Profile: Ernest Saunders; Out of jail and back in business

The Guinness fraudster is an obsessive with a fresh goal, says Jeremy Warner

Share
Related Topics
There we all were in the Court of Appeal press gallery listening to what promised to be a long- haul medical debate on whether Ernest Saunders was suffering from pre-senile dementia. Beneath us sat banks of bewigged lawyers. And there was Ernest, ashen faced, out on a day trip from Ford Open Prison where he was serving five years for fraud. An eminent neurologist was attempting to show, with the help of flip charts, diagrams and scans, that Ernest's brain was abnormally small for a man of his age. It was showing shrinkage of the type normally associated with disease. "Well there you are," whispered the man from the Sun. "Not even Ernest is capable of conning a brain scanner." A few weeks later, Ernest was released, having served only 10 months of his sentence.

Five years on and Ernest appears to have made a recovery so miraculous that he is now heading a consortium bid for Queen's Park Rangers, the football team he first sponsored while chief executive of Guinness. To some extent he is also succeeding in rewriting history. His offences, the organisation of a secret share support operation of unparalleled scale and the payment of pounds 25m to his co-conspirators, are now seen by some as little more than a series of largely technical breaches of City rules. Many think him unfairly treated.

The first thing that needs to be known about Ernest Saunders is that he is a liar, if only partially accomplished. This can be written without fear of the libel courts because the evidence of it during his six-month trial was so overwhelming as to be virtually irrefutable. Only Ernest himself seemed incapable of accepting it. His accountants said it, his corporate legal advisers said it, his boardroom colleagues said it, even his co- defendants said it.

For his version of events to be true, all these people must have conspired to do down Ernest, who claimed to have known nothing of the skulduggery that took place during his pounds 2.7bn bid for Distillers. Furthermore, it stretches credulity to believe that a chief executive of Ernest's ability and grip on affairs could not have known about the mischief going on beneath his nose. Even the most blinkered, dozy, naive and ineffective of chief executives could not have helped but notice it. Mr Saunders was none of these things.

The second thing to know about Ernest is that he is a man of obsessions, great drive, energy, ambition and, yes, talent too. Who else at the age of 60, his criminal record still stamped on his passport, his name a byword for controversy and fraud, the bitterness of failure and disgrace still biting at his soul, would embark on such a wonderful enterprise as bidding for his old football club?

During his trial I once asked Ernest what he intended to do once it was all over. "Get out of this bloody country, that's for sure", was his answer. And perhaps, had he been acquitted, that is what he would have done. As it is he has stayed, the obsession of clearing his name now the latest of a long line of all-consuming passions. He was the same while at Guinness, where he revived what had become a moribund family-run company; the same during the great battle for Distillers, and the same as the storm clouds gathered, when his fight for survival would have looked truly heroic had not his position been so questionable.

Ernest's bid for QPR should be seen in this context; it is part of Ernest's campaign to rehabilitate himself. His efforts have not been without success. From being a pariah figure, Ernest once more lunches with the great and the good. Even Guinness directors, present and former, once banned from all contact with the man, greet him openly at functions. He has a range of consultancies, most notably with the Car Phone Warehouse, one of Britain's fastest growing companies. His advice is sought and valued. He commands quite a fee on the lecture circuit. Above all, Ernest wants to belong again and to be able to say, finally, that it was he who was right all along and everyone else who was wrong.

And here is the third thing you need to know about Ernest. He is essentially an outsider, a fact that explains both his determination to succeed and his refusal to accept compromise. The son of well to do Austrian Jewish emigres, he was bullied at school because of his German accent. Later he changed his name to one picked out of the telephone book. Ernest has always denied he tried to disguise his origins but certainly he wanted acceptance, he wanted to be one of us. His career path, too, was an odd one for a man who ended up as a captain of British industry. An early background in advertising gave way to a prolonged stint with the Swiss foods giant Nestle, a comfortable and affluent Continental way of life from which few ever return. Headhunted by the Guinness family, he was never accepted as one of them. They treated him like a gamekeeper, sitting him beneath the salt at family functions. To his mind, they ultimately betrayed him.

As did the business and City establishment once the great scandal of the Distillers take-overunfolded. Certainly Ernest made a convenient scapegoat for those who had used him. The small cluster of Jewish financiers eventually convicted over Guinness were only the tiny tip of the iceberg of culpability. What Mr Saunders and others caught up in the Guinness affair did was never common practice in the City, but before Guinness it was reasonable to believe you would get away with it. Many did.

Ernest should have run this line of argument as his defence. But he didn't and that is what ultimately sunk him and his other defendants, all of whom accused him of lying. It looked too much like thieves falling out. As one former Guinness director put it: "If Ernest had had the courage and humility to admit he had been wrong, to accept that he had got swept up in it all, misled by his City advisers, pushed the barriers too far, then he might have left Guinness with some modicum of pride and respect. After all, he had made the company a huge success. But he didn't. He refused to admit any shame."

And that's the fourth thing you need to know about Ernest. His great skill was always in marketing. Mr Saunders came to treat the truth like a commodity. Anything can be sold provided you believe in it enough. Ernest still thinks that eventually his version of events will triumph. And who knows? Less believable marketing campaigns than this one have come to succeed.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Production Administrator

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sunroom / Conservatory / Extension Designers

£16000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Planning Assistant

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of the count...

Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger Administrator

£5120 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of the countr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

'You’re just jealous', and other common misconceptions about the Protein World advert

Hannah Atkinson
Dave Brown's cartoon for the 28 April edition of The Independent  

After five years of completely flaccid leadership, I'm glad something 'pumps up' David Cameron

Joe Sandler Clarke
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence