Obituary: Bill Gregson

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DURING THE 1960s and 1970s, at the time of the White Heat of the technological revolution, a number of industrialists - who never revealed their personal voting preferences - were of great help to the Wilson opposition, the 1964-70 government, and the 1974-79 government. Such a one was Bill Gregson of Ferranti, champion extraordinary of the importance of computer-controlled machine tools, who later became deputy chairman of the British Airports Authority (1975-85).

Gregson was outstandingly influential with politicians, partly on account of his ability to put incisive questions, and to offer practical ways of addressing complex problems and moving forward. He not only posed questions but repeatedly came up with sensible answers. He was a man of technological vision.

He came of a family of colliery agents, who owned the engineering firm of Smith and Gregson, which was nationalised in 1948. He was always grateful for the education he received, particularly in mathematics and physics, at King William's College on the Isle of Man. After a period at Faraday House Engineering College he joined the RAF in 1941 and, such was his skill in the communications field, he rose to be a squadron leader by the time he was 24.

His wartime experience led to the position of technical sales manager of Ferranti in Edinburgh in 1946, and after five years he was promoted to the same job in London which he occupied until 1959. Returning to Scotland as assistant general manager of the huge Pilton plant, he was involved in the many controversies which surrounded Ferranti's contracts at that time.

My first encounters with him were extremely sharp. He was angry that I had suggested to the Public Accounts Committee, of which I was a very junior member, that Ferranti ought to be brought before them to examine the Bloodhound project, the missile on which Ferranti's were alleged to have made huge profits and as a result of which Basil de Ferranti was hauled before the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons and required to give some money back to the Treasury.

Gregson thought that raw politicians ought to understand that companies should make healthy profits on one military development project in order to have the wherewithal to finance other projects military and civil. However his personal relations were extremely good and like others with whom he had clashed I became a firm, lifelong friend.

Gregson was extremely active in the British Electrotechnical and Allied Manufacturers Associations (Beama), and its president in 1983- 84. Gordon Gaddes, Director-General of Beama from 1982 to 1985, describes him as "charming, incisive, determined and deeply committed. I remember especially one contribution he made which reflected his influence and persuasiveness and lasted for several years. `Gordon,' he said, `You need presidents from the very top of our industry.' "

He then invited the leaders of the engineering industry to dinner at the Cafe Royal and the level of acceptance was, remembers Gaddes "surprisingly high". The chairmen and chief executives alike agreed with Gregson when challenged to take up his mantle. Later, in succession, Beama presidents were to include Sir William Barlow, chairman of the Post Office and BICC, Viscount Weir of G.J. Weir and Co pump manufacturers, the Hon Geoffrey Wilson, chairman of Delta, Sir Terence Harrison, chairman and chief executive of Rolls Royce, and Sir Robert Davidson of GEC Alsthom - "all", says Gaddes, "as a result of Gregson's dinner".

Outside Ferranti, where he had a good relationship with Sir Donald McCallum, his contemporary and general manager, Gregson was a director of British Telecom Scotland (1977-85), of Anderson Strathclyde, the coalmine equipment manufacturers, of Brammer, electronic engineers (1978-86), and of East of Scotland Industrial Investments. He was consultant to ICI and also found time to be the chairman of the Scottish General Practitioners Support Unit (1971-79) and deputy chairman of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.

I record this sample of his various positions to indicate that he was a man who had a finger in every industrial pie north of the border - and with benevolent effect. Perhaps Vernon Murphy, now the Director of the Scottish Airports Authority and as a young man Director of Aberdeen Airport puts his finger on why Gregson was so effective:

"The wonderful contribution which Bill made to the business of Scottish airports was that he played an active role using his wide experience of Scottish business in discussing and advising on issues, without ever straying over the divide of letting managers manage. That is somewhat unusual in people of his elevated position.

"He applied this to all levels of the business, and took a particular interest in the so-called outlying areas, the Highlands and Islands and Aberdeen."

It is indeed a rare quality among businessmen talking to politicians not to be hectoring and Gregson's questions, smile and chuckle were more effective than any amount of hectoring and lecturing. I think it was this sensitivity to other people's difficulties which endeared him to successive Secretaries of State for Scotland, particularly the late Willie Ross, who thought Gregson was one of his most valuable advisers.

Gregson spent a great deal of time as a board member of Livingston New Town between 1968 and 1976, years when I was constituency Member of Parliament for two-fifths of Livingston. Seeing him at close quarters he was extraordinarily persuasive in securing overseas investment, particularly from the United States.

The late Herb Allen, who was to bring the Cameron Ironworks - to be the biggest forge in Europe - to Livingston at the start of the North Sea oil industry, confided that one of the reasons that he had come to Livingston with his huge and welcome investment was that his grandfather had been a shale miner in West Lothian and the other was the transparent technical competence and realism of the industrial board member Bill Gregson.

On the national level Gregson's contribution was through the National Economic Development Office, and particularly its committees on industrial strategies in the late 1970s. He was always conscious of the importance of automation and was chairman of the Machine-tool Expert Committee, 1969-70. He was also conscious of the importance of design and was a member of the Design Council, 1980-85. He had esoteric interests which led him to be a commissioner of the Northern Lighthouse Board for 15 years, 1975- 90.

Bill Gregson was the obverse of the scientist engineer simply interested in his own field. For eight years he was a director of the Scottish National Orchestra, becoming its vice-chairman in 1981 and its chairman in a difficult period, 1984-85. Veronica Gibson, widow of Sir Alexander Gibson, the SNO's great conductor, recalls: "Alec found Bill Gregson a charming man, with a deep knowledge of music, and a most supportive and helpful chairman." Anyone invited to a happy home made for Gregson by Rosalind, his wife, who died in 1994, would be amazed at his skill in automating his residence and in the forgotten art of cabinet- making with his own hands.

Raymond Williamson, chairman of the orchestra for the last decade, said: "Bill Gregson played a vital role in encouraging sponsorship without which we would not have had the financial support to develop."

Tam Dalyell

William Derek Hadfield Gregson, electronic engineer: born Stockport, Lancashire 27 January 1920; assistant general manager, Ferranti (Scotland) 1959-83; CBE 1970; Deputy Chairman, British Airports Authority 1975-85; married 1944 Rosalind Reeves (died 1994; three sons, one daughter); died Edinburgh 15 December 1998.