 1966, they formed their own business, Peter's Savoury Products. In 1988, they sold it to Grand Metropolitan for pounds 75m and then moved into property development and management. Their new business, TBI, owns Cardiff Airport. They also own Atlantic Property Developments, and are responsible for developing the Atlantic Wharf docks area. Then there is Cardiff Rugby Club. In a region where rugby is nothing less than a religion, being the owner of Cardiff brings God-like devotion. Peter endeared himself by recruiting Gareth Davies, the former Cardiff and Wales players, as chief executive and persuading Jonathan Davies to return home from rugby league.



Bruce Robertson runs Trago Mills, the most successful locally-based retailer. Trago, which operates discount warehouses across the whole region, is worth pounds 60m. Robertson is an arch-critic of the European Union, and has become something of a local prophet of doom in this area. He writes a syndicated column in no less than 17 local papers. In the past he has plastered the road to his head office at Newton Abbot with posters denouncing EU bureaucracy. His stamping ground is the South-west, where fisheries, farming and tourism all claim to have suffered at the hands of Brussels. As a result, Robertson is popularly revered by fishermen and farmers alike. POWER RATING: 2.5


In an area dependent on agriculture and making foodstuffs, Martin George is the undisputed heavyweight. His family has major stakes in food group Whitworth Holdings, and Weetabix, maker of the famous breakfast cereal. George, 55, is also a past-president of the UK Agriculture Supply Association, and used to run Mid Anglia Radio. These days, his attentions are devoted to the fortunes of Leicester City Football Club, which he chairs.



Shares in Kwik-Fit have been racing ahead recently, adding to the millions of the group's found, Sir Tom Farmer. This gregarious, doughty Scot is easily Edinburgh's best-known businessman. Something of a media personality, Farmer is a local hero, a salesman who built a pounds 45m fortune from his range of tyre and exhaust centres. After Kwik-Fit, Farmer's passion is doing good works. He chairs Scottish Business In The Community and Investors In People, Scotland. He also heads Scotland Against Drugs. He stepped in to bail out Hibernian, the local football team, to prevent it being absorbed by arch-rival, Hearts. When a Dutch company threatened to redevelop a 65-acre island situated in the Firth of Forth, he again came to the rescue, buying the property and planning to turn it into a charitable outdoor activity centre for local people.



It is true that David Murray's empire also extends to Edinburgh, where his main operating company, Murray International Holdings, is based. But in football-crazy Scotland it is Glasgow where Murray's power lies. He is chairman of the mighty Glasgow Rangers and controls the club, sitting on a stake worth, conservatively, pounds 100m. His Murray International business is into everything: electronics, electrical retailing, steel stockholding and sports management. He has a reputation for toughness, not least because he lost both legs in a car crash at 24 and went on to build a hugely successful business.



Just as Steve Gibson built a new sports stadium for Middlesbrough, Dave Whelan is erecting a new temple for sport in Wigan. A former professional footballer, Whelan started out with a market stall before building a chain of grocery shops which he sold in 1978 to William Morrison. He then moved into sports retailing, creating a pounds 190m fortune from his JJB Sports chain. Not content with controlling Wigan Athletic, the professional soccer club, he has taken over the famous rugby league club as well. His plan is to unite them both at one new stadium, soccer in winter, rugby in summer. Deeply proud of his Lancashire origins, Whelan will not move to London. He recently sold his London shops, in the Strand and Kensington High Street, which traded as Alpine Sports, because stock was being pilfered by staff.



It is a mark of the muscle of the Moores family that they could employ a man like Desmond Pitcher to run Littlewoods, their private retail and football pools empire. The eldest son of Sir John, the firm's late, legendary founder, John Moores, 69, is still known as John Junior. Mild-mannered and softly-spoken, his clout comes from speaking for one of Britain's richest families, who own every share in what is still the country's largest private company. Together with his wife, Moores is a keen supporter of Labour and has thrown himself into community work in Liverpool, financing projects for youth and the under-privileged. The Moores have a massive influence on the life of the city, sponsoring art exhibitions at the prestigious Walker Art Gallery and controlling Liverpool Football Club. John Moores University, one of two universities on Merseyside, was named after Littlewoods' founder.



Des Pitcher has two nicknames, one he is proud of and the other he loathes: Mr Merseyside and King of the Fat Cats. A varied business career has seen him hold many important posts, notably chief executive of Littlewoods and head of the local privatised water and electricity utility, United Utilities. Educated locally, Pitcher has remained resolutely loyal to his native city, sitting on the boards of numerous bodies including the Mersey Barrage scheme and Everton Football Club. The sheer breadth of his experience, allied to an at times combative manner, have made him a powerful voice of business in the region. A measure of his power is that when unions objected to Pitcher, then boss of North-West Water, merging the firm with Norweb, the local electricity supplier, he brushed their concerns aside with ease. He has recently come under pressure to retire two years early because of his role in the departure of chief executive Brian Staples.



If Sir John Hall has a young pretender in the North East, it is Steve Gibson, 39, in Middlesbrough. The youngest Labour councillor on Teesside at 21, he worked for ICI before starting his own road haulage business. Today, his company, Bulkhaul, is worth pounds 80m. In 1986, he put together a consortium to save Middlesbrough Football Club, the team he once wanted to play for. Like Hall, Gibson has managed to work wonders, persuading foreign superstars to join from Brazil and Italy, and hiring Bryan Robson, the former England captain, as manager. A new, pounds 17m state-of-the-art stadium is pointed to locally as the mark of a new era of confidence. Gibson's profile is probably the highest among all the regional barons. When government agencies and the council contemplate schemes for Middlesbrough, they talk to Gibson. ICI talks to Gibson. Still young, he has this part of Britain eating out of his hand.



Like a colossus, Sir John Hall towers over anyone else in Newcastle. Even without his natural physical height, he would be the biggest man around. Outspoken, direct, occasionally brusque, he has taken the city by the scruff of the neck and turned it upside down. It is easy to forget that, even before he built the giant Metro Centre on the edge of the city, Hall was the area's most successful property developer. Hall has gone from being a miner to a property millionaire, and is now far and away the most influential figure economically in the North East. He turned 120 acres of derelict land into Europe's largest retail and leisure complex. But Hall grows bored easily, and sold out of the Metro Centre, ploughing his money into Newcastle United, which was in the doldrums at the time. Within two years, the fortunes of the club were reborn - and the team's success came to represent the renaissance of a once great industrial city. Through his Cameron Hall company, Hall is now worth in excess of pounds 100m. A superb deal-maker, he was responsible for persuading Samsung, the Far East computer manufacturer, to build a new, pounds 450m plant in the North East - using land on his Wynyard Hall estate.



In a region that prides itself on shoe-making, Max Griggs has risen to become not only the major figure in the area, but in the industry as well. He is head of the family that makes Doc Marten shoes and boots, which have gone from industrial workwear to essential fashion items around the world. Max's revitalisation of the family company, R Griggs Group - it is now worth pounds 220m - has rubbed off on Northamptonshire, creating jobs galore and maintaining its reputation as a centre for shoe-making. Griggs has become the unofficial spokesman for the area and staunch defender of its traditions. Admired for his unextravagant lifestyle - he wears Marks & Spencer suits and lives in a modest, four-bedroomed house - one grand gesture showed his determination to put the area on the map, and won him local support; he put pounds 10m into Rushden and Diamonds, a Beazer Homes League soccer team.



The nearest regional baron on our list to London, John Madejski is a dominant figure west of Heathrow, along the M4 corridor. He is a major employer, philanthropist and owner of the local football club. A familiar sight on the streets of his native Reading in his Rolls-Royce, registration 1JM, he made his money from the Auto Trader series of magazines. Worth around pounds 200m, he has ploughed some of that money into Reading Football Club, which he chairs. A new pounds 37m stadium will offer more than just a football pitch and seating: he plans a state-of-the-art conference centre next-door, just half an hour from Heathrow, to be used by all the hi-tech growth businesses along the M4. A keen supporter of the Conservatives, Madejski has ambitions to represent the area at Westminster.



Only one thing is more important in Paul Sykes' life at the moment than Yorkshire, and that is the single currency. Even his championing of the opposition to the euro, however, reflects a passionate feeling that Westminster is out of touch, that if it was left to the people of the North - especially Yorkshire - there would be no question of our adopting the euro. Nobody has worked harder to promote their home turf, to sell it to the world and to bring jobs and prosperity than Sykes. He positively oozes good feelings about Yorkshire. He wants the region to provide a lead in Internet technology, so he created his own hi-tech firm. Planet Online is now the largest commercial Internet provider in Britain, and employs 350 people. Overall, he claims to have created 30,000 local jobs, most of them in the once run-down Don Valley, which he redeveloped, beginning with the Meadowhall shopping centre. Sykes says he built the centre to provide work for local people - certainly he didn't need the money, having already made millions from scrap metal and exporting bus kits to Asia. Immersed in local politics, Sykes has broken bread with all the national Tory figures, bringing them to his county, acting as a self-appointed, pounds 250m super-salesman. Now distant from the party because he feels it is not anti-EU enough, he will never cease to fight for his region.