Profile: John Whittaker
SECOND-GUESSING John Whittaker is about as clear-cut as reading tea leaves, and would likely yield the same dubious results. http://www.scotsman.com/business/profile_john_whittaker_1_796848
The Lancashire-born billionaire's Peel Holdings empire is currently stalking Forth Ports, the Edinburgh-based dockyard operator. In keeping with Whittaker's notoriously private lifestyle, the Northstream consortium which includes Peel is playing its cards close to its chest, leaving investors to guess whether and when an improved offer for Forth might be lodged.
Whittaker, who celebrated his 68th birthday earlier this month, is known as a man who always gets what he wants. He is credited with patience, tenacity and shrewdness, and has displayed these characteristics throughout his extensive career at the head of Peel.
Though now living in the tax-friendly Isle of Man, Whittaker was born in the mill and textile town of Bury on the outskirts of Manchester.
Educated at Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire, a mixed Catholic boarding school, he nearly went into the priesthood before deciding to remain within the family business headed at that time by his father, also John.
The Whittaker family acquired Peel Mills, a local textile firm, in 1973, but within four years the company had shifted its focus to the property market. During the decline of the textiles industry, Peel purchased troubled mills for the land on which they sat.
Whittaker's celebrated ability to spot "the next big thing" came to the fore in the 1980s, when Peel became one of the first to move into retail warehouse development. During that decade, the company overhauled an estimated four million square feet of warehouse space.
Peel Holdings joined the London Stock Exchange in 1983, though the Whittaker family retained a majority shareholding in the business. Building from its retail property base in the north-east of England, Whittaker went on to expand Peel's domain into other infrastructure assets such as airports, quarries and industrial estates.
The father of four's tenacity and zeal played a key role in Peel's acquisition of the Manchester Ship Canal Company in 1987. Observers note that he spent three years fighting an acrimonious takeover battle to eventually bring together the canal and its former fierce commercial rival, the Port of Liverpool, which Peel also owns.
This was followed by the epic ten-year struggle to build the massive Trafford Centre near Manchester, a retail behemoth of nearly 1.5 million square feet that attracts an estimated 30 million shoppers every year.
The scale of that battle is perhaps reflected by the fact that on its opening in 1998, the normally media-shy Whittaker chose to mark the occasion by abseiling into the Trafford Centre. In a further mark of respect, the classic Mercedes convertible owned by his late mother, May, was installed as a centrepiece of a display within the centre.
Whittaker took the company back into private ownership in 2004, reportedly claiming that Peel didn't need money from the City, and would prefer to re-invest earnings rather than fork out dividend payments. The deal was financed by the Whittaker family and Olayan, the eponymous investment group of the Saudi Arabian family.
Today, the Whittaker family owns about 68 per cent of the group, which includes four main divisions and more than 100 subsidiary firms. Olayan owns about 25 per cent of the group.
RREEF, the alternative investment business run by Deutsche Bank, purchased a 49.9 per cent stake in the group's Peel Ports division for a rumoured 775 million in 2006. RREEF and Arcus Infrastructure are the other two members of the consortium that is currently pursuing Forth Ports.
Control over the Edinburgh-based group makes strategic sense for Peel, which acquired Scotland's west coast port operations when it completed its purchase of Clydeport in 2003.
Whittaker negotiated that deal with Tom Allison, who was then chief executive of Clydeport, to create what is today the UK's second-largest ports operation. There have been suggestions that Peel would like to form a super-sized Scottish ports business through the addition of Forth, though there's no doubt that Whittaker is equally intent on picking up his rival's property assets at a keen price.
Whittaker is renowned for such shrewd moves, as well as his tenacity. As his longest-serving employees are keen to point out, Peel's motto of "determination, perseverance and patience" is also Whittaker's personal mantra.
Though widely regarded as an arch deal-maker who's not afraid to play hard ball, the youthful-looking grandfather does have a softer side that occasionally comes to public display.
In 2008, Whittaker donated 1m to Manchester's Children's Hospital Appeal. He explained then that his gift was prompted by the birth of his stillborn granddaughter in 2003.
"It was too late for my daughter's baby to be given a lifeline," Whittaker was quoted as saying.
"But if other babies and children can have that opportunity, then it's a wonderful cause for Peel to support. Children cannot help themselves, so we owe it to our future generation to provide the best care we possibly can."
BORN on 14 March 1942 in Bury, on the outskirts of Manchester, John Whittaker came into a family business originally focused on the town's traditional mill and textile industries.
Though he considered becoming a priest, Whittaker finally joined Peel Holdings and would lead it through a decades-long expansion that has built him a personal fortune estimated at 1.3 billion.
He is still regarded as one of the UK's leading business players and now lives on the Isle of Man, where the helicopter pad in his garden is said to be the only exception to an otherwise unostentatious lifestyle.
He is described as having a strong Catholic faith that runs through both his business and personal life.
Though separated from his wife, he remains legally married. The couple have four children – Mark, James, Kate and John – as well as a number of grandchildren.
Published on Sunday 28 March 2010 21:15 Courtesy of The Scotsman
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