Friday December 13, 2019

'I have no time for Boris Johnson': Sir David Davies on Ireland, politics and voting Remain

Former superstar banker/businessman Sir David Davies talks about his illustrious global career, his lifelong love affair with Ireland, voting Remain and his distrust of politicians as he looks to sell his €20m Abbey Leix estate

23rd June, 2019
Sir David Davies Pic: Ger Lawlor

CV: Sir David Davies

Status: banker

Lives: Abbey Leix estate, Co Laois

Family: twice divorced with five children

Favourite film: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Favourite book: Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal

From the many interviews Sir David Davies has given over the years, the headline that said it all read ‘Hard head – healing hands’. The interview went on to express a view that sums up his particular talent. “He bestrides the business world like a global colossus, shuttling between London, Hong Kong and New York; his style is to take on companies in extremis and turn them around – earning himself the reputation of a company doctor. He thrives on crises.”

“My earliest memory is of flying with my father in his private plane,” Sir David Davies tells me. “I suppose you could equate that to looking for excitement in a job – a crisis certainly gets the adrenaline going.”

He was born in Wales in 1940, the son of a successful businessman. The family coming to Ireland was a happy accident. “My father was Welsh through and through. My mother was from the north of England. By 1947 she’d had enough of Wales and the Welsh. My father had started an airline, Cambrian Airways in Cardiff, the first Cardiff-to-Dublin service. The family came over and my mother fell in love with Ireland. ‘Why don’t we buy a cottage here where we can bring the children for holidays?’ she said. Dad didn’t do his homework. He enquired as to the price of a small rural cottage in Wales and was told £9,000-£10,000, so that was the budget he gave my mother.”

In Ireland, it bought considerably more: Killoughter House, Ashford, Co Wicklow, a Georgian villa currently described in Ireland’s National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as “a well-preserved Georgian house with a delightful setting”.

In 1947, however, it was Georgian in every sense of the word, with neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Living through the years of his parents’ loving restoration of the house taught the young Davies lessons that came in handy when he bought one of Ireland’s grandest country estates, Abbey Leix.

He puts his success down to his education at Winchester College and New College Oxford, which he considers to be the greatest university in the world. “Both have an academic training that teaches you to want to be the best.” Of all the accolades he has received, the one he values most is being made an honorary fellow of New College.

“Having finished my education, my father wanted me to take over running his steel mills in south Wales, but that was the last thing I wanted to do,” he says. “I was determined to get to America. At that time it was the land of milk and honey. Every opportunity you could possibly think of was there, waiting for you. I’d have done anything to get there.”

In New York he had the good fortune to come to the attention of David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. “He took me on and I spent two years training as a banker. That training was fundamental in developing my capabilities. Today the alternative would be taking a master’s degree in finance.”

His next job was with Hill Samuel, one of the leading English merchant banks in New York. By 1973 he had married and divorced, so when Hill Samuel invited him, aged 33, to become their youngest director in London, he returned to Britain. Subsequently he became finance director of MEPC, then Britain’s second largest property company, and was later appointed vice chairman. This coincided with the collapse of the British economy during the three-day work week, when MEPC narrowly escaped bankruptcy.

“They had borrowed too much money,” he says. “When businesses are in trouble, common themes are setting ambitious targets, and being run by inept managers at a time of economic difficulty. I had to sell off assets to deal with the debt and change management.”

A decade later he relocated to Hong Kong, becoming a director of Jardine Matheson, and managing director of Hong Kong Land, then Asia’s largest property company. Once again, a financial crisis was looming. “Hong Kong was a similar story to MEPC. Thatcher’s agreement to hand the colony back to China led to chaos – interest rates rose to over 20 per cent. When you have that much debt you are really in trouble, particularly when you borrow more money than any other company in the territory.”

He returned to London in the late 1980s where, as chief executive of Hill Samuel, he put his mind to restoring the fortunes of the bank, eventually selling the business at a very full price to TSB Group, where he served on the board for two years. At the same time he was chairman of Imry Merchant Developers, known for its redevelopment of the St George’s Hospital site on Hyde Park Corner in London. Between 1990 and 1998, he served as chief executive and chairman of the international precious metals group Johnson Matthey.

In 1999, he was knighted for his work as chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment, which was an early adviser to the British government on climate change.

He recalls only one major business error. “When I returned to Britain from Hong Kong I was asked to be chairman of Sketchley, the UK’s largest dry-cleaning operation. We thought it would be bailed out by the real estate portfolio, but it didn’t work out. That taught me only to do things when I was sure of having a good chance of succeeding.”

***

It occurs to me that had he followed a different career path, Brexit would have been done and dusted last March. Did he ever consider going into politics?

“I was a co-treasurer to the Conservatives when John Major was prime minister. What I saw of politics at that time put me off for life,” he says. “For the most part, I found politicians to be self-serving, more concerned with themselves than political issues. They didn’t listen and they were second rate. They’ve had one of the most inept prime ministers in Theresa May. As they struggle to find an answer to Brexit, they go from one catastrophe that leads to the next catastrophe.

“I have no time for Boris Johnson: he doesn’t do his homework, and can’t be trusted.

“I think Brussels may be using Ireland as its lever to extract greater advantage over Britain as it seeks to work out an acceptable resolution of Brexit. This means the relationship between Ireland and Britain has suffered badly since Brexit was announced. It can work both ways. If Boris is elected as PM and ends up with no deal, that will probably hurt Ireland as much as, if not more than, Britain. Perhaps Ireland should be more generous in its negotiations than it has been.

“I’m a Remainer, like any banker/businessman. When the result of the referendum was announced, my younger children were appalled. They came to me saying, ‘what are we going to do about this?’.”

He had no idea, but they found a solution: become an Irish citizen. He took their advice. “I do love Ireland. I’ve spent so much of my life here. I’m very proud to have become an Irish citizen,” he says.

***

It was while based in Hong Kong that he got a phone call from the Earl of Rosse, his old friend Brendan from Oxford, asking whether he could help find a sympathetic buyer for the ancient woods at Abbey Leix. On his next trip to Ireland, the two headed straight there.

“We walked through this great primeval forest, 160 acres of oak woods, untouched since the days of the monks. I thought it was the most magical place I’d ever visited. I remember saying to Brendan, ‘if you ever want to discover a leprechaun, this is where to come’.”

The Abbey Leix estate had been owned by the de Vesci family for three centuries, but in the 1990s it incurred £1.5 million in death duties and the house needed a further quarter of a million pounds spent on it to make it habitable. In the event, the land was withdrawn from sale. Two years later, however, Davies purchased both house and demesne, and a mammoth restoration project got under way.

Meeting an interviewee in his own home is a bonus: everywhere there are clues to the personality, as opposed to the reputation. The front door of Abbey Leix is flanked by two bronze sculptures of cheetahs by South African artist Dylan Lewis. Davies’s passion for art extends to commissioning contemporary artists. In the library, another clue demonstrates his sense of humour: a table covered in silver-framed family photographs, one of which is a close up of one of the cheetahs wearing Manolo Blahnik killer heels.

Our conversation takes place in the Gold Room with its exquisite pink and green decor. A table overlooking the gardens is set for two. Minutes later we’re tucking into a leek and chicken pie cooked by an angel, and a chilled bottle of Chablis (Domain William Fèvre). At Abbey Leix, lunch was never going to be a cheese toastie.

Davies draws my attention to a meadow outside the window where a herd of cows are grazing. “They are Irish Moiled cows, an ancient breed close to extinction. The person who has worked hardest at keeping the breed alive is my great friend Lindy Dufferin. For my 70th birthday she gave me a bull and a heifer to start my own herd. Now I have ten.”

I remind him that, at the time, the tabloids had made hay with this friendship, speculating whether the Marchioness Dufferin would be the next Lady Davies. He laughs. “That was a very long time ago,” he says.

As part of the renovations he installed, not the expected helicopter pad, but an air strip; as he sees it, a very practical option. “With the strip, you fly from wherever in the UK straight into the estate.” He got his pilot’s licence at the age of 19 but, at 79, does he still fly? There’s a long pause, but the eyes are twinkling. “I pretend to,” he says, miming hands on an aircraft’s controls. “I have a co-pilot.”

***

Davies gave up working full time in finance in 2005. Today he is fully occupied running the estate and as president of both the Irish Georgian Society and the Wexford Festival Trust.

“Opera is my particular interest. I first attended the Wexford Festival in 1989 and remember vividly a performance a couple of years later of Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais,” he says.

His unexpected decision to sell the Abbey Leix estate has caused a flurry of speculation. His reason couldn’t be simpler.

“I’m organising my whole estate for the benefit of my children,” he says.

Married and divorced twice, he has five children, aged 23 to 48, all successful in careers ranging from finance and high tech to fashion and the arts.

“My eldest son, Taran, has genes on both sides of the family to equip him for a career as a Wall Street banker. But he was in New York on 9/11. He had an epiphany and decided to make documentary films.”

Taran Davies began with a series shedding light on conflict, its causes and effects. In a lighter vein, his latest, an Imax film due for release, is entitled SuperPower Dogs. Father and son are both dog lovers. At Abbey Leix there’s the obligatory black Labrador, plus a cute mongrel Davies brought from the pound.

“Although the children all love this place very much, none of them wanted to take it on,” he says.

“The typical refrain is ‘Dad, this is your project’, and I’m lucky enough to have Killoughter House, the home of my childhood, to return to.”

I dare say he will miss Abbey Leix. When I ask his idea of heaven, his response is immediate. “When I find that leprechaun in the woods.”

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