Desmond Misselbrook

Psychologist turned businessman
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The Independent Online

My first encounter with Desmond Misselbrook could not have been more inauspicious.

Bertram Desmond Misselbrook, psychologist and businessman: born 28 May 1913; Lecturer in Psychology and Director, Unit of Applied Psychology, Edinburgh University 1945-49, Senior Research Fellow in Business Studies 1970-71; deputy chairman, British-American Tobacco 1963-70; Chairman, Livingston Development Corporation 1972-78; CBE 1972; FRSE 1978; married 1949 Anne Goodman (two sons); died Blairgowrie, Perthshire 5 March 2005.

My first encounter with Desmond Misselbrook could not have been more inauspicious.

In 1972, I was the 10-year-old (in parliamentary terms) MP for West Lothian, representing two-fifths of the infant new town of Livingston. The Chairman of Livingston Development Corporation was a senior Glasgow councillor and solicitor, Bill Taylor, appointed by Willie Ross, Harold Wilson's Secretary of State for Scotland, in 1965. Taylor was doing a good job, and, immersed in new town plans, wished to continue. Unexpectedly, the incoming Conservative government declined to reappoint Taylor, and put in his stead Desmond Misselbrook, widely seen as a place man, and "one of their own".

Alex Eadie, representing three-fifths of the new town, and I exploded in public. We said that the actions of Gordon Campbell, as Edward Heath's Secretary of State, constituted political vengeance, and that Misselbrook was a political appointee, singularly inappropriate, for a Labour ex-shale-mining, coal-mining area. The hullabaloo dominated the press north of the border for some days.

Eadie and I met Misselbrook. The meeting was unsurprisingly cryogenic on both sides. Yet, as we began to work together, relations thawed, and within months Eadie and I realised that we were dealing with a heavyweight, who won our respect, and soon our friendship.

If the new town of Livingston is a success today - and it is more successful than most new towns - it owes much to the steely good sense of Desmond Misselbrook, and his six years' chairmanship. Not only did he build on the foundations laid by Taylor, and his long-term General Manager, Brigadier Arthur Purches, but through his American contacts he ensured the expansion of firms from across the Atlantic, the most spectacular of which was the Cameron Ironworks from Houston in Texas, who built the biggest forge in Western Europe. This was, in turn, one of the major contributors to the North Sea oil and gas industry, whose potential Misselbrook was one of the first to identify.

Desmond Misselbrook's father was a provision merchant in Hampshire who sent Misselbrook to Chatham House, Ramsgate, and Bristol University, where he won first class honours in Psychology. Throughout the Second World War he was a civilian, responsible for the selection of naval officers and naval ratings for particular tasks.

In 1945, at the instigation of the Edinburgh University Vice-Chancellor Sir Edward Appleton, the Nobel prizewinner who gave his name to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Misselbrook, along with his friend James Drever, later Vice-Chancellor of Dundee University, set up the Applied Psychology Unit at Edinburgh. This was based on the idea of a teaching hospital and involved a great deal of contact with industry, an accepted idea nowadays but then most unusual.

Misselbrook left Edinburgh because he wanted pastures new and joined British-American Tobacco, where he came to be regarded as both "a mind-reader and a witch doctor". He developed a scheme for worldwide remuneration of BAT employees so that there could be an easier transfer of staff. He inaugurated one of the first earnings- related pension schemes in a major company. He set up BAT management training, which brought an ethos of reason, order, and ultimate success to those who passed through. Misselbrook was a man regarded in BAT as of phenomenal physical stamina. It was said that there had to be two teams of employees dealing with him, one from 6pm to 10pm and another from 10pm to 2am, when he would often end the evening with a cheerful "And just so that we can clear our minds, one more Martini".

In 1969 he made the decision to exchange life in the English stockbroker belt for that of a Strathtay country gentleman. He was an immensely successful chairman of Anderson Strathclyde, 1974-77, makers of heavy equipment for the coal industry, and of Seaforth Maritime, 1977-78, besides playing a key role as deputy chairman of Standard Life.

Tam Dalyell