A survivor in a class of his own

The Duke of Westminster, chairman of Grosvenor, one of Britain's most successful property companies, says: "Everyone thinks I still walk around with my robes and crown on, staring over my glorious acres and potting off the odd pheasant every now and again."

It is easy to understand why. Last month the duke married off his eldest daughter, Lady Tamara Grosvenor, at Chester Cathedral, in a ceremony attended by the queen and several other members of the royal family. He is rumoured to have given the bridal couple a £10m wedding present.

Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, 52, Baron Grosvenor, Earl Grosvenor, Viscount Belgrave and Marquess of Westminster, heads a family that dates back to William the Conqueror's day. It takes its name from le gros veneur - chief huntsman - and has all the trappings of great aristocratic privilege, notwithstanding its motto of "virtue not ancestry".

The Duchess of Westminster is godmother to Prince William and the duke is a close friend of Prince Charles, with whom he shares a passion for maintaining traditional rural life. He takes his public duties seriously - he is president, or patron, of more than 100 organisations and charities.

When not in the countryside he can often be found in service of his great love - the Territorial Army, where he has worked his way to the top over 30 years. He dons the uniform of a two-star general on his regular trips to see troops in global hotspots such as the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was recently promoted to assistant chief of defence staff in charge of reserves and cadets.

The sixth duke of Westminster, the UK's wealthiest landlord, could easily be dismissed as a feudal relic, even though a habit of chain smoking and a nervous breakdown some years ago suggest his life is not without its strains.

He left Harrow with two O levels and owes his start in business to some astute tax planning by Bendor, the much married second duke of Westminster, who bypassed three dukes to entrust the bulk of the Grosvenor fortune to the current duke - then aged one.

The duke has been more successful than most of his fellow aristocrats in preserving and building the family fortune. He heads a growing property empire that recently started work on Europe's biggest retail development, the £850m "Paradise Street" project covering 42 acres of Liverpool's city centre. The 1.6m square feet of new retail space, due to be finished in time for Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, is the key to the regeneration of a rundown city that was once among the UK's top shopping destinations.

It is the latest in a string of Grosvenor urban regeneration projects that began with Vancouver's Annacis Island in 1953. Dublin's Liffey Valley and Basingstoke's Festival Place shopping centres are more recent examples, and Grosvenor is working with local authority partners in other British cities such as Bath, Cambridge and Preston.

"We have a very strong survival instinct," says the duke. "We have been pursued by every single government and, prior to that, Cromwell had a damn good go at us. The great thing is that we have kept our heads on our shoulders.

"We take an old-fashioned view that we stick to the thing that we think we know something about, and do not go flying off into other things," says the duke, who leaves the day-to-day running of the business to professional managers led by Jeremy Newsum, who is the Grosvenor Group's second chief executive in more than 30 years.

"I took the view very early on . . .that many families fall on their swords by thinking that the head of the family can be the world's greatest expert on everything," says the duke.

He agrees that the most important attribute for the chairman of any family business is picking the right people and letting them get on with it. "Provided that you can do that with a sure hand, then the rest follows," he says. He has recruited several heavyweight non-executive directors, such as Sir Eddie George, former governor of the Bank of England, and Alasdair Morrison, chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, to Grosvenor's board.

The headquarters of the Grosvenor Group are in Grosvenor Street in the heart of London's Mayfair, which - along with Belgravia - remain the jewels in the group's increasingly global property portfolio. At least 500 roads, squares and buildings are said to bear one of the family's titles.

When the US government insisted on owning the freehold of its London embassy in Grosvenor Square the duke's advisers demanded in return a large part of Florida that had been confiscated at the time of the war of independence. The US government backed down.

Over the past five years pre-tax profits of the Grosvenor Group have nearly doubled, to £91.7m in 2003. The group, which employs 373 staff, has interests in £8.9bn of properties in 17 countries including 18m sq ft of retail space. In 2003 the amount paid in dividends to the Grosvenor family trusts nearly trebled to £16.9m.

The Grosvenor family business has not always been in such good shape. When the duke became involved at the end of the 1960s, the business was paying off a big death duty bill from the 1950s, and was financially unsound and poorly managed.

"To put it mildly, we had a bit of a problem," remembers the duke, who came into his inheritance on his 18th birthday. "Ted Heath managed to yank inflation up to 26 per cent and then we had the miners' strike and the fuel crisis." Jimmy James, Grosvenor's first chief executive, had to fly to Canada on a regular basis "just to keep that business afloat while our home base was leaking like a sieve".

Grosvenor survived the high inflationary era of the 1970s and 1980s, which brought many property companies down. It has also survived the introduction of leasehold enfranchisement, which allows tenants to buy the freeholds of their properties, thus weakening the single ownership and cohesive management style of aristocratic landowners like Grosvenor.

Grosvenor has prospered, partly by diversifying overseas - 47 per cent of its assets are invested outside Britain and Ireland - and increasingly managing properties for third parties. Assets under management are nearly twice the size of its own property assets.

But Grosvenor's long-term success owes much to its longer-term time horizon compared with publicly quoted property companies and its willingness to get involved in long-term partnerships with local authorities. Its speciality is inner city development.

Other property developers cherish anonymity, but one of Grosvenor's biggest assets is its brand name. "It stands for stability, honesty and excellence. They are very important ingredients and we lay great store by them. I want to have a business that commands respect not only in the marketplace but also outside," says the duke.

"They are very tough operators but they have real integrity. It is like a stick of rock - written all the way through," says Mike Storey, the Liberal Democrat leader of Liverpool city council.

Tom Bloxham, chairman of Urban Splash, a rival urban regeneration pioneer, is equally complimentary. In a property industry plagued by short-termism, he admires the way Grosvenor has tended its London estate for hundreds of years.

He also admires the duke's generosity. "Every time you go to a charity do he is always the one who puts in very sizeable amounts of his own money in a low-profile way," says Mr Bloxham.

The duke has taken steps to ensure that even if his son and heir "wants to put his feet behind his ears and do something completely different", the Grosvenor group has a professional management structure in place that will ensure its continuity.

When he hands over to the next generation he would like to feel that he has not done "too badly". But that will be up to the obituary writers, says the duke.

OLD WORLD ADVICE FOR THE MODERN MANAGER

* Stick to property: diversifying into canals, railways and coal mining looked smart 200 years ago but property has been a much better long-term bet.

* Get good tax advice: tax experts still quote a 1935 House of Lords ruling, involving a previous Duke of Westminster, that stated that "every man is entitled, if he can, to order his affairs so that tax attaching under appropriate acts is less than it otherwise would be".

* Hire professionals: Grosvenor has no intention of floating its shares on the stock market, but it has adopted best corporate governance practice and has on its board well-connected non-execs such as Sir Eddie George, ex-Bank of England governor.

* Marry well: cash-strapped English aristocratic families used to look to the New World as a source of financial support through arranged marriages, but none can match the 1677 arranged marriage of Cheshire landowner Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 21, and Mary Davies, 12, who had inherited what is now London's Mayfair, Westminster, Belgravia and Pimlico.

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