Michael Prideaux is currently reorganising British American
Tobacco’s (BAT) head office communications function following the
de-merger of its financial services arm. Given that BAT is the world’s
second largest tobacco company after Philip Morris it might seem a
daunting prospect, but it is highly unlikely that Prideaux will be
’He’s very calm, I’ve never seen him in a flap,’ says GCI Focus director
Christopher Joll, who was managing director of Charles Barker City in
the late 1980s when Prideaux was chief executive.
Even in those days Prideaux was working on BAT business. However, things
were very different then. The group sprawled from retail, paper and the
recently hived off financial brands like Eagle Star and Allied Dunbar
(which have been merged with Zurich Insurance to become Zurich Financial
Services) to the tobacco business that is all that remains today.
His move from consultancy to in-house was hastened by the announcement
of a pounds 13 billion hostile bid for BAT by James Goldsmith’s Hoylake
Goldsmith telephoned BAT’s then chairman Pat Sheehy to forewarn him of
his bid, and soon after Sheehy called Prideaux and told him that his
presence was required immediately. Prideaux had been intending to join
two months later. The takeover threat was eventually seen off, with no
little thanks to Prideaux and his team. ’We ran a great campaign, and
credit where credit is due, Michael was an integral part of that,’ says
Zurich Financial Services director of strategic and corporate affairs
Wallace Dobbin, who worked with Prideaux from the late 1980s.
The hostile bid crisis kept Prideaux occupied until well into 1990 when
BAT began demerging a number of its businesses, including Argos.
Thereafter it was the financial services side of the corporation that
took precedence, with issues such as the insurance dimension to home
repossessions and the pensions mis-selling scandal to address. More
recently, the explosion of litigation against tobacco companies in the
US has occupied a great deal of Prideaux’s time. As has the latest
demerger, on which he has worked for over a year.
The present challenge sees him restructuring the communications
function, so as to integrate his 12-strong team from head office with
the 20-strong team from its tobacco subsidiary. Following the demerger,
Prideaux has taken responsibility for not only a total of 150 PR staff
around the world but the regulatory affairs and medical experts the
tobacco company employs in its external affairs armoury.
One consultant who has worked closely with Prideaux says of him: ’He’s
extremely bright and rather old-fashioned in a polite and courteous
People might assume that somebody working for a tobacco company has few
ethics but he is in fact deeply principled.’
Joll, who has known Prideaux since they were children, also paints a
picture of a bright and charming man with first-rate personnel
management skills. Prideaux comes from a privileged background - his
father was chairman of NatWest bank. He went to Eton and read English at
Cambridge before embarking on the first stage of his career at a
From there he moved to the Financial Times, rising to UK advertisement
director. The transition to PR came at Charles Barker City, which in the
1980s was two-thirds an advertising operation against one-third PR.
Today, Prideaux enjoys an enviable lifestyle. His job takes him to
far-flung locations - he has seen the sun rise from a mountain in
Kirghizstan (a former Soviet state, to the west of China). He is also an
opera buff with cultured tastes who is married to the writer Sue
Back in the office, those who know him say that once the restructuring
is complete he will have one overriding objective-to position BAT as a
responsible company in a controversial industry.
1980: UK advertisement director, Financial Times
1983: Chief executive, Charles Barker City
1989: Director of group public affairs, BAT Industries
1998: Corporate and regulatory affairs director, British American