Obituary: Sir Alick Rankin

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALICK RANKIN was the man who saved Scottish & Newcastle from the clutches of the Fosters lager group, Elders IXL, and went on to transform the docile Edinburgh brewer into a corporate combatant ultimately able to exact the sweet revenge of mounting its own successful takeover of Elders' UK business.

He was one of the most distinguished, and original, figures in Scottish business. Yet, to the unwary, Rankin could seem the very epitome of the business establishment, and of a high Tory tradition hunted to virtual extinction in the Scotland of the 1980s and 1990s. His fondness for country pursuits and for golf served to heighten the illusion of other-worldly privilege.

Eton, the Guards, and Christ Church, Oxford, led to a business career that culminated in governance of some of Scotlands's most prestigious companies: S&N, General Accident, Christian Salvesen, Bank of Scotland, James Finlay. Extra- curricular roles at the Edinburgh Festival Society, Glenalmond College and as Deputy Lieutenant of the City of Edinburgh reinforced the genteel whiff of the New Town dinner table.

But those who expected such a background to denote softness of head or heart found themselves up against a corporate pugilist whose grit was matched both by shrewdness of the highest order and by a quality somewhere between mischief and dash. There were clues in his early years for those who chose to notice them.

Rankin's origins were privileged though colourful. The family fortune came from the Victorian trade boom, but there was also a romantic strain in the genes. His grandfather was an explorer who lost his toes to frostbite in the Andes, while his father, Lt-Col Niall Rankin exchanged a successful London career as a photographer for a hill farm in Mull. His mother, Lady Jean Rankin - Woman of the Bedchamber to the Queen Mother for over 30 years - was daughter of the Earl of Stair, scion of one of Scotland's oldest noble families.

At school and university, Rankin's achievements were athletic rather than academic, and he failed to graduate. He went to Canada, vaguely intending to become a lumberjack, but instead joined a merchant bank, Wood Gundy. It was during his four years there that he met his first wife, Susan Dewhurst, by whom he had four children. He returned to Britain in 1960, and took up post as a stocktaker with Scottish & National Breweries, the company with which he would spend the next 37 years. Despite the stodgy reputation of the Scottish "beerage" his managerial panache was swiftly detected and he was put in charge of a group of famously unsalubrious Glasgow pubs. It was the unpromising first rung of a managerial ladder which he was to scale with steady assurance.

Rankin joined the board of S&N in 1974, becoming chief executive in 1983 and chairman in 1989, a position beheld until January 1997. His impact was rapid and profound, and by the time he moved into the chairmanship the group was a wholly different entity from that which he had inherited.

S&N had long had a reputation for complacency, a perceived characteristic of Scottish business which would draw so many predators to Scotland in the 1980s. The company played little part in the widespread rationalisation that seized the British brewing sector in the 1970s, appearing content with its local marketplaces of Scotland and north-east England even though a tired range of brands, indifferently marketed, was resulting in a steady erosion of its UK market share.

Rankin swiftly proved to be of very different stamp. He embarked on what was to become a sustained programme of bold acquisitions, taking S&N into the southern marketplace with the purchase of brewers like Matthew Brown, Theakston and, in 1995, Elders' British brewing arm, Courage. Ultimately, he would diversify still further across the leisure industries, acquiring Center Parcs, Pontin's and the pub chain Chef & Brewer.

It was early in this transitional phase, however, that his toughest challenge arose. The mid-1980s had seen a string of douce Scottish companies fall prey to omnivorous outsiders, most notably Guinness's notorious 1986 absorption of Distillers, in some respects S&N's whisky counterpart. There was, therefore, a certain inevitability when, in October 1988, Australia's biggest brewer launched a hostile pounds 1.6bn bid, having had previous approaches rebuffed.

John Elliott's Elders IXL group was a recent arrival in the UK marketplace, and not conspicuously constrained by the finer points of British market etiquette. It had already bought Courage from Hanson Trust, a transaction completed while it awaited the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's dispensation on its attempted takeover of Allied-Lyons. With the same air of impatience Elders continued to buy up S&N shares after its bid for the Edinburgh brewer had been referred, an indiscretion which resulted in an unheard- of second MMC referral on the same takeover.

Elders was a daunting opponent but, to its apparent surprise, it found Rankin's S&N equal to the challenge. In a campaign that was not without subsequent irony, Rankin played the Scottish card to mobilise both public and political opinion in defence of S&N. Elliott and his team held court in an Edinburgh hotel in a vain attempt to match fire. The MMC blocked the bid.

The episode made Rankin's reputation, and saw him invited on to numerous blue-chip boards, including the Bank of Scotland, BAT Industries, and General Accident, where he was appointed chairman in 1997 and helped steer through the Perth insurer's merger with Commercial Union. He was also a director of the Securities Trust for Scotland, chairman of the Brewers' Society in 1989-90, and later chairman of the financial services lobby, Scottish Financial Enterprise.

At the same time, he was gaining public recognition as a leading light in the ranks of the quangocracy which ran much of public policy in pre- devolution Scotland, and he became a key ally of Scotland's embattled Tory ministers. He was knighted in 1992.

Rankin had prodigious energy, very little of which he devoted to courting popularity. He was one of business's most abrasive critics of devolution, which he saw as an excuse for fiscal profligacy, and he did not hesitate to flay the Scottish media for what he believed was their inherent prejudice against such views. The fashionable notion that business should work with the grain of public opinion was rarely evident in his approach. That Scotland's Parliament is now being built on the site of S&N's former offices at Holyrood is poignant to many.

Yet, he was personally capable of charm, wit, and kindness, and there was often devilment beside the forceful intelligence in his slightly hooded eyes. He had proven wisdom to match his imperishable self- confidence. Henry McLeish, the minister who steered through the devolution legislation, spoke of Rankin's considerable role in Scottish business and public life. They will certainly be duller without him.

Alick Michael Rankin, industrialist: born London 23 January 1935; Marketing Director, Scottish & Newcastle Breweries (later Scottish & Newcastle plc) 1977-82, Chief Executive 1983-91, Deputy Chairman 1987-89, Chairman 1989- 97; CBE 1987; Kt 1992; Chairman, Scottish Financial Enterprise 1992-95; Chairman, Christian Salvesen 1992-97; Chairman, General Accident 1997- 98; Deputy Chairman, CGU plc 1998-99; married 1958 Susan Dewhurst (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1976), 1976 Suzetta Barber (nee Nelson); died Edinburgh 3 August 1999.

Comments