Obituaries: Henry Grunfeld

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HENRY GRUNFELD, Siegmund Warburg's principal partner and close friend for five decades, was one of the most significant figures in the post-war City of London, yet one of the least known outside merchant bank parlours.

He deserves considerable credit for the dynamic development of Warburgs, London's leading merchant bank until the mid-1990s, and for the string of important innovations pioneered by the firm. It was Siegmund Warburg himself who remarked that Grunfeld's was "much the most brilliant mind in the City".

He was born in Germany in 1904 into a prosperous Jewish family and grew up in Berlin. The family steel firm in Upper Silesia was badly affected by Germany's post-war problems and as a young man in his twenties Grunfeld made a considerable business reputation for himself through the success with which he restored its fortunes. He married in 1931, but the rise of Hitler made life intolerable in Germany; Grunfeld was said to have escaped the Gestapo only through his position as honorary consul to Spain in Berlin. In 1935 he abandoned his birthplace and his inheritance and took his family to London to start afresh.

He set up in the City as a metals trader. A couple of years later Siegmund Warburg invited him to become his partner in his recently formed merchant bank, the New Trading Company, by which Grunfeld's firm was absorbed.

In 1937 the newly combined entity had a staff of three; its successor, the S.G. Warburg Group plc, was acquired in 1995 by the Swiss Bank Corporation to create SBC Warburg, which in turn absorbed the American company Dillon Read & Co to become today's Warburg Dillon Read, employing about 15,000 full-time staff in more than 40 different countries.

Grunfeld and Warburg had many things in common. Both were from well-to- do, highly regarded German Jewish business families and both were refugees in London. Furthermore, both were highly intelligent, imaginative, hard- working and ambitious. But most importantly, they shared a common fastidious outlook on life and business, conducting their affairs according to strict principles and esteeming excellence for its own sake, though also knowing that in merchant banking excellence is the key to success.

Since he was of German origin, Grunfeld was subject to restrictions upon the outbreak of the Second World War and even went into hiding for four weeks to avoid internment until friends were able to sort things out. During the Blitz he spent night after night firewatching with Warburg, talking about their past and planning their future. They became best friends as well as business partners and they and their families saw much of each other outside the office.

In 1946 the New Trading Company was renamed S.G. Warburg & Co, a symbolic gesture heralding the onset of the new era and the resurrecting of the internationally renowned name of Warburg. Energetically the partners developed the business and the firm grew rapidly. Neither Warburg nor Grunfeld assumed departmental responsibilities, but in the traditional manner of merchant bank partnerships acted interchangeably with each other, enjoying complete confidence in the other's judgement.

Nevertheless, there was some division of labour, Warburg taking the lead in the development of international activities while Grunfeld "held the fort at home". He played a key role in developing the firm's corporate finance services in the 1950s and 1960s, notably in the controversial takeover struggles for British Aluminium and Odhams Press, and was the driving force behind the growth of the investment management side of the business. He was also called on as an unofficial adviser on financial matters by Harold Wilson's government.

In 1969, upon Warburg's retirement, Grunfeld assumed the chairmanship of the firm. Stepping down in 1974, aged 70, he was appointed president and, despite an operation to replace both knees three years ago, continued to attend the office regularly until last week, when he was reported to be "on fine form".

Throughout his life he took a keen interest in current affairs and was ever eager to extend his learning and understanding. Somewhat disappointedly, he doubted that the world at the end of the 20th century was a wiser or better place than in his youth.

A tall, elegant man with impeccable manners and great charm, he might well have become one of the City's foremost figures but preferred to remain in the background and it was Warburg who received all the public attention and acclaim. But in the esteem of their peers the partners stood shoulder to shoulder. Indeed, looking back on their achieve- ments near the end of his life Siegmund said to Henry Grunfeld, "You couldn't have done it without me and I couldn't have done it without you".

Henry Grunfeld, merchant banker: born 1 June 1904; Chairman, S.G. Warburg & Co 1969-74, President 1974-87; President, S.G. Warburg Group plc 1987- 95; Senior Adviser, SBC Warburg (later Warburg Dillon Read) 1995-99; married Lotte Oliven (died 1993; one son, and one daughter deceased); died 10 June 1999.

Comments