Jim Slater, who has died aged 86, was so successful for a few years during the 1960s financial bubble that he was nicknamed “the Master” by the financial press.
His mastery lasted only as long as the bubble remained inflated, however, and his swiftly built reputation plummeted just as rapidly as it had grown. The man who came from nowhere to head a huge financial empire narrowly escaped incarceration in a Singapore jail and was found guilty of UK Companies Act offences.
Slater rose to prominence as head of Slater Walker, a property, banking and investment group founded with Peter Walker, who went on to become a senior member of Conservative governments in the 1970s and 80s and was ennobled in 1992.
Slater Walker was the arch-exponent in the 1960s of financially driven business deals. It spawned a network of satellites run by acolytes and associates, the most successful of whom was Lord (James) Hanson. But in 1974 the empire was brought down by the London property and “fringe” banking crash, which exposed the frailty of the wheeler-dealing at its heart.
Slater arrived in the City through a passion for share dealing, which began as a hobby. Born in Heswall, Cheshire, he was the son of a suburban London builder, Hubert Slater, and his wife, Jessica. His father died while Jim was quite young, leading him to leave Preston Manor county school, Wembley, at 16 and train to be an accountant. When he moved into industry in the early 1950s he did well, thanks to his analytical skills and a flair for selling. He ended up in 1963 as deputy sales director at the Leyland Motor Corporation (which subsequently became part of British Leyland, and then the Rover Group) and was promised that he would make it to the top.
But, in the meantime, he had discovered the joy – and profit – in share dealing, a hobby he developed while incapacitated with the debilitating effects of a virus. During his enforced idleness he analysed share movements and decided he could spot shares that were undervalued. Making some handsome profits from early dealings, he began to advise friends and colleagues as well, and then to write a share-tipping column, aptly named Capitalist, for the Sunday Telegraph. The lure of running one of Britain’s most crisis-ridden manufacturers soon paled by contrast with a life of high finance.
He met Peter Walker at a lunch for under-40s who were tipped for the top, and in 1964 he left industry behind to become a financier. Slater was later exposed as capitalising on his newspaper column by tipping shares he owned and selling them once their prices went up after his public recommendation. But at the time he seemed the very model of the meritocratic businessman, out to shake up the sleepy establishment. And that is precisely what he did through a series of takeovers, which saw his influence spread from industry to banking and insurance.
He bought and sold companies the same way he bought and sold shares. He was not interested in the operations of the companies that ranged from Solicitors’ Law Stationery to the talent agency Hemdale. He was interested only in the profit to be made from buying and selling the businesses and their assets.
This was the period when the term “asset stripping” was coined to describe his knack of buying an undervalued company and selling its properties or other assets at a huge profit. It was a practice frowned on in many circles, but it shot Slater Walker to the top echelons of the business world. He always insisted there was nothing wrong with asset stripping, because it resulted in assets being used more efficiently.
In the six years from 1967, Slater roared through the financial world, building an empire that at its peak was worth more than £200m, and that stood alongside some of Britain’s most eminent merchant banks.
It was an empire built on the sand of share dealing, however, and when the stock market and property bubble burst, the empire was doomed. Slater had seen it coming, but having sold off his industrial business he was cruelly exposed because he had nothing of substance to fall back on.
Attempts to merge with a series of companies, including the merchant banks Warburg and Hill Samuel, came to nothing. The calamity was made worse by the Singapore authorities’ attempts to extradite him to face charges of financial irregularities.
In 1975 the edifice crumbled amid the financial crisis that almost engulfed the City. Slater escaped extradition, though he was found guilty of minor Companies Act offences and went into a premature semi-retirement at the age of 47.
He continued dealing in property and shares, with the aid of Lonrho’s Tiny Rowland, another maverick businessman. This quickly reversed his status as a “minus-millionaire” – the term he coined to describe the extent of his debts. And he turned to writing. First came an autobiography, Return to Go (1977), in which he showed no remorse for losing a lot of people a lot of money and indulging in questionable business practices. He later said he was not particularly proud of Slater Walker, because it failed, but certainly not ashamed of it.
Slater wrote a short series of children’s books, but this was a temporary diversion from his first true love – share dealing, which he declared he would continue with until the day he died. “It happens to be what I do best,” he said.
The two strands of writing and investing came together in his book The Zulu Principle (1992), which explained his strategies to small-scale investors. He returned to newspaper share tipping, in the Independent, and he lent his name to a financial publisher’s series of reference books on British companies. He continued to write a column in the Daily Telegraph; the last one, published a few days before his death, recommended books on investment. He also continued to invest in a variety of business ventures, as well as being an active stock market investor.
But for the most part Slater stayed in the shadows, enjoying family life in Surrey – he married his former secretary, Helen Goodwyn, in 1965 and had two sons and two daughters – and a variety of pastimes such as salmon fishing, while always playing the stock market.
He gave some of his wealth to boost chess and tennis, and backed the charity Birthright (now Wellbeing of Women). But, despite his skill at public relations during his Slater Walker days, he was never the celebrity type, and mostly shunned publicity except when it suited him.
He is survived by Helen and his children.
• James Derrick Slater, financier, born 13 March 1929; died 18 November 2015
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