The Independent: Business Interview: Sir Gerry Robinson

When the ‘upstart caterer’ was defeated in his bid for Rentokil, he didn’t lick his wounds but set about healing the NHS. ‘The police might be next’ for the TV troubleshooter  

By John Reynolds

Published: 21 April 2007


A Georgian country pile, tucked away outside the sleepy village of Raphoe in County Donegal, is Sir Gerry Robinson’s country retreat – and retreat is just what you might expect he’d be doing.   

After a disastrous bid to wrest control of pest-control group Rentokil in 2005, he could hardly be blamed if he opted to keep a lower profile.

But Sir Gerry, 58, who recently appeared on British TV screens in Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS?, is in demand. Pat Rabbitte, the leader of the Irish Labour Party, met him in Dublin earlier this month and has designs on parachuting him into the Irish health service, whose nurses have been on strike for several weeks.

Sir Gerry’s driveway sweeps past lush, freshly mown lawns overlooking a lake and leads to a courtyard behind the main house, where two boisterous golden retrievers bark to summon his wife Heather to the door.

Her husband is on the phone, so I wait in a plush living room dominated by some modern-looking paintings and a traditional fireplace

Sir Gerry greets me warmly with a handshake. During our conversation he lounges on his sofa, with the warm spring sun beaming in on him through huge windows. Thankfully he’s no Sir Alan Sugar-type – more perhaps the polar opposite of the Amstrad boss, who takes pleasure in barking “You’re fired” at some hapless wannabe tycoon in the BBC’s The Apprentice each week.

Is he a fan of Sir Alan’s show? “Well, my daughter is going to do work experience on it, so yes, I do watch it,” he reveals. “It’s certainly better than Celebrity Love Island. Business seems to be fashionable at the moment, and it makes great TV. Alan Sugar is brilliant in it. He’s an awkward bastard at the same time, but interesting. You can learn business, but that nous to seize opportunities is a rare talent.”

Sir Gerry is a former director of Granada, the company behind Coronation Street and now part of the merged ITV, so he should know a few things about the television industry. “TV has changed so dramatically,” he says. “We used to win huge audiences and had a virtual monopoly on advertising revenue.

“Now it’s fragmented in such a complex way. Unless you’re Murdoch or someone with a broad programme portfolio, it’s difficult to thrive. I think that Michael Grade will improve on things, but ultimately ITV will be taken over.”

Sir Gerry is equally enthused when talking about business, but did he always want to be an entrepreneur? “My mother wanted me to enter the priesthood, but I was more interested in women when I left school.

“My Mum took me to the youth employment office in Hackney in east London [his parents had emigrated to the UK from Donegal when he was younger] and I got a job as a clerk with Matchbox Toys [in 1965].

“It was an eye-opener in an exciting, raw business that was going like a train, selling toys all around the world. You learn a lot more in something that isn’t over planned,” he recalls.

“I got my CMA accounting qualifications and then became a chief accountant at a Lesney [Matchbox’s parent company] factory in east London.

“It was a baptism of fire: 4,500 women who worked there gave me stick every day. I almost get embarrassed looking back at it, but I really enjoyed the raw experience of learning how a business works. I only moved on after eight or nine years because I needed a car.”

It was a case of from toy cars to real cars when Sir Gerry left Matchbox in 1974 to work for Lex Services Group, which had the UK Volvo franchise. Here, first as a management accountant and then as a finance director, he learnt about using finance “to make things happen by taking a professional approach to running a business”.

In 1980, he side- stepped to a similar role with Coca-Cola’s UK business, which at the time was a franchise belonging to the food and drinks giant Grand Metropolitan. Moving across to become sales and marketing director, he basked in a good summer that brought record profits to what had been a loss-making business. The transformation was so successful that Coca-Cola eventually bought it back.

He was made managing director of Grand Met’s troubled international services division in 1983, and being the boss came as a shock. “I realised I was slightly on my own. I’d been used to being in a team with other directors, so it was initially very strange,” he recalls.

But he grew into the role – so well that, after becoming chief executive of Grand Met’s loss-making contract services and catering division, he performed another turnaround operation. Then, in 1987, he led a £163m management buyout of the business, which was later renamed Compass.

“It was stupid to turn it around and then buy it,” he admits. “But we made Compass work well. Greed is a decent motivator in terms of making things happen. It helps your focus and concentration.”

Reviving failing companies became Sir Gerry’s speciality as, in 1991, he moved to Granada as chief executive. “I was bored when everything was working so well, so I took on the hugely appealing challenge of Granada TV – a basket case at the time.”

But in entering such a high-profile industry, he also had to go through a culture shock. “My idea of publicity was a two-page article in The Caterer, but I soon realised how bad it can be after firing David Plowright [Granada’s highly respected chairman] in 1992.” Comedian John Cleese labelled him “an upstart caterer”, harking back to his days at Compass. “I thought, ‘What an idiot. What have you done?’ ” Sir Gerry recalls humbly.

He wasn’t, however, put off his stride, leading successful bids for the leisure and hotels group Trusthouse Forte and London Weekend Television, along with other regional stations. The acquisition trail hasn’t always run so smooth since Sir Gerry left Granada six years ago. In 2005, he was back in the headlines – though this time for failing to persuade Rentokil shareholders that a hostile takeover by his Raphoe Management group – with a cool £58m share package for him as executive chairman – was in their best interests. “It was more a hostile job application than a hostile takeover,” he laughs.

Today he’s chairman of the £600m motorway services group Moto, has his BBC work and still looks at investment opportunities. “I only get involved where I can make decisions and have an equity interest. They’re mainly start-ups in services and facilities management, and if one in 20 gets off the ground, you’re doing well. I’m also looking at something with Macquarie’s bank in London, which I can’t talk about at the moment.”

In 1998 he chaired the Arts Council for six years, which some saw as a thank-you for donations to the Labour Party. Is he still a Labour supporter? “I’ve never regretted backing him [Tony Blair] as a leader. History should be kind to him for his dogged approach on Northern Ireland, but Iraq has been his big mistake. He’s thoroughly decent and has brought the UK back to thinking about society, as opposed to the hard-nosed approach of Margaret Thatcher.”

And Gordon Brown? “He’s been an exemplary Chancellor, but there’s a difference between a supporting role and leading the pack.” Does David Cameron stand a better chance at the next election? “Initially he seemed like a natural person, but I think the PR people have got to him. It looks like the Tories might have another go. I’m not enamoured of politicians as people who get things done. I’d let Blair run something, but I’ve never met Cameron, so I’m not sure.”

After Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS?, the UK’s police force could face a similar makeover. “The police might be next,” Sir Gerry reveals.

“Things only work well when they’re managed well. Billions are wasted on IT, but there aren’t enough night beds, which might cost £25,000 to put right. But the sense that this can’t be cured is nonsense. A lot of it is simply common sense”

Making organisations work seems to fire his passion. “There’s no financial motive here but there’s a big prize in running the NHS well. You’re dealing with brilliant, clever people who have a God-like quality, but some prefer to talk about doing, rather than actually do things. The secret is having the right atmos- phere to motivate people, combined with listening to their concerns and solving their problems, so that they’re happy.

“In the commercial world, you get found out if you do a bad job. Big organisations need brilliant managers to decide on a strategy and then get things done. Find talented people and let them run things. We pay footballers millions for their talent, but management is a talent too.”

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