Of course, what happened once Hanson bought a company and then helicoptered in an elite squad of managers, armed with a handful of key financial performance targets – and some lucrative executive incentive programmes – was even more extraordinary than the battles and skirmishes that played out in the stockmarket. Time and again, Hanson sold off non-core activities in a newly acquired business (often selling them to their managers, who then gleefully seized the opportunity to transform their companies and their own fortunes), slashed overheads and wound up acquiring the core business for a net outlay of approximately nil.
Ironically, a key watchword for managers in this conglomerate was ‘focus’. Sprawling, unguided empires were ripe for exploitation. There was no reason why, for example, Imperial Group should be in the tobacco business as well as frozen foods – particularly if it was running neither business very well. In 1991, Hanson tried to ‘crown’ his achievements by bidding for ICI – a company once (but now no longer) described as the ‘bellwether’ of UK industry. He underestimated ICI’s tenacity and its access to the political levers. ICI uncovered uncomfortable things about Hanson’s use of offshore tax havens and its ownership of racehorses – and retained its independence.
There were to be no subsequent major set-piece battles. The agreed acquisition – agreed! – of the relatively efficient Eastern Electricity was as good as it got. The irony was, there simply weren’t the big flabby targets that there once had been because they had, by that time, already Hansonised themselves. All that was left for Hanson to do was to break up his own business in 1996 with a four-way demerger.
But never forget: while Margaret Thatcher’s reforms gave managers back the right to manage, James Hanson gave them the obligation to manage. For that alone, there can hardly be a British business today that isn’t in his debt.