Sir Gerry Robinson, who has died aged 72, was one of the most articulate and successful British business leaders of the 1990s, despite being branded “the upstart caterer” by John Cleese when he shocked the media establishment by taking over as chief executive of Granada, owner of Granada Television. He later forged a television career of his own, advising businesses, and even an NHS trust, on two BBC series.
As one of the first business people to be appointed as chair of the Arts Council in 1998 he reorganised it, controversially halving its staff and bringing artists and performers on to a revamped council.
Gerry was born in Dunfanaghy, Donegal, in Ireland, the ninth child of 10 children of Elizabeth (nee Stewart) and Tony Robinson, a carpenter. When he was nine the family moved to Whitechapel, east London, and his father worked on building sites. His family recognised his ability. One brother described him as “always keen to learn a bit more than the next person”; another remembered that when playing Monopoly Gerry would always borrow too much and try to buy all the hotels, foreshadowing his later successful bid for the Forte hotel empire.
At 14 he left St Ann’s school, Whitechapel, for St Mary’s College, at Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria, a seminary run by the Holy Ghost fathers, and seemed destined for the priesthood. But he left at 17, declined university as “more of the same” and joined Lesney, the Matchbox toymakers, as a cost clerk, rising to chief management accountant before taking senior positions at Lex Vehicle Leasing and, in 1980, Grand-Metropolitan, the drinks and hotel conglomerate.
He became managing director of its contract and catering services division and in 1987 led a £163m buyout of it as Compass Caterers, which brought him millions.
Four years later, when Alex Bernstein, chairman of Granada, was looking for a new chief executive, city bankers encouraged his appointment. A merger of Compass and Granada’s catering interests would follow years later.
The appointment shook Granada television, the more so when its chief executive, David Plowright, received a demand from Robinson to double its profits. When he replied that it was impossible and resigned, senior programme executives sent a letter of protest declaring “the removal of this efficient and universally respected programme maker has undermined the morale and intentions of the Granada group ethic”.
Cleese was ruder, sending a fax telling Robinson to “fuck off out of it, you ignorant, upstart caterer”. Robinson would later pursue Cleese to make it up, but admitted to being surprised by the force of the artistic reaction.
As television consolidated, Granada staged a hostile takeover of another highly regarded company, London Weekend Television. Robinson kept an eye on the catering side too and in 1996 made a surprise bid for Forte Hotels, launching it on a morning when Rocco Forte was away shooting, and eventually winning a bitterly contested battle. In seven years of reorganisation and redundancy he had taken Granada’s turnover from £1.4bn to £4bn and from an annual loss of £110m into a profit of £735m.
A Guardian headline called him a “ruthless charmer from humble Irish stock”, while some city analysts preferred the dubious label the “fairground hypnotist”. But all recognised a charisma and a willingness to talk publicly rare among his contemporaries at the top of British business. He coupled it with a ready quip and an insouciance that could irritate his peers, often envious of his million-pound annual salary, especially when he suggested that it was not necessary to work all the hours of the day and shifted his main residence to Donegal, from where he commuted weekly.
His critics had a field day when he broke ranks with the business establishment to come out publicly for Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, two months before its landslide election victory. Unrepentant as ever, he said: “It was useful to Labour to have it as part of their PR. The Tory party was like Rorke’s Drift, it was all over the place. The thought of sticking that lot in for another term was abhorrent.”
Later he would resist the idea that he was a “Tony crony” when appointed to the Arts Council, claiming that he barely knew him. He became a contributor to the party but in 2008 was one of four Labour donors who controversially announced they would no longer contribute unless Gordon Brown was replaced as leader.
During his time with Granada – chief executive until 1996 and chairman until 2000 – he had spells chairing ITN and BSkyB. He briefly headed Granada Compass, effectively his old company, when it was de-merged from Granada as one of the world’s largest catering companies. In 2002 he took over the chair of Allied Domecq, the drinks company, facilitating a takeover by Pernod Ricard three years later. His Arts Council chairmanship ended in 2004, and he was knighted the same year. Business success was not however unbroken. In 2005 his attempt to oust the chief executive of Rentokil Initial and take over as chairman failed.
Robinson’s fluency and clarity made him a prime candidate when the BBC wanted to reprise the success of John Harvey-Jones’s Troubleshooter series, in which a successful businessman visits a company to advise on its better management. The unhappily named I’ll Show Them Who’s Boss aired in 2004, focusing on family businesses, but got mixed reviews.
The tone was set by a misjudged voiceover declaring “Gerry Robinson is rich and ruthless” and his initially persuasive approach contrasted with some peremptory instruction. One family simply refused to have anything more to do with him and the programme.
But in 2007, the series Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS?, in which he advised the embattled management of Rotherham general hospital in a successful campaign to reduce waiting lists, was widely praised, and more TV appearances followed. He was a sought-after speaker on the business motivational circuit, arguing that “you will never succeed without motivating and inspiring people”, and lauding the value of common sense. He batted away criticism of high executive salaries on the grounds that managing was a vitally important job.
Robinson was married twice, to Maria Borg in 1970 and then, after divorce, to Heather Leaman in 1990. In 1998 he moved to an 18th-century mansion, Oakfield Park, in Donegal, which he and his wife renovated. They established a botanical garden, open to the public, in its 100-acre grounds, with a 4.5km narrow-gauge railway, the Difflin Lake railway.
He is survived by Heather and his children, Samantha and Richard, from his first marriage, and April and Tim, from his second.
• Gerry Robinson, businessman and television personality, born 23 October 1948; died 14 October 2021