IT TAKES a lot to silence a Hilton full of millionaires, but Gordon Baxter succeeded. At 86, Scotland’s oldest entrepreneur and founder of the soup empire shocked the Entrepreneurial Exchange’s 10th anniversary dinner in Glasgow with the revelation that he had turned down no fewer than 189 takeover approaches. Imagine that. In these days of flotations and deal-making, in a country peopled with professional deal-makers, Baxter has clearly made a career of telling all-comers to get lost. For those of us who have always supported the principle of bringing companies to market, such stubborn independence deserves recognition.
Though he may have been swimming against the tide, Baxter is not alone in wishing to spend no time at all with City of London analysts. Next day, the Malcolm Group announced that the family was considering following Macdonald Hotels’ lead and taking the company private. And Glenmorangie, soon to be delisted for other reasons, produced strong results before falling into the maw of the Parisians.
Though the markets still have attractions for Scots companies — as the oil and gas firm BowLeven and football company Goals line up for the AIM — there’s no doubt that many in Baxter’s audience have, like him, preferred to go it alone. Baxter, together with Keith Miller, chief executive of Britain’s largest private builder, was joining the Exchange’s “Hall of Fame” which includes such risk takers and wealth creators as Tom Hunter, Brian Souter, Richard Branson, Tom Farmer and Jackie Stewart.
Few, however, are quite as understated as the charming Baxter. He described starting up with his brother in 1946 — “we packed a little beetroot and we made a little jam” — and then took on a market crowded with 40 soup companies. “Now there are two — we’ve seen the other 38 off. There’s Heinz, the big one; and Baxters, the good one.” Scotland’s richest audience recognised one of their own and gave him a standing ovation.
It could only happen in Scotland. A London colleague was astonished to find that the Exchange had put together a filmed news compilation — hosted by Sir Trevor McDonald, naturally — with scripted contributions from the chancellor, the prime minister and the heir to the throne. Nowhere in England, not even in London, he opined, could business deliver such connections. Though he did note that, while Gordon Brown seemed to be one of us, Tony Blair was decidedly seen as one of them.
Even in such company, the night belonged to Baxter. May he continue to repel boarders.