It was a bizarre and highly speculative story. The chairman of the Ritz Hotel, Aidan Barclay, was said to be planning to axe the age-old tradition of afternoon tea in the swanky Palm Court. Among other radical changes of interior design and function, reported a tabloid newspaper earlier this year, he also had plans to bulldoze the Italianate garden to make way for a new health spa.
None of it was true. The paper apologised; the seven varieties of tea and dainty sandwiches remained firmly on the menu and the garden stayed just as flamboyantly Italianate as it always has been. Aidan Barclay, explains a friend, is far too astute a businessman to meddle with the most historic and popular parts of such a venerable English institution. He is not a front-of-house man who makes swathing cuts to the scenery. Rather, you find him in the backroom: oiling the wheels, setting strict targets, poring over the books, increasing profit margins, polishing faded grandeur.
It is exactly this approach that he's expected to take at the helm of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers (and others), purchased this week for £665m by his father, Sir David, and his uncle, Sir Frederick. The newspapers slot into a portfolio of high-class hotels and casinos (including the Hotel Mirabeau in Monte Carlo) and lower-brow retail outlets (the Littlewoods stores and catalogue shopping), and overshadow the papers already owned by the Barclay twins in Scotland (The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, and Edinburgh Evening News, published by former editor of The Sunday Times, Andrew Neil). While the 69-year-old brothers stumped up the cash, Aidan Barclay, increasingly his father's frontman, is expected to become executive chairman and thus, to all intents and purposes, the Telegraph's new proprietor.
He is, say friends and former employees on newspapers in Scotland, a businessman first and a newspaperman second. His best friends are City men, including retail entrepreneur Philip Green and multi-millionaire property developer Poju Zabludowicz. Barclay cut his business teeth in the 1980s, and much of that decade's potent self-confidence remains with him today. One associate goes so far as to describe him as "faintly menacing". "There is a certain energy and sense of power in the way he sits during a meeting," says another. "You'd expect that from someone who's running the show, of course, but it's not true of all men in powerful positions. He is perfectly polite and has a very good sense of humour, but you're left in no doubt whatsoever who's in charge." Sartorially, he favours conventional 80s plutocrat chic - red braces, striped hand-tailored shirts, gold signet rings and fat, expensive cigars.
In several significant respects, however, Aidan Barclay is as inscrutable as his father is famously private. "There are some things about him that are not known because they're not meant to be," says a former employee on The Scotsman darkly - including, somewhat strangely, his exact age. Depending on who you ask and how much they want to flatter, Aidan Barclay is anything from 42 to 48 years old.
The son of Sir David and Zoe Newton, a former model who fronted a high-profile milk promotion campaign by the National Dairy Council in the 1950s, Aidan was hardly brought up in conditions of great privilege. The Barclay brothers themselves were born in 1934 and raised in Olympia, west London, then a grim and seedy part of the capital. They left school at 16 to join the accounts department of General Electric, and shortly after set up business as painters and decorators. Anticipating the inevitable gentrification of post-war west London, and with an astonishing eye for a deal, they began to develop property and amass their wealth during the mid-to-late 60s. By 1970 they owned the 170-room Londonderry House hotel in Park Lane, the 100-room Cadogan hotel on Sloane Street and two Hyde Park hotels in Bayswater. Sir David and his family, meanwhile, took up residence in Kensington.
"The Barclay brothers have 120 years of business experience between them," says Charles Garside, former editor of The European, acquired by the Barclays from the wreckage of Robert Maxwell's ownership in 1992 (and closed by them six years later). "Growing up in such proximity to that gave Aidan an extraordinary schooling."
Aidan reflects much of the vigour of the twins' generation, say those who know him. His Estuary English accent, a direct copy of his father's, disconcerts business associates more used to polished Oxbridge vowels. "People make assumptions about him because of the way he speaks," says a former employee. "But he's not at all a wide-boy. He's much more conservative and cautious than that implies. His accent makes him very hard to read and I think he likes that."
Gradually his father passed on responsibility, first for property owned by the Barclays' Ellerman Investments vehicle, which Aidan now fronts, and latterly for the Scottish newspaper holdings based in Edinburgh. He rarely interests himself in editorial content, preferring the financial and strategic elements of the business. He never sees any of his Scottish papers before they hit the streets. Edinburgh, indeed, is said to interest him more as a commercial city than as Scotland's cultural or political base. "He wasn't remotely interested in Scottish politics," says the former editor of The Scotsman, Tim Luckhurst. "I remember standing with him at the window and looking out over Prince's Street. He pointed at a shop and said: how much do you think that one's worth? He was very excited by Edinburgh's rocketing property market; by the way it was competing in terms of price rises with a city like New York... "
Yet Barclay has also inherited a compassionate, patrician streak from his father. When the baby son of a former senior employee, Frank Kane, became seriously ill with meningitis, the Barclay brothers were hugely supportive and have since generously helped provide for the boy's very costly treatment.
Similarly, Aidan Barclay phoned Luckhurst at home on the day he was sacked from The Scotsman by Andrew Neil. "He asked me if I was all right, and if I'd been looked after properly. He thanked me for everything I'd done, and also asked me if there was anything I wanted to tell him... It showed a duty of care which was quite impressive."
Barclay's relationship with Andrew Neil has been the source of much speculation over recent months. Neil says that Aidan rang him on the day the brothers clinched the titles. "He phoned me to celebrate. I congratulated him and he said, 'How did you know?' I told him I had my contacts too... He is a very astute businessman. The Barclays are not in this for short-term profit-making but for long-term asset building."
Others believe Aidan Barclay will want a significant increase in profitability to justify the whopping price the Barclays have paid for the Telegraph stable. He knows, though, that he is no expert in journalism. The brothers share a raft of views with the Telegraph's core readership, and enjoy a close friendship with Baroness Thatcher. Sir David also likes to quote lines from the Guardian newspaper at his various editors. They are known to favour the principle of freedom of information - a little surprisingly, perhaps, given their own public reticence (which they are forever denying) - and to support traditional "family values".
Famously, the twins live in a castle on their own island, Brecquou, close to Sark in the Channel. Aidan and his wife Ferzana, the daughter of one of the richest men in India, split their time between the island and west London. Ferzana is occasionally seen on London's sociable arts fund-raising circuit and is said to be friendly with Rosa Monckton, wife of Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson. It is surely no accident that Lawson is confidently tipped for advancement.
"Over the years the Barclays have been very good at taking over businesses that need some attention and then shining them up," says Charles Garside warmly. It is a process that has not brought conspicuous success to the newspapers they've bought in the past. No wonder Fleet Street is watching them so eagerly.
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