David Parkin feels like a Morris minor in a roomful of Rolls-Royces

HOW the hell did that happen?

You get some of the most successful business people from not just Yorkshire but the UK together in a room – and the conversation turns to Morris dancing.

Eh, I suppose that’s my fault.

A member of the campaign board at Martin House children’s hospice alongside former Town Centre Securities director Richard Lewis and Will Linley of estate agency group Linley and Simpson, we were at an exclusive lunch this week hosted by former Asda chief executive and serial non-executive director Allan Leighton.

Allan, whose daughter Becky works as a fundraiser for the Boston Spa charity, opened his contacts book and invited his friends to come along to the impressive Blackburn Wing at Bowcliffe Hall to hear more about Martin House.

And unlike many business events you go to, they all turned up.

Never mind running one of Britain’s biggest supermarket groups, Leeds-based Asda, alongside Archie Norman, until it was sold to US giant Wal-Mart for £6.2bn in 1999, Leighton’s CV reads like a roster of Britain’s best known business brands.

A former chairman of the Co-op and the Royal Mail, he is currently chairman of PizzaExpress, Brewdog, mattress company Simba and the family-owned retailer C&A which is no longer on the British high street but operates 1,600 stores in Europe and Brazil.

Also on his resume are roles at Dyson, BSkyB, Lastminute.com, jewellery business Pandora and Scottish Power as well as Canadian supermarket chain Loblaws.

I arrived as business editor of the Yorkshire Post just after Asda had been sold to Wal-Mart.

The British business community were on tenterhooks wondering what the dynamic retail whizz Allan Leighton, who was still in his late 40s, would do next.

But rather than focus on one project, he decided to take up a portfolio of non-executive roles and coined the phrase “going plural” which nobody had heard of at the time, but has since entered the business lexicon.

I remember people puzzling over whether the “going plural” approach would work.

The last 20-odd years show that manifold roles have delivered in abundance for Leighton and the companies he has been part of.

The people around the table at Bowcliffe Hall were a snapshot of his varied business career.

From his time at Asda, there was Andy Hornby, former CEO of HBOS, Boots and Coral who currently runs The Restaurant Group which owns the Wagamama and Barburrito chains; Julie DeNunzio, whose husband Tony is a former president and CEO of Asda Wal-Mart and current chairman of distribution business Evri; and the supermarket chain’s former distribution director David Gibbons who started when Asda had just a handful of stores.

Also there was new Yorkshire County Cricket Club chairman Colin Graves, the founder of the Costcutter chain who was a retail rival of Leighton who became a close friend, both sharing a love of cricket.

From the creative world there was Jonathan Sands and Julian Kynaston.

Jonathan built Elmwood from a small Yorkshire design consultancy into a business which dealt with some of the biggest global brands after making its name working with Asda.

Julian, the founder of marketing agency Propaganda, has worked with haircare brands ghd and Cloud Nine as well as Clipper Logistics and Endless and founded cosmetics brand Illamasqua.

Julian is involved in GenM, set up by Allan Leighton’s partner Heather Jackson, which is described as “the menopause partner for brands”.

It was great to see my old boss at the Yorkshire Post, Steve Auckland, who went on to run the Metro, Evening Standard and Independent newspaper and media businesses and most recently was CEO of Britain’s biggest equity release business, Age Partnership.

Dirk Mischendal founded events business Logistik and after selling it went on to create and build up ice cream brand Northern Bloc while Matt Turner founded Tastecard, now part of Ello Group which is the world’s largest diners’ club with three million members.

TV set-top box maker Pace Micro was one of Yorkshire’s stock market stars and Allan Leighton knows founder David Hood from his time as non-executive director there.

David now owns the charter air travel business Multiflight which is based at Leeds Bradford Airport.

Also at the lunch were Ranjit Singh Boparan who runs 2 Sisters Food Group.

He introduced himself as having a business that was involved in chicken.

“How many chickens did your business process last week, Ranjit,” asked Allan.

“Oh, about seven million,” he replied.

Trevor Strain was the COO of Morrisons but joined Boparan last year to run his private office which owns, amongst other things, the restaurant chains Carluccio’s, Giraffe, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Ed’s Easy Diner, Slim Chickens as well as poultry business Bernard Matthews.

As part of the event, Allan asked everyone to introduce themselves and tell the others something about themself that they didn’t know.

Trevor’s story involved football.

As a student he became a football referee and he sent off legendary hard man turned Hollywood actor Vinnie Jones in his last ever match.

Jones, who was player-coach of QPR at the time, objected to Strain’s decision, told him so in no uncertain terms and then put his foot through a door which resulted in a six-month ban from the FA and the end of Vinnie’s football career.

So given all the talent, knowledge and experience in the room how did the conversation get around to Morris dancing?

I told guests at the lunch that I first came into contact with Allan Leighton after he announced he was “going plural” and I wrote a profile of him in the Yorkshire Post.

As part of my research I read in Who’s Who that one of his hobbies was Morris dancing.

I phoned his long-serving PA Christine who confirmed that was indeed true and so I asked if there were any photographs available of Allan Morris dancing.

She went away to speak to him and telephoned me back to say: “Allan says nice try, but he’s not that daft!”

Having told that story to the gathered business magnates, I sat back relieved and relaxed that I was no longer in the spotlight.

“Come on David, you haven’t told us a fact about yourself yet!” cajoled Allan.

With a deep breath I told them I was the first British journalist to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger after he became Governor of California.

I’m not sure whether anyone was impressed.

To be honest I was shocked that I’d managed to find a roomful of people that hadn’t heard the story before.

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IT has been a busy few days on the charity front.

On Saturday I was donning my dinner jacket to compere a charity dinner organised by Caroline Pullich of insurance group NFU Mutual.

Caroline is a longstanding board member of the Maggie’s Yorkshire cancer centre and put on an event to raise both the profile and funds for this very worthy charity.

I was a member of the board for some years alongside chairman Martin Jenkins and it is still a charity that is close to my heart so I’m always keen to do what I can to help.

It was a fun evening where I was able to take the mickey out of both myself and members of the audience and it was great to catch up with old friends and contacts including Caroline’s former Barclays colleague Karen Swainston – the pair formed a formidable dynamic banking duo I dubbed ‘Cagney and Lacey’.

Also among the guests was Carl Les, the leader of North Yorkshire Council.

He told me that amazingly the newly-formed authority is now not only the largest council by geography in England at 3,000 square miles, but also the third largest by population at 620,000, behind Birmingham and Leeds.

Carl is a regular reader of this blog.

Although he did admit to me he had to delete last week’s before reading it as he had so much work to catch up on.

Anybody would think he’s running one of the biggest councils in the country.


“ASHLEY, I say, Ashley.”

Farewell then John Savident, the actor who played one of the most memorable characters on the cobbles of Coronation Street, Fred Elliott.

The burly butcher with the booming voice and a habit of repeating himself, was a favourite figure in Britain’s longest running TV soap opera.

Savident, who died last week aged 86, was an accomplished actor with a broad range of roles in films and TV including A Clockwork Orange, Battle of Britain, Gandhi, Yes Minister, Doctor Who and Middlemarch.

But it was his 12 years as Fred Elliott which made him a household name, combining high comedy with deep pathos.

I remember a scene in the butcher’s shop where Fred was brandishing a large black pudding.

Gurning at a female customer he asked: “Would you like to sample some of my blood sausage?”

I almost achieved the highlight of my writing career thanks to John Savident.

My friend Nathan Lane of Campfire PR had grocery group Nisa as a client and the organisation had booked Savident to appear in character as Fred Elliott at a dinner after one of its conferences.

Nathan asked me to write a script for the speech and I threw myself into the job with a gusto I don’t always have for my work.

Research included watching countless YouTube clips of Fred Elliott in Corrie and the speech I wrote, due to be delivered to an audience of convenience store owners, included lots of mickey taking of the big supermarket chains.

I was proud of the result but sadly it was never delivered because Savident pulled out of the event at short notice due to illness and was replaced by Christopher Biggins, fresh from featuring in I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

Nathan still paid me for the writing work but not before joking that he would only pay me half the fee.

I wondered why.

“Well Fred Elliott repeats everything he says so you only have to write half a speech!”

What a diabolical liberty Nathan, a diabolical liberty.

Have a great weekend.

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