Magazine article Management Today

MT BUSINESS LIFEFORMS: The Retiring Chairman - Sir David Saunders, Chairman of Ammco Plc

Magazine article Management Today

MT BUSINESS LIFEFORMS: The Retiring Chairman - Sir David Saunders, Chairman of Ammco Plc

Article excerpt

Now portly and florid, with a bluff Yorkshire manner, Sir David Saunders has been the chairman of retail giant Ammco for as long as anyone can remember. Until recently, he was one of the FTSE's few remaining executive chairmen. Then pressure from consultants, bad press and another of those 'bloody governance reports' forced the business to separate the roles, and he took a back seat to the grey but (he has to admit) efficient former FD.

He's noticed changes: the great and the good still return his calls, but not with the urgency they once did. And people no longer seem to fear him. Five years ago, he was a 'ruthless hatchet man' and the 'dark side of the Square Mile'. Now his prostate is playing up and he's described as a 'wise elder statesman'. Even the Guardian writes warmly about him - flattering, but on balance he preferred the fear and loathing.

Sir David is a company lifer. A cricket-mad grammar school boy from Tadcaster, he had a spell in the army before joining Amalgamated Meats, as Ammco was then known. His big break came when he was sent to sort out the flagging Argentine operation. He returned to London with a reputation for dealing ruthlessly with johnny gaucho and - emulating his hero 'Fiery' Fred Trueman - a Uruguayan society beauty on his arm. His marriage to Mercedes de Varela caused a newspaper wag to quip that she was 'the only Mercedes that had given a ride to every polo player in Latin America'.

He lived in Kensington - a stone's throw from the Stones - in the late '60s and early '70s, but the spirit of the age passed him by. As others (including, it was whispered, Mercedes) pursued free love, he pursued free markets; and while those around him turned on, tuned in and dropped out, he built empires, bashed unions and forged alliances. One of these, the partnership with his formidable PA, Penelope, led to suggestions that she was Lady Falkender to his Harold Wilson.

When the '80s arrived, Saunders gained the board and, in 1986, became executive chairman in a messy coup. A swashbuckling corporate raider, he was hailed by Maggie as 'a man who is making Britain great again'.

The Independent called him 'the living embodiment of the Thatcherite ideal - and slightly to the right of Genghis Khan'. There was carping that despite a 10-year flurry of M&A activity, the shareholder value he created had been at best negligible. John Major knighted him anyway.

Recent years have been less glorious. …

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