Interview with Philip Beresford, author of the Sunday Times Rich List

Back in 2008 when I launched the worlds’ first prospect research resources database, I decided to interview perhaps the world’s best known ‘prospect researcher’, Philip Beresford; author of the Sunday Times Rich List (amongst others). Although the interview is a few years old now, it does provide some interesting insights into compiling perhaps the world’s best known rich list.

Interview

Philip Beresford edits the annual Sunday Times Rich List and is regarded as the UK’s most eminent authority on wealth. His journalism career dates back to his days in the City office of The Sunday Telegraph. He became a business reporter on the Sunday Times in 1983 before researching the first ever rich list in 1989. Philip has been wealth hunting on a fulltime basis since 1992.

Q. The Sunday Times Rich List

When the STRL comes out, the paper’s sales go through the roof. What do you think it is about the rich that we find so fascinating?

Because there are three things that we are all fascinated by – sex, gossip and money. The rich list provides a framework for that third element. The first two are the preserve of the tabloids.

What prompted the first Sunday Times Rich List? How different was it conducting research for it then and compiling the list now?

The first list appeared in 1989 so we are about to embark on the 20th. It was prompted by the first ever list in 1988 in a now defunct magazine called Money which attracted huge coverage. The editor (Sue Thomas) joined the Sunday Times shortly after it was published. She suggested doing it there and Andrew Neil was very keen as editor. I was the natural person to do it as I had done mini lists for the business section and because when working on the Sunday Telegraph in 1982, I had tried to do the first list there but it was suppressed by the proprietor at the request of assorted dukes, tycoons and their ilk. At the same time in 1989, the researcher who had put together the money list did not want to touch the subject again. I have done it ever since.

Are there any plans for an electronic version of the top 5,000?

I can’t go into any detail about electronic versions of the rich list except to say watch this space when the 2008 rich list comes out.

Why have you decided not to publish the Sunday Times Rich List Top 5,000 this year?

The publisher was very keen to carry on but only if a CD version was attached to the book. The Sunday Times would not allow this as it would give many competitors a chance to develop their own database and launch rival rich lists. With this deadlock, no book has appeared.

If someone asked to be removed from the rich list, or threatened legal action if you do not remove them, would you comply? Has this ever happened?

In 20 years we have never had a writ or been sued. In the early days I had angry letters and some solicitors’ letters but these have vanished. I am also much more careful now than when I started. The first few lists were really just cobbled together in a few weeks in the pre-internet age. It was a nightmare. People do ask to get out and will disappear if they show evidence that some of the stake in a company was a charitable trust for example. I am not in any way precious about the people in the list. Wealth is very fluid and people come and go depending on their share price, profits etc. Sometimes people disappear because I hear reports about their finances which alarm me and being cautious knock them out. To be honest I have not had anyone asking point blank to be removed for some time when it is clear that there is no reason at all for it other than their desire to get out (i.e. they definitely qualify). People accept that I protect their privacy as best I can by not detailing home addresses, writing about their family or where they live.

There are certain people who are described in the press as being a multimillionaire (e.g. Harry Djanogly, Tom Coakley) and yet they do not appear in the rich list. Without going into specific cases, what sort of reasons might prevent you including an obviously wealthy person?

This is the biggest problem. People like Djanogly and Coaker are obviously very rich but I need to prove it and I can’t always. I have a list of about 500 names who should be on the rich list but can’t prove it. Every year with the help of one person who looks at them, I go through this list and see who we can get in – how much more information we have, whether we can get away with it etc. I like accounts which show great wealth, quoted share stakes, sales proceeds from a company sale or appearance in a respectable overseas rich list (Bilan in Switzerland, Quote 500 in Holland). Actually the biggest problem now is people trying to get in the list and hyping up their wealth.

In the very first rich list, the Queen was ranked number 1, but now she doesn’t even make it into the top 200. Was she over-valued in the early rich lists or have other people amassed huge wealth since?

No the issue was definition. In the early days I simply took all the royal assets and, crucially, the royal art collection to be her wealth. But in reality, after long discussion at the Sunday Times with the royal correspondent and the art correspondent, I felt that the royal collection could not be called her wealth in the normal sense. She can’t flog it and pocket the proceeds. Given that the royal collection is worth a conservative £8 billion today, taking that out of the equation reduces her wealth enormously to the present level of over £300m. This move had not gone unnoticed in some quarters and I am regularly castigated by those of republican or left wing views of caving in to royal pressure on this. It is simply not true. The Palace never spoke to me about it and it was entirely an internal matter of me trying to be more accurate.

Q. Researching the wealthy

What is the biggest mistake that someone can make in valuing a person’s wealth?

Forgetting liabilities when measuring assets.

Apart from valuing shares in private companies, artworks and property, what assumptions do you make when valuing someone’s wealth for a rich list and how does this affect the complexity or simplicity of a valuation?

I try always to have some facts and evidence from the factors you list above in my calculation. I look at hedge funds and how much they have in billions of dollars funds under management. I look at all the side deals that people have – property companies, spare cash that they have invested in other businesses. Every and any fact I can find that will help me take a view on wealth. But it is very much an art and not a science and every person is different. Every time I try to construct elaborate rules, they fall down because someone does not fit. I try to do everyone on a case by case basis.

The number of ultra-rich individuals seems to be growing faster than ever, particularly in Asia. Do you think we’ll all be targeting other parts of the world when looking for potential major donors in the future?

Yes because the rich in Asia will recycle their wealth here and may even live in London.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from researching wealthy individuals for so long?

Patience, tenacity and discipline. Never give up – always be in for the long haul. If you miss someone one year, there is always the next list.

We’ve seen the likes of high net worth individuals, ultra high net worth individuals and terms like ‘super-rich’. How long do you think it will be before we’re talking regularly about trillionaires instead of millionaires?

Not for some time. A trillioniare would be worth $1000 billion US dollars. Richest person in world now is worth $63 billion. It will not be for at least 50 years I predict.

Q. Other Rich Lists

You used to produce the Asian Xpress Rich List – what happened to that? Have you ever considered compiling a Black/Afro-Caribbean Rich List?

I have done the 2006-07 Asian Rich List – 300 strong but have been awaiting publication for several months. Dr Avtar Lit, the publisher is busy with launching radio stations so it seems to have gone on the back burner. The last time we spoke he said he hoped to publish it in January 2008. As he has paid me for it, I am quite relaxed!!

No-one has commissioned a Black/Afro-Caribbean list from me.

Have you ever been asked to produce wealth reports or rich lists in other countries? If so, can you tell us who by?

Dr Lit asked me whether I would be a consultant on producing an Indian rich list. I declined on grounds that I dont know enough of the country and I did not have the time.

Q. Behind the research

How do you define what you do?

Unearthing wealth in Britain is my sole reason for a professional existence right now.

How did you get from studying for a PhD in Politics at Exeter University to wealth-tracking full time?

I started work in Journalism in 1979 working for a weekly magazine (now defunct) called Engineering Today. After two years I joined the Sunday Telegraph as a business reporter. After two more years in late 1983 I joined the Sunday Times as a business reporter. I rose to become industrial editor and started the rich list in 1989. I left the paper full time in 1990 and have been doing rich hunting on contract ever since.

Do you work alone or do you have a team of researchers working with you?

I do it all alone except for a person feeding me names from the Channel Isles, the person working on secret rich and Cliff Dane who works on the music millionaires.

Most people are familiar with your work researching The Sunday Times Rich List and the City and Guilds Vocational Rich List, but are there other areas of your work that we’re perhaps not so familiar with?

Around 15 to 20 rich lists every year – some on industries (Estates Gazette for property) some regional – Kent Life, Sussex Life, Essex Life etc. for county rich lists. North West Business Insider, Midlands Business Insider, Wales Business Insider for local business wealth.

Have you considered setting up a Philip Beresford website with information on all your research and publications, past and present?

No. I would rather remain very low key but watch out for the 2008 rich list on line. I can’t say any more.

Philip Beresford is author of the Sunday Times Rich List.

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