On the rugby pitch and in the City, Persimmon's chief executive has a tough reputation. And as he tackles Beazer to create the UK's largest housebuilder, he'll need it.
John White developed a bit of a reputation as a hard man among City investors even before he struck the deal that will form the UK's largest housebuilder. "He came up the hard way through Persimmon," one analyst notes, adding that White can more than hold his own with the high-flyers in the Square Mile. "He's not going to be smooth-talked by a corporate financier or swish merchant banker." And the Persimmon chief executive is not afraid of making tough decisions about his own employees, the analyst says. "If someone cocks up, that's it. He's finished."

The chunkily-built White, who once played fly-half for European champions Northampton in the 1970s, is quietly amused by the tough-guy image. "I wouldn't describe myself as hard. Firm but fair is more accurate." Yet 49-year-old White, as the analyst said, is blunt when it comes to what he expects from staff. "Bullshit doesn't get you very far in this business. Hard work and commitment does."

This no-nonsense approach has come to the fore in the tidal wave of corporate activity that engulfed the housebuilding sector over Christmas and new year. It started with the proposed merger between Beazer and Bryant, intended to create a £740m firm called Domus, just before Christmas. But things really came to the boil when Persimmon and Taylor Woodrow, each of which had expressed an interest in buying the Domus partners, dived in. Both now seem to have succeeded, leading to predictions of a radical shake-up among quoted housebuilders.

So why did Domus fail? Persimmon shared the City's doubts about the business sense of the deal, seeing it as a sign that the companies felt they were vulnerable to a takeover. So, once the Persimmon managers got over their shock, they realised that it was an opportunity. As White tells it: "The deal concentrated our minds. But when we looked at what the Domus merger planned to do, there were a hell of a lot of compromises."

This is where White's rugby experience must have come in handy. With a deal of this scale, he argues, you have to go in quick and hard, which a merger of equals does not allow. "I wouldn't rule out mergers in the future, but you have to recognise that if it's a true merger then you can't afford to mess about. When you put two big businesses together, you need a clear strategy, a set management and to move forward immediately."

Asked if this was a hint that there are too many egos in housebuilding, White responds: "I don't think there will be after these events. There will be a lot more realism of what you can achieve out there. Any merger proposing to take fairly soft decisions will be well advised not to."

Far from being weary at the hectic pace of events over the past weeks, White seems to revel in it. But then, he has done this kind of thing before. In 1996 he completed Persimmon's £180m acquisition of Ideal Homes from Trafalgar House, an experience that required him to take long nights and early mornings in his stride. "It's very rewarding. It's the best part of business life when you do these deals; the part you remember most of all."

I wouldn’t describe myself as hard. Firm but fair is more accurate

White started his career in rather less high-flying conditions, leaving school before completing his O levels to become an apprentice bricklayer in his home county of Northamptonshire. He went on to study site management and his early career included a stint at Midlands outfit Wilcon Homes. White joined Persimmon in 1979, a move that seemed to inspire a fierce loyalty. "I have not looked at the situations vacant column since I joined Duncan," he says, referring to Persimmon founder Duncan Davidson.

And White clearly sets a lot of store by staff loyalty and commitment – so much so that he attributes Persimmon's present position largely to his staff. "The reason we have been successful is down to those guys. That's the difference between us and Beazer." In fact, he reckons his team of regional managing directors is the best in the industry. "Perhaps that's being a bit arrogant, but I mean it."

His commitment to staff extends to Beazer's upmarket subsidiary Charles Church, the only brand that Persimmon intends to keep and strengthen. White thinks Charles Church can double its output to 1000 units. "I know we can turn it around," he says. "There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the business. It's to do with morale and making decisions quickly."

White admits that he "lives and breathes" housebuilding – "I talk about it all day" – and what gets his goat is the image of the industry that the media presents to its customers. He reacts angrily to recent television exposés of housebuilders' practices, describing the Tonight With Trevor McDonald investigation into Barratt Homes as "grossly unfair". "That programme was not about housebuilding – it was about rogue and corrupt employees that all businesses may suffer from."

But a lot of the sector's poor reputation can be laid at the door of housebuilders themselves. He he says: "Every time the government has tried to get involved with the sector we have been bleating," he says. "Recently, we have been complaining about the weather. It's ridiculous. You always get bad weather in the winter. It's like complaining that you have fewer hours daylight to work in in December than July. If you do not plan for bad weather in winter you are not living in the real world."

Housebuilders should, he says, keep their complaints for the important issues, such as the PPG3 planning guidance that restricts building on greenfield sites. Even so, he does not see why hard-nosed companies cannot deal with planning rules. "In the grand scheme of things, if demand stays the same and new houses are restricted, house prices will go on rising," he says. "The planning system is actually helping."

Personal effects

Age 49
Who’s who in your family? I live with my wife Rosalind in Northamptonshire. I have two children: Claire, a qualified accountant, and Alan, who’s in management.
Do you live in a new home? Yes; it’s about six years old and I oversaw its construction.
What are you reading? I don’t read much for pleasure – I read a hell of a lot of financial literature and the sport pages of the better nationals.
How do you relax? I have a few drinks with old friends. I play a bit of golf – I had a £50 bet with a friend that I could improve my handicap, which has been postponed because of the Beazer deal. The deal has also meant the cancellation of my holiday to Mauritius in March.
Who are your business heroes? Former Wilcon Homes managing director Mike Robinson, Persimmon founder Duncan Davidson and David Wilson at Wilson Bowden.