That’s quite an achievement for someone whose only seriously high- profile operational job was between five and ten years ago as chief executive to Archie Norman’s chairmanship of supermarket chain Asda. But since he left, emerging with considerable and justifiable credit, his record has been more mixed.
He was, for example, chairman of Wilson Connolly, a housebuilding firm that came badly unstuck during his time there, made a partial recovery and was then sold to a competitor. And he was deputy chairman of Leeds United during its high spending dash for success that ended in failure on the pitch and financial collapse off it.
Everyone is entitled to a few own goals but Leighton has an unusual ability to avoid the flak from the failures while gathering plaudits for the successes – the most notable of which currently is the turnaround at Royal Mail – and for appearing to be associated with every mooted rescue in the retail sector, the most recent being the team running the sliderule over Sainsbury’s. Few of these bids ever materialise but each adds further shine to his reputation. So how does he do it?
The glib answer is that he takes a lot of PR advice – moving today to make sure he is correctly positioned as events become public knowledge in three months. But that only works because he is also a first-class communicator. He has a business philosophy built on clear targets, empowerment and information for employees. He backs this up with a phenomenal memory for faces – at Leeds he was on first-name terms with everyone from Rio Ferdinand to the tea lady.
In an overworked phrase he is media friendly and as a result almost no one turns their pen against him. He is a phenomenon of our time.
Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard