Making the news Sir Tom Hunter is the media-shy multimillionaire out to capture Crest Nicholson

“How would I describe Sir Tom Hunter? Very direct, very able, very bright, very blunt.”

This is the assessment of Richard Ratner, a retail analyst at Seymour Pierce, of Sir Tom Hunter, a Scottish entrepreneur who backed the £1.1bn purchase of McCarthy & Stone last year and who is now trying to take over Crest Nicholson.

Any snippet of information is useful: Hunter is not well known among housebuilders, despite his penchant for taking them over, and he is notoriously media shy.

Hunter only switched from retail and property investment to housebuilding with the McCarthy & Stone bidding war in the second half of last year. Having backed the winning consortium, Castle Bidco, through his company West Coast Capital, Hunter and that team are looking to repeat the trick with an £808m bid for Crest. After rejecting a lower offer, the Crest board said last Friday that they were minded to accept the revised bid (see page 19).

Ratner has followed Hunter throughout much of his career, including last year’s £311m purchase of Wyevale Garden Centres. He insists Hunter is unusual for such a rich businessman – with a personal fortune of nearly £800m, Hunter is often cited as Scotland’s richest man – and is no asset stripper.

“He hasn’t sold a lot off,” says Ratner. “He’s only cut his losses at [card shop chain] Birthdays and The Gadget Shop. He’s in things for the long-term.”

That should please John Callcutt, Crest’s former chief executive, who is believed to have fought off a takeover bid by Gerald Ronson’s Heron International in 2004-05 for one major reason: he didn’t want someone coming in who might make everyone redundant.

He keeps his profile low. What he does is back others. He
likes to stay in the background source close to hunter

When West Coast Capital buys a business it does not have the venture capitalist’s infamous five-year exit strategy. Because of his wealth, he has no financial institutions demanding immediate returns, so he can judge whether holding the asset over time will provide greater returns than an immediate sale.

A source close to West Coast Capital says: “There’s nobody else to satisfy, so if the business is doing well, why leave it?”

The source adds that Hunter is kicking himself for missing out on housebuilding until this point. He sees the industry as simply another asset class of property, which has rewarded him well since the start of the decade.

“He keeps his profile low,” adds the source. “What he’s really doing is backing others; he likes to stay in the background.”

Hunter also surrounds himself with high-profile figures who do enjoy the limelight. Nick Leslau, the latest tycoon in a family dynasty, is involved in the McCarthy & Stone and the Crest deals. This takes the pressure off Hunter, who tends to answer questions about his fortune with an embarrassed laugh.

He is no less discreet in deals. None of the executive team at McCarthy & Stone met him during negotiations, which were conducted through consultants.

So an air of mystery continues to surround Crest’s stalker. What can be said with confidence, though, is that he won’t look to break up his latest investments.