Obituary: George Ross-Goobey
He was daring, self-confident, sublimely unaware that other people might occasionally suffer fools at all, let alone gladly
Friday 23 April 1999
He began his revolutionary activities in 1947 when, at the tender (for those days) age of 36, he was appointed as the pension fund manager of the Bristol-based Imperial Tobacco company, then one of the giants of the British industrial scene. In those early post-war days, the yield on gilt-edged stocks was under 3 per cent, that on equities over 4, even though the economy, and thus corporate profits, were growing.
Nevertheless a combination of memories of the slump, and of the sheep-like nature of the investment managers of insurance companies and pension funds, ensured that none of them had switched any substantial proportion of their funds into equities. Through a combination of self-confidence, intellect and sheer force of character, Ross-Goobey soon persuaded the trustees of the fund to put virtually the whole fund into equities.
Nor did his daring stop there. Not for him any pussyfooting by concentrating on the leading companies, the FT-100, of the day. No, he sprayed the pensioners' money around into hundreds of smaller companies - his particular favourites naturally those based in the West Country. Some of his investments proved disastrous, but the overall record was superb, showing up his more orthodox colleagues year after year.
It took a decade of gilt-edged disaster to convert the City of London to his point of view and by the end of the 1960s Ross-Goobey had perceived - again well before his colleagues - that the price of shares had risen perhaps too far with the emergence of the "reverse yield gap", i.e. that the yield on gilts was higher than that on shares, and that it was time to turn his attention to another type of investment, in this case property. There his record was rather spoilt by the slump of 1973 - though at least one large investment, Gateway House in the City, would have proved a winner in the long term. But he soon recovered his nerve, buying gilts heavily in 1974 when yields rose to over 15 per cent.
Before his arrival at Imperial Tobacco George Ross-Goobey's career had been typical of the impoverished middle classes of the inter-war years. He was born in east London, the son of a nonconformist preacher, but, thanks to an enlightened local vicar, he was nominated for a scholarship to Christ's Hospital. Throughout his life he remained loyal to his Alma Mater, and was proud to be a governor.
Because his father was unable to afford to send him to university he trained as an actuary, but took some time to qualify because he spent so much time on the sports field - playing cricket and above all rugby, at which he represented Eastern Counties. In later life his chosen game was golf - indeed he played 36 holes with typical canniness and relish until well into his eighties.
Ross-Goobey collected his pension - and a seemingly limitless supply of his favourite cigars - for nearly a quarter of a century, doing his best to preserve the pension fund from the effects of the takeover of his old firm by Lord Hanson. It was also natural for him to be elected - somewhat belatedly - to the presidency of the National Association of Pension Funds in 1972.
His refusal to toe any particular line ensured that he never received the public honours accorded to lesser figures in his profession. Not surprisingly his relationship with the actuarial profession was never easy. A public row with the then chief actuary of the mighty Prudential Corporation in the early 1950s, combined with his natural intellectual intolerance, delayed recognition of his status until last year when, at the age of 86, he was finally given the profession's first Award of Honour. But his brusque manner did not extend to the brighter young men who worked for him. He took enormous trouble with youngsters, many of whom, later distinguished in their work, regarded him affectionately as their professional mentor.
Though an intellectual loner he was a highly social animal, clubbable, enjoying the social side of sporting life. Until his death he was active in a number of livery companies, much in demand as an after-dinner speaker, distinguished enough to have become master not only of the Company of Actuaries but also of two other livery companies, the Gold and Silver Wyredrawers and, somewhat more obviously, the Tobacco Blenders and Pipemakers. His bridge was good enough for him to win the livery companies' annual bridge competition several times.
My friendship with him was largely confined to the bridge table. But the way he played the game showed clearly the qualities that had made him. He was daring, with his own brand of individual logic, self-confident, caring little or nothing for anyone else's opinion, sublimely unaware that other people might occasionally suffer fools at all, let alone gladly.
The human side of Ross-Goobey emerged in the amused twitch of his moustache - which, like the rest of him, remained trim and fit until his dying day - when he had ventured some particularly outrageous bid which had come off, to the amazement of his partner and the fury of his opponents. He would then relax and tell one of his large fund of funny stories, mostly politically incorrect, virtually all unprintable. (I can hear him muttering, loud enough to be heard by everyone in the room, "What a load of rubbish", on reading this paragraph.)
One of the happiest elements in the Ross-Goobey story is the fact that his son Alistair has turned out to be a (somewhat less outrageous) chip off the old block. A distinguished chief executive of Hermes, one of the City's biggest pension fund groups, he has proved to be one of the few prepared to stick his neck over the parapet and go public with opinions blunt enough to be worthy of his father, on subjects such as corporate governance. One of his campaigns was to ensure that company directors should retire at the age of 70, an idea that caused many a twitch, part-amused, part-irritated, part proud, of George Ross-Goobey's moustache during the years before he himself finally resigned from his last directorship of a public company - at the age of 80.
George Ross-Goobey, investment manager: born London 23 May 1911; married 1937 Gladys Menzies (one son, one daughter); died 19 March 1999.
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