Obituary: Joe Hyman

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The Independent Culture
JOE HYMAN was one of the business superstars of the 1960s. As chairman of Viyella International between 1961 and 1969 he transformed the face of the British textile industry and became one of the most glamorous business figures of the decade.

Hyman was born into the textile business. His great-grandparents had been textile merchants in Russia and his father, Solly Hyman, was in the trade in Manchester, then the centre of the cotton business. After leaving North Manchester Grammar School, Joe went to work with his father.

His own career began in earnest in 1945 when, at the age of 23, he went into business on his own buying and selling cloth from a small office in the back streets of Manchester with a capital of pounds 10,000 and a hefty overdraft from Martins Bank. "I started," he said, "with a silver-plated spoon."

From the start it was clear that he was no ordinary businessman, known in the trade as "The Professor" because of his interest in the arts and his passion for music - a not surprising taste for a man brought up in the home of the Halle and a long musical tradition among the city's Jewish community. He remained an untypical businessman throughout his career. As Oliver Marriott noted in The Sunday Times when Hyman was at the peak of his fame: "He looks more of a rich Mayfair salesman of antiques than the tough, innovating revolutionary of a traditional industry in need of a purge."

In 1951 Hyman moved to London to be nearer his customers and six years later paid pounds 180,000 for Melso Fabrics at Cornard in Suffolk. He was soon heading a small group called Gainsborough-Cornard (he had registered the name Gainsborough as early as 1945 because of its classy air). In 1961 came a decisive step forward when Cornard merged with William Hollins, a solidly based firm best known for Viyella, a well-loved material used to provide warm undergarments for children and older people in the days before central heating.

Hyman soon took over from the old, inefficient management, changed the name of the group to Viyella, and claimed that he was hoping to inject some glamour into the material. More important was his urge to use Viyella as the foundation for the creation of a major textile business.

But Hyman still lacked the necessary capital. The boost he required came in 1963, when ICI, then the dominant force in British industry, invested pounds 13m, a considerable sum for the time, in Viyella through a 20 per cent stake in the equity as well as a pounds 10m loan.

The previous year ICI had been thwarted in an unusually controversial bid for Courtaulds which was building up an integrated textile empire and ICI was trying to create a competitive force. ICI may have been ready to invest but it took all Hyman's considerable persuasive skills (backed by a thorough business plan, then a rarity in British business) to persuade ICI's chairman, Sir Paul Chambers, to invest in this brash newcomer.

During the 1960s Hyman played a leading role in the general integration and rationalisation of the formerly fragmented textile business sector. To complete the vertical integration for which Hyman was looking, Viyella bought a number of firms, including Combined English Mills, a large cotton- spinning firm, Bradford Dyers, the largest dyer and finisher of fabrics in the country, and a spinner and weaver, Clegg and Orr.

Viyella soon became a major force, generally the second in the sector concerned, in the whole process of transforming cotton thread into finished garment. By 1969 Viyella was one of the three biggest textile groups in the country, owning then-familiar brands such as Aertex, Clydella and British Van Heusen, makers of a well-known brand of shirt.

Perhaps more significantly, Hyman was perceived as the archetype of the modern, classless British businessman. "I object," he told an interviewer, "to the idea that top jobs would be the monopoly of the upper middle class." Moreover he had a clear and entirely appropriate business strategy, to allow the Far Eastern textile businesses to dominate the lower end of the market and to rely on quality: "We produce the best higher-quality textiles. That is what we must make and sell."

Hyman pioneered many business techniques that are now routine. He was tough, chopping the staff of the head offices of the businesses he bought and selling the premises, and modern too, insisting on round-the-clock working, chasing excess stock levels and the unprofitable quest for turnover at the expense of profits. Characteristically he never worried if sales of a firm went down provided that profits improved ("Too big a turnover is the enemy of many textile firms," he once said).

As Hyman himself was fond of saying, "I'm not a modest man, I fully recognise that", and indeed for most of the 1960s he retained his - typically Jewish - capacity for self-mockery, once paraphrasing the words of the older Pitt by declaring "I saved Viyella by my efforts and the textile industry by my example."

But by the end of the decade he was beginning to lose touch with reality. He once declared to an astonished audience at a private lunch that he had been offered the leadership of the Liberal Party but that he had refused because it would have meant moving to the House of Lords.

Although Hyman talked of Viyella as a "Federation of Textile Businesses" it was very much a one-man band, a style unsuited to running an increasingly complex empire and one, moreover, that had suffered in the economic down turn of the late 1960s - even if shareholders who had bought Viyella back in 1961 had seen their money multiply eightfold.

By 1969 relationships with ICI had grown increasingly strained as the Big Brother insisted in its right to invest in rival businesses. Moreover the Labour government was becoming increasingly concerned at the pace of concentration in the textile industry and had objected to a bid by Courtaulds for a firm called English Calico Printers.

In 1969, in a dramatic boardroom coup, Hyman was removed from the chairmanship, effectively ending any positive role in the group he had built up. ICI soon bought the whole of Viyella, merging it with Carrington and Dewhurst, and within a few years after a period as Vantona Viyella, it emerged as part of the Scottish cotton thread firm of Coats Paton, which is now known as Coats Viyella.

In the 1970s Joe Hyman tried the same techniques to build up a comparable empire in the woollen industry through John Crowther but failed, although he left a healthy firm using the most modern equipment, when he retired in 1980 to the Surrey countryside, where he was able to indulge his passion for music by a relentless round of concert-going.

Joe Hyman, businessman: born Manchester 14 October 1921; married 1948 Corrinne Abrahams (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1963 Simone Duke (one son, one daughter); died 6 July 1999.