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'Riveting' book lifts lid on Reuters' tales

JOHN JESSOP - Tales from the South Pier - Athena Press - 2008

Tales from the South Pier, unveiled at El Vino’s in Fleet Street, is not about seafarers but the remarkable growth of the world’s market data industry in the last third of the 20th century and the men who made it possible at Reuters and its American competitors.

John Jessop’s book was quite a few years in the writing, he confesses. Part autobiography, part history, the title stems rather surprisingly from a catchphrase that wound up the day’s work on the Comtelburo desk in Reuters’ former headquarters at 85 Fleet Street in the smokey 1960s.

The book is no dry story of financial data highs and lows but reveals human frailties too and is described by its publisher as “a riveting read”. It certainly is for those who lived through the industry’s gestation in the early 1960s and knew the colourful characters who led the half-dozen companies through years of white-hot competition to rich success or ultimate failure. Some of them (but sadly not all) are around today enjoying fruitful retirements.

Jessop started at the bottom at Comtel in 1959 and worked for 18 years at Reuters in London and New York, filling senior positions in editing and marketing before he switched to rival Telerate (he was CEO for a time) and then Bridge - both were eventually bought out by Reuters. He was therefore personally involved with development and selling of the technologies that transformed how people get their money market news and data, now flashed instantly to computer screens around the world.

The first half of the book is devoted to his time at Reuters and Jessop provides plenty of readable material on major figures such as former CEO Walton Cole and the leadership troika, as he calls it, of Gerald Long, Michael Nelson and Glen Renfrew. He is not afraid to offer judgments and then moves on with equally forthright comments on their successors Sir Peter Job and his successor, Thomson Reuters chief Tom Glocer. There is even a chapter on the controversial pre-1942 CEO Sir Roderick Jones.

Jessop sheds some new light on the Renfrew years in North America in the 1970s when he struggled to find new technology but still won the race to take over from Long as Reuters chief executive, beating off strong competition from London-based Nelson, the former general manager best known for driving the Monitor box of financial quotes and green-lettered news headlines to worldwide success.

Jessop picks Nelson as his hero of the market data industry from a field that he acknowledges included Long, Renfrew, Telerate CEO Neil Hirsch, Quotron’s Jack Scantlin and Michael Bloomberg, who established the service that has become Reuters main competitor in financial news.

“I am sticking with Nelson, though, and for one overriding reason: he invariably picked winners. In doing so he took a series of brave leaps into the unknown,” Jessop says, adding that the Reuters services called Stockmaster, Videomaster, Monitor and Dealing each in its time proved to be a commercial coup for its parent company. ■