Sir Gerry Robinson, brilliant but ruthless Irish-born businessman who became a reality TV presenter – obituary

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Gerry Robinson at home in Co Donegal in 2000 - Crispin Rodwell/Shutterstock
Gerry Robinson at home in Co Donegal in 2000 - Crispin Rodwell/Shutterstock

Sir Gerry Robinson, who has died aged 72, was an Irish-born business leader who specialised in making weak organisations work better.

He applied his tough treatment to Granada Television – earning a celebrated rebuke from the comedian John Cleese – and later to the Arts Council; as a reality television presenter, he also tried to reform parts of the NHS.

Robinson was running a contract catering business before he was recruited in 1991 to be chief executive of Granada Group, whose Manchester-based television franchise was much admired for pioneering programmes such as Coronation Street. But investments in satellite broadcasting and elsewhere had strained the group’s finances, forcing the sale of its cinemas and bingo halls and provoking boardroom upheaval.

Alex Bernstein, the last of Granada’s founding dynasty, described Robinson’s appointment as “one of the best things I did for Granada”, and the dynamic young Irishman as “great fun to work with”. But those views were not widely shared in the arts community after Robinson imposed stark cuts on Granada’s studios and ousted the channel’s revered chairman David Plowright.

Grandees from Alan Bennett to Harold Pinter signed a letter of protest, while John Cleese fired off a fax message: ‘Dear Gerry Robinson, ‘F--- off out of it, you ignorant upstart caterer.”

Nevertheless, by the time Robinson succeeded Bernstein as chairman of Granada from 1996 to 2000, the group was in much stronger financial shape, its portfolio transformed by hard-fought acquisitions of London Weekend Television and the Forte hotel group.

By now part of the media establishment, Robinson was also one of a number of new-generation business chiefs cultivated by New Labour as it came to power in 1997. Robinson later described Tony Blair as “thoroughly decent” and Gordon Brown as “an exemplary Chancellor” – and was rewarded for his support by being appointed chairman of the Arts Council in 1998.

During a six-year tenure, he was credited with securing more money from government while slashing the organisation’s overheads by getting rid of many council members and head office staff.

In all his undertakings, Robinson was a mercurial mix of twinkling-eyed Irish bonhomie, easy laughter and fighting spirit. Fond of quoting Milan Kundera – “I have never taken life that seriously” – he also believed important decisions demanded utmost seriousness, tending to ruthlessness. “When it comes to the big one, you cannot afford to get it wrong.”

“A wolf in lamb’s clothing” was one associate’s summary; “a shark in a Val Doonican jumper” was another.

Gerrard Jude Robinson was born at Dunfanaghy, a fishing village on the north coast of Donegal, on October 23 1948, the ninth of ten children of Tony Robinson, a carpenter, and his wife Betty.

The family emigrated to England when Gerry was 11; his mother wanted him to train for the priesthood and he briefly studied at St Mary’s Seminary of the Holy Ghost Fathers at Castle Head in Cumbria. But by his own account he was “more interested in women” than the priestly vocation – and instead found a job as a clerk with Lesney Products, maker of Matchbox Toys, in East London.

Having qualified as a management accountant, he advanced to works accountant of the Matchbox factory where “4,500 women [workers] gave me stick every day”, before moving in 1974 (“because I needed a car”) to be financial controller at Lex Services, which held the UK Volvo franchise, and again in 1980 to be finance director and subsequently UK managing director of Coca Cola.

Next came a move to the food, drink and leisure conglomerate Grand Metropolitan, where he became chief executive of its catering subsidiary in 1987– leading a management buyout, and subsequent flotation as Compass Group, which made him a multimillionaire.

During his Granada years, Robinson also served as chairman of LWT, ITN and BskyB. He was later chairman of the drinks giant Allied Domecq until he steered its takeover by Pernod Ricard; and of Moto, the motorway services group. But an attempt to gain control of the pest control business Rentokil in 2005 and install himself as chairman – with a potential personal gain of £50 million – was rebuffed by investors.

Robinson joked that the Rentokil bid had been “more a hostile job application than a hostile takeover”, but was said to have been disappointed that it brought his high-profile UK business career to a relatively early end. He found consolation on his idyllic Donegal estate, Oakfield Park, where he maintained a three-mile-long narrow-gauge railway and exercised carpentry skills inherited from his father in restoring the Georgian mansion.

Sir Gerry Robinson on Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS? - BBC/ Television Stills
Sir Gerry Robinson on Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS? - BBC/ Television Stills

Meanwhile he developed a new career as a reality television presenter, beginning in 2003 with I’ll Show Them Who’s Boss, in which he set out to reverse the fortunes of ailing family businesses. Next in 2007 came the surprise hit Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS? in which he spent six months at Rotherham General Hospital trying to reduce its waiting lists without increasing its budgets.

“Any business, no matter how large, can be made to work well,” was the Robinson mantra. Admitting he “knew nothing about the medical profession” before he arrived at the hospital, he was initially stunned by the waste he found, including empty operating theatres on Friday afternoons, and by animosity between clinicians and managers. He made slow progress in persuading staff to talk to each other and accept change, but when he returned a year later much had improved, with waiting lists slashed, theatres full and the hospital trust’s deficit turned to surplus.

“Furrowed brow, finger on lips, Robinson is the thinking man’s Alan Sugar,” observed the television critic of the British Medical Journal. “He doesn’t shout or bully. In his pieces to camera he has an alluring confessional air.” Robinson in turn was once asked whether he was a fan of the abrasive Lord Sugar’s business show The Apprentice – to which his diplomatic answer was “it’s certainly better than Celebrity Love Island.”

Later television ventures included Gerry’s Big Decision – another small-business troubleshooting format – Can Gerry Robinson Fix Dementia Care Homes? and finally You Can’t Take It With You, helping families to write wills.

He also published I’ll Show Them Who’s Boss, his “secrets of successful management” in 2004, the year in which he was knighted at the end of his Arts Council term.

Gerry Robinson married first, in 1970, Maria Borg; the marriage was dissolved in 1990 and he married, secondly, in that year, Heather Leaman, who survives him with their son and daughter and a son and daughter of the first marriage.

Sir Gerry Robinson, born October 23 1948, died October 14 2021

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