Profile - Robert Hanson: The happy family man steering Hanson empire into new territory

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Robert Hanson, son of the late industrialist Lord Hanson, has returned to his Yorkshire roots with a new business venture. Lizzie Murphy reports.

HE has been described as a “playboy” and “the most eligible bachelor in Britain” in the past but who is the real Robert Hanson?

He rarely gives interviews, although he is never far from the gossip columns, so much of what has been written is second-hand accounts and speculation on his romantic links to a string of models.

But last year the seemingly perennial bachelor, now 50, who names Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, and Sophie Anderton among his previous girlfriends, married Masha Markova, a Russian former model 25 years his junior, and now has a five-month-old son called Max.

When I meet him, he is clearly delighted to have produced an heir for the Hanson family business.

“It’s fantastic, I absolutely love it,” he says, enthusing about marriage and fatherhood. “I always hoped I would (get married) but I’ve had a few girlfriends over the years. You just never know how it’s going to turn out.”

Mr Hanson is the chairman of Hanson Family Holdings, the holding company for a group of businesses which span logistics, investment banking and speciality chemicals in the UK and Asia, employing about 150 staff.

The family’s haulage firm, founded in Huddersfield 170 years ago by Mr Hanson’s great-great-great grandmother, Mary, was nationalised in 1948 and his father, Lord Hanson, built the company into one of the most powerful industrial conglomerates in the country through a series of fierce takeover battles.

In 1996 Lord Hanson, a lifelong Conservative supporter and one of the party’s largest financial donors during the 1980s, decided to split the company into four separate businesses: Energy Group, Millennium Chemicals, Imperial Tobacco and Hanson. The biggest part of Hanson remains the transport firm, Hanson Logistics.

Although the family no longer lives in Huddersfield, Hanson Logistics is still based in the town, employing 85 staff.

In January, Mr Hanson returned to his Huddersfield roots to launch a new business venture with storage specialist pH Europe offering specialist plastic crates, boxes and pallets to small and medium-sized businesses.

“It fits into the international story of where we’re going,” Mr Hanson says. “A few years ago, we, as a company, decided to become more international and because my brother and I lived for six years in Hong Kong...we picked China as the place we wanted to expand.”

Asia is a huge focus for Mr Hanson who is in the process of buying a Chinese speciality chemicals business, Sinojie Hanson, of which his company currently owns 42 per cent. He is also looking to build a logistics business in China by setting up another joint venture.

“The British economy can’t compete and I don’t want to just sit here and try and find customers, I actually want to have businesses and develop them,” Mr Hanson says.

“Quite a lot of my time is spent in Asia setting things up and then I leave it to other people to run.”

Hanson Family Holdings also includes a group of financial services companies. In 1998 Mr Hanson founded Hanson Capital to capitalise on his worldwide network of close relationships with high net worth individuals.

In 2006 Hanson Westhouse was formed by linking Hanson Capital and Westhouse Securities but Mr Hanson switched his allegiance in 2009, selling his 20 per cent stake in Westhouse to form a joint venture investment bank with Strand Partners called Strand Hanson.

Mr Hanson says his group of companies has weathered the recession well due to their diversity. He made an early decision in 2008 to sell the delivery business, Home Delivery Network. “We couldn’t figure out whether it was going to be a stupid decision or a brave decision but we sold that business and cut our business in two. It proved very successful,” he says.

As a result, Mr Hanson says the businesses avoided making redundancies and instead concentrated on reducing costs, mainly those associated with the Home Delivery Network operation.

Now he is looking to build up his portfolio by buying other companies in the chemicals, packaging, logistics or freight forwarding sectors, which will complement the existing businesses.

“We believe this is a good time to be looking for businesses to buy,” he says. “The Hanson family is opportunistic.”

He adds: “I’ve got no ambitions to be 10 times this size. I want my son to inherit a profitable business that is well capitalised.”

As the son of Lord Hanson and American model Geraldine Kaelin, Mr Hanson’s upbringing was influenced by both British and American cultures.

He grew up in Huddersfield until the age of five when the family, including his brother, Brook, and sister, Karyn, moved to Berkshire.

“My father was the most pro-American Brit ever,” he says. “He didn’t know football or cricket but he could tell you about American football and baseball, so I grew up with those sports.”

Despite having a father who is often described as “ruthless”, Mr Hanson said he did not feel pressured when he was growing up to emulate his father’s success. “If I’d said to my father I want to be a painter or a concert musician he would have said ‘fine’ but I was interested in the business from a very early age,” he says.

Mr Hanson was sent to boarding school from the age of eight and was educated at Eton followed by St Peter’s College, Oxford.

After graduating he became a banker at N M Rothschild & Sons where he worked initially in London and later at its subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Chile and Spain.

In 1990, he joined the family firm becoming a main board director in 1992 responsible for strategy, mergers, acquisitions and disposals.

However, he was involved in one of the group’s most high profile mistakes with the attempted takeover of chemical group ICI in 1990 when it bought a 2.8 per cent stake in the firm. Although a formal bid was never made, ICI launched a desperate defence, which severely dented the Hanson empire his father had built.

“We should have bid for the lot but my father and Gordon (White) hesitated,” he says.

Mr Hanson resigned from the public company at the end of 1997, after his father broke up the business, to chair Hanson Transport Group, now Hanson Family Holdings.

“I have a different style (to my father),” Mr Hanson says. “I am the worst negotiator – I’m too nice. I normally let other people do the negotiating.

“He was known as a bit of a bully. I try and use more of his charm.”

He adds: “He always told me not to be emotional about things. He said to me: ‘Every day you wake up, look at all the things you have and ask yourself why you’re doing it. And if you can’t think of a good reason, get out’.”

When asked whether he would ever make the Hanson name public again, he takes a deep breath.

“I don’t know,” he says slowly. “I would make parts of it.

“It’s wonderful being private. I’ve had experience working for a public company. I was on the board...and the newspapers at the time attacked my salary, they really started to go for it because they can and they should.”

He adds: “We might well float these businesses in Hong Kong at one stage. The only reason you go public as a family is for capital. If Paul, as my group finance director, said to me: ‘Borrowing from HSBC is so expensive, let’s go to the public markets,’ I would do it.”

Robert Hanson Factfile

Title: Chairman of Hanson Family Holdings

Date of birth: October 3, 1960

Education: Eton, St Peter’s College, Oxford

First job: Assistant keeper at a reptile house at Windsor Safari Park at the age of 16.

Favourite holiday destination: Bali

Favourite film: Blade Runner

Favourite song: Golden Brown by The Stranglers or Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head

Car driven: Porsche Cayenne, which I now drive with a baby seat in the back

What I am most proud of: My son