Predator turned prodigal son : John Bentley : Profile

David Bowen meets one of the most successful and glamorous British corporate raiders of the 1970s, now back in business after 20 years of obscurity

David Bowen
Sunday 26 February 1995 01:02

JOHN BENTLEY is sitting in a small office in a rented suite on London's Regent Street. He is ruddy-cheeked, 55 and diffident, almost nervous. Soon he will go home to his fiance and baby daughter in their terraced house in Battersea.

This is the same John Bentley who in the early 1970s was both the most feared corporate predator in Britain and the most eligible bachelor. He was the biggest toymaker in the country, one of the biggest chemists, king of the billboard industry, and he owned Shepperton Studios. He drove a Jensen and owned one of the biggest estates in the country - 100 square miles next to Balmoral.

Then he vanished. It is hard to find a single post-1980 press cutting on him. Many people wondered what had happened to him. Was he dead? A drug addict? A monk?

Last week, a press release arrived. "John Bentley launches new venture: Viewcall Europe plc", it was headed. His public relations agency at least believed his name was still a selling point.

This is his first interview for quite a while. He is going to explain what he has been up to in the two decades. Half that time is easily explained. "In every decade, I've had five years off. If I'm working, I throw everything I've got at it. Then I go off and obsessively play for a while."

For now, he is in work mode. Viewcall is Bentley's offering to the multimedia world. With David Boyce, former managing director of Northern Telecom, he is trying to raise £700,000 by public offering through the broker Astaire and Co. Their system is a cross between television and Ceefax - it will send still pictures down a telephone line into a television set. Initially, these images will be advertisements; later they could include community information. The service will be valuable because it will be local, Bentley says, though he admits to an admirable long-term ambition: the abolition of politicians. "We could have endless referendums by registering electronically," he says. "We can do away with nanny governments."

Those who are inclined to dismiss this as yet another Information Supergimmick would be well advised to look at the man behind it. Bentley did not become a millionaire by the age of 28 by mistake. "I do find it easy to make money," he says.

Why, then, has been living in such obscurity for the last 20 years? How did he manage to miss the 1980s boom? Why has a massive estate become a small house in Battersea? And is he finally on his way back?

First, for those who missed him the first time round, the story of his rise and fall. John Bentley was born in Brighton in 1940. He went to Harrow but left at 15 when his father died. As a stockbroker's red button, he was sacked from several jobs because, he says, he did not like routine. But he always had the knack: he quadrupled his £5 weekly pay packet by "dealing in sixteenths on government bonds off the tape".

He did hold down one job for two years, as a stock analyst. Here he discovered a potential source of real wealth - the gap between market and asset value. In 1965, he convinced Jim Slater, then carving out a reputation as an investment guru, to back him in an audacious plan. He had spotted that Scottish Life Association, capitalised at £2.5m, had assets worth £100m. Slater lent him money, and between them they bought 8 per cent of the company. By the time the board realised what was happening, the share price had doubled.

He brought Slater deals and in return Slater lent him the money to invest. By 1968, he was a millionaire. The following year, again with Slater's backing, he bought a quoted wholesale chemist called Barclay & Sons. Barclay Securities, as he renamed it, bought 26 companies in the next five years. Targets included Chad Valley, the toy maker, Mills & Allen, the poster giant, Dorland Advertising, Lines Brothers, the Triang group and British Lion, the film company that owned Shepperton.

He was tagged Britain's number one asset stripper but says that was never fair. He did recoup large chunks of the purchase price by selling assets, but this was followed by an assault on excess costs. To us his technique sounds unremarkable - standard 1980s Hanson/BTR/ Williams stuff. Indeed, compared with them he was a pussycat - he made redundancies only once, at Lines Brothers.

At the time, though, he was a revolutionary - and it made him at first popular, then very unpopular. For a while, after his election in 1970, Edward Heath was a proto-Thatcherite and praised managers who said they wanted to rid the country of inefficiency. Bentley responded by pouring £150,000 into Tory coffers, and in 1972 was put on a list of Tory candidates.

He became a man of glamour. In 1971, a female Sun reporter declared that he "looked as if he has walked straight out of a romantic novel". Jackie Collins included him in her report on "the world's sexy men".

But by March 1973 he was out of a job, and Tories would cross the road to avoid him. One reason, he says, was that he started to mess with the media classes. In 1971, he bought Dorland Advertising, triggering a walkout of articulate people. The next year he took over British Lion and said he wanted to sell of part of its Shepperton site for redevelopment. The film world cried out, and its voice was heard.

The 1,200 sackings at Lines Brothers were highlighted. He protested that otherwise all 3,000 workers would lose their jobs - but the mood had swung against him.

Bentley says he fell foul of Heath's U-turn: he backed away from confrontation with the unions, brought back industrial subsidies, and made his "unacceptable face of capitalism" speech. Bentley felt the barbs and did not like it. "I'm terrified of buying any business which would involve one redundancy," he said in 1972.

Early in 1973, Barclay received a hostile bid from the City investment company JH Vavasseur. Bentley decided to sell. "There appears to be little scope for the future activities on the lines of those adoped by Barclay in the past," he commented. He was given £2m for his stake and, at the age of 32, retired.

Bentley says he was forced out by the establishment. "I copped it really. They were looking for a scapegoat, preferably one with jeans and long hair." He says his step too far - unpublicised at the time - was that he suggested taking a 40 per cent stake in Express Newspapers to block a Murdoch bid. "The idea that I would control cinema and poster advertising and a newspaper started to dawn on people."

Within months, he had slipped easily from the financial pages to the gossip columns. His first marriage had collapsed when he became rich. Now he was in the serious glamour league. His girlfriends included Dewi Sukarno, widow of the Indonesian dictator, Mynah Bird, a Nigerian model, and the actress Viviane Ventura, who successfully brought a paternity suit aganst him.

Ironically, the establishment had done him a financial favour. When the London stock market collapsed in 1974, he was barely touched. His main asset now was the vast Glenlivet sporting estate in Scotland.

But by 1977, he says, he was getting "a bit annoyed" at being out in the commercial cold and turned his mind to money making. He had always been interested in gizmos, and decided to market the first cheap video cassette machine. He poured everything into it - and lost it all.

Despite having failed financially for the first time in his life, he was still buzzing with ideas. "I realised I shouldn't have been in video hardware but software," he says. "I raised $2m, went to the States, and bought British rights to several hundred of the best video titles." His Intervision company distributed these through newsagents, thus inventing the UK video rental industry. Within 18 months he was a millionaire again - before once again receiving an unsolicited approach from a merchant bank.

He sold up and formed an investment company with Slater, but he says: "He'd been a mentor - it didn't work out trying to work on equal terms.". At the end of 1984, he left the stock market and took a six-year holiday - much of it on a 120-foot yacht with Maria Niarchos of the shipping family. He deliberately missed the mid-1980s boom. "It was completely fake. I was waiting for the bubble to burst right through '85, '86 and half of '87." But he admits: "I did feel a bit left out."

By 1990, the Inland Revenue was on his tail, and it was time to make money again. It was a little more difficult this time. He invested in a company that made the ill-fated "squarials" for BSB. Undeterred, he launched a product called Faxcast - a system that could send faxes by satellite. The company was capitalised at £2.4m in 1990 and sold in 1994 for £90m. Bentley sold his share in 1992 and started assembling the technology to launch his latest wheeze - Viewcall.

He has, he hopes, finally settled down. After two further marriages, he is now living with a "bohemian Chelsea girl", and proudly presents a photograph of their 10-month-old daughter, Delilah. "I only go to local pubs now," he says. "I gave up my membership of Harry's Bar 10 years ago." He is still nostalgic about the old days. "It was easy making money then , but it was also amusing. The hardest thing now is making life amusing - everyone's so bloody serious."

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