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

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

Jeremy Warner
Friday 17 May 1996 23:02 BST

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.

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