JAMES GERALD GULLIVER; born Campbeltown Argyllshire August 17, 1930, died September 12 1996

JAMES GULLIVER was the man who transformed the face of British food retailing in Scotland and that was his greatest and enduring success.

Hubris was the bid that failed, the takeover attempt of Distillers where he was cheated and the control was seized by the subsequently disgraced and imprisoned chairman of rival Guinness.

Achievement was the all consuming passion of a man who lived life to its utmost limits both on and off the public stage.

That drive comes in part from his humble birth in 1930 as a son of a grocer in Campbeltown, in Argyll. The county's name was assumed for his most important corporate vehicle Argyll, which is now the Safeway supermarket giant.

In later life, he would frequently talk about his early experiences, packing the groceries and cycling with them to customers. But as he would fondly say, it would be to the back door.

Occasionally he would sing in the Campbeltown Gaelic Choir.

He won a scholarship from the local grammar school to Glasgow University where he earned a first in civil engineering with his endeavours intensified by the belief that he carried the pride of his home town on his back and also the sense of pride that he had already achieved something. So failure had to be inconceivable.

After graduating he moved to the Georgia Institute of Technology for a year. Reference books until 1987 had an entry that instead he went to the Harvard Business School and that brief line was ultimately to do him great damage and arguably lost him the Distillers battle.

Returning to Britain, he took a three-year short commission in the Royal Navy instead of conventional National Service.

Then followed a brief spell at a Scottish subsidiary of the Bovis construction company and then four years with a management consultancy group. That was where he honed his keen analytical skills where in addition to being able to spot value, he was able to create it.

After various assignments, which included trying to improve productivity on Clydeside and advising a Dorset jam making business, he became manager of a shop fitting subsidiary of the Fine Fare subsidiary of Associated British Foods.

That was his big break.

It was losing money and was in a much worse state than he had realised. However, he turned it round so rapidly

that within six weeks ABF chairman Garfield Weston appointed him as managing director of the Fine Fare supermarket subsidiary.

It was here that he was able to put his talents to the test. A long-term friend and business colleague said that there was never an entrepreneur more able and none who had his intellectual ability.

He was a stickler for detail and for getting financial controls right at a time when self-service was in turmoil in the mid-sixties and Fine Fare had lost its way.

He won loyalty and great affection through his sense of humour and cheeriness which balanced the occasional bursts of short temper.

What Gulliver did was to admit that he was not a retailer but would instead bring in scientific engineering principles to an industry which flew by the seat of its pants and tended to follow faithfully the practices of Tesco founder Jack Cohen.

Staying as Fine Fare chairman and a director of ABF until 1972, he went off with the commitment not to enter retailing for at least two years. That year he was given the accolade of Guardian Young Businessman of the Year - an award which causes wry amusement in City circles as so many winners have subsequently failed to reach their full potential.

Then came the all-important link-up with Alistair Grant, also from Fine Fare, who was already then recognised as a brilliant marketing man and manager, and David Webster as the extremely shrewd and innovative finance director. Together they purchased

Oriel Foods which was an

edible oil refiner.

That branched out into

cash-and-carry and did so

well that it came to the attention to American conglomerate, RCA. It snapped up Oriel to leave Gulliver considerably richer but with a restrictive covenant to keep him out of the food business.

He set up James Gulliver Associates with Grant and Webster and that subsequently proved a school for a raft of British entrepreneurs. They include people such as Martin Sorrell of the WPP advertising agency, Derek Hunt who founded the MFI furniture group, Louis Sherwood of HTV, and Philip Jeffery who started up the Fads decorative business.

Some believe that he had a massive inferiority complex on two levels. One is that he was short, only five foot two, and to counter that he wore shoes with high heels. Hence the obliques of the ``half pint Scot''.

There is the story that when he returned once to Campbeltown with a friend, he was greeted in the street by a lady who had been at school with him by: ``Och, it's Wee Jimmie.'' He squirmed with embarrassment.

The other level was that he emphasised his Scottishness because some people in the south of England always seemed to him to try to downgrade Scots, and so he had a rapport with people from the north of England who felt much the same way.

He acquired Manchester based meat business Louis Edwards at a knockdown price in a deal which gave Gulliver eventually 16% of Manchester United football club. That holding was subsequently sold for what seems now a derisory #500,000 in 1986.

In 1982 he bought the Allied Suppliers grocery chains from Sir James Goldsmith which brought him the Templetons and Presto grocery businesses in Scotland which he then merged with the Allied Distilled Products off-licence company which he had been building up in parallel with his retailing interests.

By then Gulliver was running the fourth largest UK grocery group with annual sales of #2bn.

Argyll Foods grew massively and in 1985 was able to announce profits of more than #50m and annual turnover approaching #1800m.

Then in December that year, Gulliver formally launched his bid for Distillers which valued the Johnnie Walker, Vat 69 and Gordon's Gin group at #1864m, backed by the Royal Bank of Scotland which had been bankers to Distillers for a century.

Then followed an episode which is one of the darkest in the annals of the City and which resulted in 1990, after protracted legal proceedings and trials, in the jailing of Ernest Saunders, who had been chairman of Guinness, and two other City figures. Gulliver had been studying Distillers for two years in extreme detail with the determination to extract much more value out of the company than the existing management led by then chairman John Connell.

The company had an aura of tweediness, fuddy-duddiness and complacency. That had allowed upstart brands such as Bell's, by then owned by Guinness, and Famous Grouse to win market share.

In September, Argyll had tried to make a takeover bid but was prevented by the Takeover Panel which gave Distillers three months to prepare its defences. Guinness chairman Saunders had found the previous year's bid for Bell's tougher than he had expected and did not want to get into a battle with someone like Gulliver.

But the establishment tended to support the Distillers case and was happy when Saunders popped in a counter offer in early 1986. Then followed the now infamous share support for Guinness stock which was illegal but which was sufficient to tip the balance in its favour.

Saunders pandered to Scottish sentiment by promising to bring its headquarters to Edinburgh and appoint former Bank of Scotland Governor

Sir Thomas Risk as chairman of Guinness.

He did not waste too much time on reneging on his word. But while there was a huge outcry about broken promises, nothing more could be seen to be done as Guinness had eventually won with its offer of about #2600m.

However in the autumn

of that year, controversial American share trader Ivan Boesky revealed that he had been a party to the share

support operation.

In came the Serious Fraud Office and eventually a cesspit was discovered of fraud, false accounting and conspiracy.

After six months of evidence and five days of jury consideration, which saw some witnesses highly anxious in court and the name of merchant bankers Morgan Grenfell dragged through the mud, four defendants were found guilty. Saunders received a five-year sentence but was released on the grounds that he had senile dementia although subsequently he has recovered

sufficiently to become a

business consultant.

Property tycoon Gerald Ronson went inside for a year and was fined #5m, stockbroker Anthony Parnes was given a two-and-a-half-year sentence while financier Jack Lyons was stripped of his knighthood and fined #3m, ill-health keeping him out of jail.

But that was really scant comfort for Gulliver.

When during the bid, the entry about Harvard was proved to be wrong, the relationship between him and Grant and Webster received a fatal blow.

The following year, he bought the Safeway operations in Britain from its American parent for #681m and through merging it with Argyll created what is now the third largest supermarket group.

But in 1988 he left Argyll, and tried to repeat his earlier successes with a highly geared #450m buy-out of the Lowndes-Queensway furniture business. That business failed and he stepped down after just 18 months.

At the same time he became chairman of the Waverley Cameron office supplies company in Edinburgh and of the Broad Street Communications public relations outfit.

But since 1990, he reduced his business commitments to some extent - although he was honoured for his participation in the Duke of Edinburgh awards.

He married four times but, while there were reports that at times tempers became more than a little frayed, all three ex-wives turned up to his 60th birthday party and chatted together in a friendly fashion.

His interests included his two farms in Fife, properties in London, Manchester and Cheltenham as well as a small but splendid fleet of cars.