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John Whittaker, the 75-year-old billionaire investor at the centre of the £3.4bn all-share offer by Hammerson for rival Intu, has a knack for knowing what the public wants.
After selling his Trafford Centre shopping centre to Intu in 2011, he ended up with more than a quarter of its shares. When Mr Whittaker then took a smaller stake in Hammerson this summer, talk in the market began that a long-rumoured deal could finally be on its way.
The Trafford Centre was one of the most treasured assets of Mr Whittaker’s vast northern conglomerate, Peel Holdings. He opened the Trafford Centre in 1998, and its Florentine style domes and towers were a hit with shoppers around the north-west of England.
Mr Whittaker was an early advocate of the idea that shopping should be part of a day out; the centre included a cinema and restaurants and there is now a ski slope and exhibition centre on the site.
Having grown up in nearby Bury Mr Whittaker adopted its most famous landmark, the Peel Tower, as the symbol for his group. His family quarrying company made a fortune in the 1960s, when motorways such as the M62 from Liverpool to Leeds were built. He now lives in the Isle of Man.
In the 1970s Mr Whittaker spotted an opportunity as the north’s cotton industry began to retreat, buying mill companies whose shares were worth less than the buildings, land and assets they held. He would shut a company and redevelop the area as business units, housing or shopping centres.
Among the companies he bought was the family business of Robert Peel, the 19th century prime minister to whom the Bury tower is a memorial.
Mr Whittaker’s big breakthrough came in 1993 when he won control of the Mersey Ship Canal company after a bitter battle with directors. Most investors saw a declining waterway; he saw a vast tract of land to be developed between two of England’s biggest cities, Liverpool and Manchester.
The Trafford Centre sits on some of that land, rebranded from its original unromantic name of Dumplington. Also there is the MediaCity development in Salford, the new home of the BBC and ITV’s Coronation Street soap opera. Peelsold 50 per cent of MediaCity to Legal & General in 2015 in a transaction estimated to have been worth between £300m and £500m.
The company, valued at about £2.3bn, also owns ports, including in Liverpool and Sheerness, airports, power stations and media businesses.
Mr Whittaker’s belief in long-term investing has led to a sometimes fractious relationship with investors. He took Peel private in 2004. Intu’s takeover of the Trafford Centre marked his return to a listed company but he has retained a low profile, even as a major shareholder.
Not all his plans have worked out. In 2011 Peel bought a majority stake in Pinewood Studios but sold out last year after plans to build housing were frustrated.
Its £10bn development of the Mersey waterfront has proceeded more slowly than expected after failing to attract Chinese investors.
Mr Whittaker’s business dealings can also be unorthodox. A Manchester United fan, he and his Italian supplier agreed to set the price of marble for the Trafford Centre based on the result of a football match. A Ryan Giggs goal beat Juventus, and saved Peel a lot of money given how much marble was used in the building. He has placed his mother’s vintage Mercedes at the centre of the Trafford Centre.
Peel has attracted criticism for using the Isle of Man, a low-tax jurisdiction, as its base for the holding company. Margaret Hodge, former chair of the Public Accounts select committee in parliament, accused it of tax avoidance in 2013, a charge it denies. Others think it holds too much sway with local authorities on its patch.
Mr Whittaker uses a helicopter to commute from the Isle of Man to his property interests. He also uses it for his favourite sport: it drops him high in snow-covered mountains, from where he skis down.