Mr Meadowhall

Eddie Healey is very rich but secretive. MARTIN DAWES profiles the man behind Meadowhall.

IT was a nightmare.

Eddie Healey, the mega rich man behind Meadowhall, was being held prisoner, handcuffed, in his own home by four masked thugs.

Worse, his wife Carol and two sons, Tim and James, one roughed up by the robbers, were with him at the family's luxurious home, Westella Hall, near Hull.

The robbers crashed their way through the luxury mansion, stealing a reported 250,000 on jewellery and cash, then escaped in a getaway car leaving the shocked tycoon to raise the alarm.

Yet only 48 hours before Yorkshire's richest man and his family had been celebrating Carol's 50 birthday.

Eddie, seven years her senior, had spared no expense.

He'd hired the Duke of Norfolk's Carlton Towers home, near Goole, for a party featuring pop group Eternal and comedian Freddie Starr.

The laughter soon dissolved into shock and tears.

The intrusion – horrible for anyone – was made even worse because Mr Healey is an intensely private man. The incident has made him even more "closed" according to those who know him.

Eddie Healey is hugely wealthy rich. When the raid happened - in December, 1995 – he was said to be worth close on 300m.

With his younger brother Malcolm (he went off to make his fortune in the States and has now returned), their combined fortune has been put at an incredible 1,300m.

This may well ease the "blow" of Eddie's pay packet taking a tumble this last year. The Sunday Times "Rich List" says his company, Stadium Developments, paid him 1.606m, down from 15.356m.

That can be explained because he has sold off its biggest asset, Meadowhall.

Apart from those thugs, who targeted him for his wealth, Eddie has made his fortune leaving a trail of people who either openly like him or shake their heads, in bemused admiration.

Part of that is due to his excellent memory. He can greet people by the Christian names years after meeting them.

He's a small man (not much over five feet), stocky with prominent eyebrows. "He is extremely charismatic. People like to work for him, even if he has a reputation for firing people. You can end up trying to second guess him," says one.

That includes municipal planners. "He is a very canny character and a very astute businessman. He could get away with things in planning terms others would not," reflects former Sheffield Lord Mayor David Heslop, one of those who gave planning permission for Meadowhall.

He recalls being sent to Canada by the government to study out-of-town shopping malls before Meadowhall was built. He was gobsmacked by one in Edmonton, Alberta, with galleons, indoor ice rinks and flying parrots, and came back determined to add a leisure and cultural dimension to Meadowhall.

"Eddie Healey promised leisure boats and water skiing on the Don" claimed Heslop. "All we finished up with was a couple of jugglers."

Healey would either go full pelt for a scheme or drop it like a stone. A classic example was Bourbon Street, an unused corner of Meadowhall, a corner of America's Deep South in the East End with restaurants and jazz clubs (Ronnie Scott was said to be considering a venture there).

Visitors to the press conference were given bottles of bourbon whiskey but the razzmatazz dwindled away.

"The Sheffield Development Cororation was persuaded by the planning people it was not up to scratch in design terms. He said all right and pulled the plug," recalls Heslop.

The site is still empty.

Like many self-made men Healey has few qualifications. He tells people: "I have passed nothing in life except the driving test."

He started life in the family paint firm, soon branching out to form DIY chain Status Discount, with 63 stores throughout the north.

Listed at 30m, it was bought out by MFI – which still has the old Status branch at St Mary's Gate, Sheffield – in 1980.

Healey stayed with MFI for two years – in the meantime brother Malcolm, three years his junior, was making his fortune with Hygena Kitchens – before leaving to try his hand at property development.

His Hull-based company Stadium Developments built retail warehouses for companies such as MFI, Texas and Harris Queensway and by 1988 was to claim to be the biggest in its field worth 30m.

In Sheffield, we'd never heard of him until Meadowhall, always mentioned in the same breath as his name. Ironically, Meadowhall was not his baby in the beginning and now he no longer owns it, having sold out spectacularly to British Land.

Seeing the potential of out of town, disused industrial sites he came to Rotherham in 1985 to announce he was building Retail World on the former Parkgate steel works. It was to be the biggest shopping mall in Europe.

But it soon ran into problems. Only one quarter of the then 100m development was realised because anchor store Marks & Spencer refused to move there.

A mile or so down the road developer Paul Sykes was having trouble raising finance for his rival Meadowhall scheme. Part of the reason was the proximity of Healey's Retail World.

So, in 1987, Healey made a now famous phone call to Sykes and proposed they joined forces, taking a front seat.

Sykes said then of his new partner: "I had never spoken to him before then but by Monday we had a partnership. We are both Yorkshiremen. We get on as mates."

In return, Healey mothballed the rest of Retail World, destined never to become a giant. He kept the promise about building Europe's biggest mall. But to the fury of Rotherham councillors he had sweet talked, it was over the border in Sheffield.

When, in 1999, Meadowhall was sold to British Land, he made an estimated 720m. Sykes got 480m.

Meadowhall, which opened in 1990, had an adverse effect on Sheffield city centre, which is now only just recovering from its impact.

But in the complex Healey had a successful blueprint he was to export to Europe. In 1996 he opened CentrO in the rundown city of Oberhausen in Germany's Ruhr Valley.

About the same size and built on a former steelworks, it also had an Oasis but also a family park and open air street of restaurants and entertainments.

And once again Healey was charming people, this time the Germans.

"Nobody knows him but everybody likes him. He is very mysterious but he has brought success to Oberhausen," says Tobias Blasius, a reporter on West Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.

Today Healey has little stake left in Sheffield. This May he sold his last remaining assets in Meadowhall, 44 acres, to British Land, for 13.75m. Part of the deal was that he retain sponsorship of the 28m English Institute of Sport being built in the Lower Don valley.

And his company has a stake in hi-tec company Jennic at Furnival Gate, where his son Mark is a director.

THE MAN WHO LOVES TO PARTY

DESPITE his reclusiveness Eddie Healey likes to throw a good party. And he can afford to pay the top acts to turn up and entertain his guests.

The party for his wife Carol, ofcourse, was spoiled by the raid but he threw a similar bash to celebrate his own 50th birthday party, which coincided with daughter Anne's 21st.

Some 400 guests were invited to a bit of a do which reportedly cost 250,000 in April, 1988.

There was entertainment from singer Belinda Carlisle, who gave a one hour show, comedians Rowan Atkinson and Don MacLean, disc jockey Dave Lee Travis and the Savoy Swingers Orchestra.

He also built a mock castle in his grounds for the band of the Royal Artillery.

In 1990, when Anne married in the local church near the family home, the entertain ment came from pop group Five Star.

FACT FILE

1980 Sells Status DIY chain to MFI for 30m

1985 Announces plans for Retail World, Rotherham

1987 Joins forces with Paul Sykes in Meadowhall

1990 Meadowhall opens

1996 Opens CentrO in Germany

1999 Sells Meadowhall to British Land for 720m

2002 Sells remaining slice of Meadowhall for 13.75m

2002 Joint worth with bother Malcolm put at 1,300m