Cob Stenham

Rollercoaster reorganiser of Unilever


Anthony William Paul ("Cob") Stenham, businessman: born London 28 January 1932; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1955; finance director, Unilever 1970-86, chairman Unilever US 1978-79, corporate development director, Unilever and Unilever NV 1984-86; Chairman of Council, ICA 1977-87, of Advisory Board 1987-89; Chairman of Council and Pro-Provost, Royal College of Art 1979-81; managing director New York and chairman Europe, Middle East and Africa, Bankers Trust Co 1986-90; chairman, Wiggins Teape Appleton (later Arjo Wiggins Appleton) 1990-97; deputy chairman, Telewest Communications plc (from 2004 Telewest Global) 1994-99, chairman 1999-2006; chairman, Ashtead Group 2004-06; married 1966 The Hon Meg Poole (marriage dissolved), 1983 Anne O'Rawe (two daughters; marriage dissolved); died London 22 October 2006.

Cob Stenham hit Unilever in 1970 like a hurricane with flair. It is a tribute to that bastion of Anglo-Dutch conservatism that it took the risk. Not many finance directors then, or since, arrive in the office trailing a scarf that looks like Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, topped by a jauntily placed trilby, proceed to an office adorned by four Warhol Marilyn Monroes (their own) and make a first call of the day either to the Institute of Contemporary Arts or Annabel's, where they have left a briefcase.

Born in 1932, Anthony William Paul Stenham was dubbed Cob by his mother, an assistant to H.H. Asquith, after the 19th-century politician Richard Cobden. Having been educated "abroad" until 1946, he spent five years at Eton, where his friendship with Jimmy Goldsmith developed, as did his taste for a "good gamble". Trinity College, Cambridge, followed and then the Bar and, immediately afterwards, chartered accountancy. And who said accountants were boring?

All this was preparation for his extraordinary career with, and impact upon, Unilever. During 17 rollercoaster years he coaxed and sometimes dragged this corporate icon into engagement with the financial markets and the prying eyes of the media. He irritated and excited his colleagues, often simultaneously, and never allowed the business to lapse into cosy contentment. He personally oversaw more than 200 acquisitions or disposals of business which fundamentally reshaped Unilever.

High spots included the purchase of National Starch in the United States in 1978, then the largest all-cash acquisition by a foreign company in the US at the princely sum of $483m (which might today cover the bankers' fees), and Unilever's first (and successful) hostile bid for Brooke Bond in 1984. A low point was undoubtedly the failed bid for Richardson Vicks in 1986.

However, his most sustaining impact on Unilever was his ability to spot and then rapidly develop young talent. Graduates of the Stenham School have served on the boards of at least 10 FTSE 100 companies. He helped you to see possibilities beyond your imagining - or he burnt you out. Either way you were fundamentally changed by the encounter. One colleague who worked closely with him said he learned more in two years with Stenham than in any other 10 of his career.

He craved an impact on Unilever beyond the financial. His visits across the Unilever world were legendary and traumatic for the hosts. Stenham's appetite for work and play, and tolerance for little sleep, left others exhausted. He travelled the Unilever circuit as no other executive since Lord Lever.

In 1978 he was asked to take responsibility for Unilever's troublesome businesses in the US. This potentially poisoned chalice was accepted with the cool nerves of a practised risk-taker. He quickly set about the slaying of entrenched dragons - but, with victory in sight, fate intervened cruelly and he had his first heart by-pass in 1979.

When Stenham reluctantly accepted in 1986 that he would not realise his ambition to run Unilever he decided to switch tracks. He joined Bankers Trust as European chairman. There he sought to reawaken the commitment to genuine relationship banking - which works to the principle that the first priority is that of the client. Disappointed that others did not share his sense of the importance of trust in banker-client relationships, he embarked on an astonishing portfolio career in 1990.

A journey which started as executive chairman of Arjo Wiggins moved on through the most eclectic mix of businesses imaginable. It included Capital Radio, Colonial Mutual, Rank, Rothmans, Standard Bank, STC, Trafalgar House, Unigate, Virgin and Worms. Was there ever a more gifted amateur? At one time Cob Stenham was on the board of 12 publicly quoted companies and all received his unique brand of professional attention.

In recent years his work in pulling Telewest from the jaws of bankruptcy and orchestrating the merger with NTL showed that the skills of the master deal-maker remained intact. Just to show that he was for ever in pursuit of the contemporary, Stenham served on the boards of Ifonline and Whatsonwhen plc and found time to chair the Ashtead Group.

"The typical businessman in this country would be a trustee of Covent Garden or, if he was really racy, he might be a governor of the RSC. I'm into much more hazardous stuff, and I happen to find that much more interesting." Stenham's commitment to the world of contemporary arts was as supercharged as his business engagement. He managed (very successfully) to chair the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Royal College of Arts simultaneously and was an active council member or governor of the Architectural Association, Camden Arts Centre, Design Museum, Museum of London, Parnam Trust and the Theatre Trust. Even to list them leaves one breathless - but Stenham had few problems making time for his involvement with the arts' "most artistic organisations". He said: "Work odd hours and you can fit it into a structured business life!"

The other great passion of Cob Stenham's life was his home in Highgate. Filled with books and the contemporary art he so loved, and adorned by a beautiful garden of his own creation, it represented a blend of intellectual stimulus and peace. Those who were his privileged guests left feeling renewed and more complete.

Cob met, married and divorced Meg and Anne. There are two delightful and gifted daughters from his second marriage, Polly and Daisy. They became the centre of his universe. His extraordinary talent and seemingly unquenchable energy were focused on their future and fulfilment. They know, as do we, that in his passing the world has lost edge and excitement, and all of us have lost inspiration.

Niall FitzGerald

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