LONDON — For flamboyant British businessman Robert Maxwell, bidding $2 billion for the American publishing giant Harcourt Brace Jovanovich marked only the latest chapter in a colorful career loaded with controversy.
Once branded by the British Department of Trade as unfit to run a public company, the abrasive 63-year-old Czech-born maverick has built a personal fortune and a successful business empire employing a sharp, often ruthless style.
On Monday in New York, he launched his biggest takeover bid, for Harcourt Brace.
Maxwell's wholly owned Pergamon Press is one of the world's largest publishers of scientific journals. He is chairman, chief executive and largest shareholder in Britain's biggest printing company, British Printing & Communication Corp., and owner-publisher of the Mirror Group Newspapers, whose flagship, the Daily Mirror, is one of the country's notoriously racy tabloids.
Maxwell also controls a collection of small engineering, manufacturing and printing interests, which operate under the corporate title of Hollis PLC.
Much of Maxwell's business interests trace their ownership to a Liechtenstein company called Pergamon Holding Foundation. While there has been considerable speculation regarding who owns shares in the holding company, there is no doubt that Maxwell controls it.
The current value of his business assets have been estimated at around $1.5 billion, and he has often talked of building a global communications-based empire.
In addition to his corporate interests, he is believed to have amassed considerable personal wealth, which has permitted him to troll through the London stock market picking up small stakes in takeover activity.
In recent months, however, those who follow his corporate maneuvering say, he has been rationalizing his interests, selling off minority stakes to accumulate liquidity. Some believe these moves were in preparation for the Harcourt Brace bid.
Despite Maxwell's success, he is clearly outside Britain's clubby, inbred establishment. His energetic, showboating style and an impatience with conventional British business courtesies have generated a mixture of curiosity and distaste rather than awe for his accomplishments.
"Maxwell doesn't give a sod about social constraints," commented an acquaintance of many years. "He dives in with both feet and makes money. He doesn't care if it keeps him off the guest lists at the best parties or out of the right clubs."
In a country that values pedigree and quality education, Maxwell is an immigrant with only three years of formal education. In a nation where modesty and reserve are considered admirable, he is the ultimate publicity seeker.
In the first days after he bought the Daily Mirror, those who worked at the paper complained that his photo appeared so often that the paper was in danger of turning into a family scrapbook.
"Intelligent, amusing, attentive to an individual, and then a vicious, bullying tyrant," is how one former colleague described Maxwell.
He is often parodied as a coarse, aggressive comic strip character called "Capt'n Bob" in the British satirical magazine Private Eye. Last fall, Maxwell collected substantial libel damages from Private Eye for an article claiming that he had tried to purchase a peerage.
Maxwell was a Labor member of parliament for six years in the late 1960s and remains one of the few British publishing barons sympathetic to the political left.
Maxwell was born Robert Hoch. His Czech Jewish parents both died in the Holocaust. According to his official biography, he joined an underground army at 15 and fought against the Nazis in France in 1940, where he was wounded and captured but eventually escaped to Britain.
Lying about his age, Maxwell quickly enlisted in the British Army, earned a battlefield commission in the Normandy campaign and won one of the country's highest medals for valor, the Military Cross, during the final months of the war.
In 1951, he acquired a small, struggling German publisher for the equivalent of about $35,000 and turned it into Pergamon Press.
According to information distributed by Maxwell's office, Pergamon's book publishing arm currently has about 6,000 titles in print and new titles are published at a rate of 500 per year. Pergamon Journals publishes about 400 research and educational periodicals.
British Printing & Communication, Maxwell's biggest publicly quoted company and the vehicle for his latest takeover bid, last year registered pretax profits of $120 million on sales of $690 million. When Maxwell bought the company six years ago, it was on the brink of liquidation.
Analysts in London's financial district, known as "the City," say Maxwell's business performance in recent years belies the Department of Trade assessment of him as unfit to run a public company. That charge was made in 1971, in connection with a disputed takeover bid.
"He's not the most conventional of businessmen," summed up one City broker. "But he is successful."