Life & Culture

Joe Lewis still has that midas touch


Every so often the business pages publish a picture of a kindly, balding man in a golf buggy who is variously described as a reclusive exile, a Bahamas based billionaire or a currency trader. This spring, one imagines, Joe Lewis - who began his career working in London's hotel industry - has a smile on his face.

Finally, after years of struggle, his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, in which he is the biggest shareholder through his Tavistock group, have rejoined the pride of London under the stewardship of manager Harry Rednapp and will be one of a trio of teams from the capital in next season's Champion's League.

It is a change of fortune which has been a long time coming.

As Lewis has built up his empire - he is reported to sit at the centre of a web of 175 companies in five different countries - he has left very few tracks in the sand. Those advising him or doing business with him have been required to travel to one of his homes in exile in the Bahamas or more lately in Argentina; and transactions tend to be done face-to-face.

His Midas touch looked to have deserted him during the credit crunch in 2008 when he was among the early casualties. As shares in the New York broker-dealer Bear Stearns fell in the early part of 2008 Lewis built up an ever bigger stake in the company, eventually owning more than 10 per cent. When the firm eventually collapsed into the hands of blue-blooded bankers JP Morgan it was estimated that Lewis and his business partners had lost more than $1bn.

The billionaire threatened legal action and JP Morgan eventually paid a higher price. But the damage was done.

The preference for Lewis is to conduct his business affairs outside the glare of the media. Early this year there was a change of tack.

One of Lewis's investments at the pubs and foods group Mitchells & Butlers (M&B) went badly wrong. Paradoxically, given Lewis's reputation as one of the world's shrewdest currency traders, M&B was involved in a rogue interest rate hedging operation which cost the enterprise - which owns more than 2,000 outlets - £391 million in 2008 and a further £100 million last year.

The group, spun out of the brewing concern Bass in 2003, was weighed down by more than £2 billion of debt and parted company with its finance director Karim Naffah and its chief executive Tim Clarke. In the midst of the turmoil veteran chairman Roger Carr went off to join Cadbury and at the end of last year former Safeway finance director Simon Laffin was pitched into the chairman's role.

All of this proved too much for the group's biggest investor Lewis with a 23 per cent stake held through investment concern Piedmont. Unusually, early this year the secretive Lewis broke cover and decided it was time to unseat the existing board, install a different chairman and protect his investment.

One evening early this year, as I was about to leave the office, I was told that Lewis was on the phone and wanted to talk.

Mysterious foreign currency traders - even those with interests in British public companies - do not normally call City editors. After all, if they did they would no longer be reclusive.

Lewis came on the line like an old friend and sported a mildly cockney-cum-north London accent. His goal, he told me, was not to wrestle direct control of Mitchells & Butlers but to make sure that the future of the group was in safer hands. To this end he had taken on merchant bankers Lazard as advisers and asked them to come up with an alternate slate of directors headed by private equity and retailing executive John Lovering.

His aim, Lewis insisted, was to end the bickering at Mitchells & Butlers, establish a proper value for the property assets on which it was sitting and put in place a strategic review. It was not, as M&B and some institutional shareholders maintained, a backdoor attempt to seize control of the company - there was no way he could run the enterprise from his eyrie in Argentina. All his actions were based on the advice of Lazard.

With that Lewis wished me well and informed me that the satellite was bleeping and he was off to watch his beloved Spurs.

Lewis's intervention appeared to do the trick. The group was able to call time on its extraordinary boardroom brawl last month when it reported its half year results. A new strategy of positioning the firm as a catering group - not just a collection of bars - looked to pay off with sales surging in a difficult market place and the company reporting far higher profits of £73m than analysts had expected. No doubt Lewis managed a smile as the share price climbed by 5 per cent.

In a postscript to the boardroom row it was revealed that the four directors that Lewis ousted were each to be paid £30,000 'personal costs and expenses' for their troubles. By the standards of pay-offs it was small beer but a recognition perhaps that they were not such bad stewards of the company after all.

Having been stung in the public arena at Bear Stearns there was a clear determination by Lewis not to let it happen again. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mitchells & Butlers has found salvation through catering, the industry where Lewis cut his teeth. With M&B now back on track Lewis can concentrate on his golf courses and interests in medical research. No need to trouble the financial reporters for the time being.

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