Leonard Wolfson: Businessman and philanthropist

Leonard Gordon Wolfson, who has died at the age of 82, took control of a family business which earned huge amounts of money and also distributed huge amounts through a philanthropic foundation.

In his decades in charge of both, he made money with remarkable regularity as boss of Great Universal Stores, which he built into a powerful retailing empire that reported year-on-year profits for almost half a century. Meanwhile, The Wolfson Foundation, which he and his parents set up, distributed in excess of a billion pounds to a vast array of causes in education, health, science and the humanities.

In this he followed in the footsteps of his father, Isaac, of whom Lord Young of Graffham once said: "He loved making money, and he loved giving it away." The description applied equally to his son, Leonard. But although his philanthropy was on a prodigious scale, his concern for mankind was not so evident at a personal level. "He was not what you would call user-friendly," a former director once confided to Management Today magazine. "In fact, he could be appallingly rude. I would say he had more self-confidence than anyone I have met."

He added: "I can't say his presence was good for the digestion. Everyone froze when he came into the room – the other directors always referred to him as "Sir". He was the hardest man I have ever met." A family friend added to this conception of Wolfson's public face. "I think he prefers books on history and economics to people. He is very difficult to get on with – a man who often acts irrationally and bears grudges."

The magazine summed him up as heavy-handed, terse and acidic – "a multi-billion-pound enigma, a man feared, loathed and respected in roughly equal measure."

Leonard Wolfson was born in 1927 and educated at The King's School, Worcester. He skipped university. His father was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who settled in Glasgow and developed a small furniture concern. Isaac worked first for his father and then for Great Universal Stores, a fast-growing mail-order business. It grew even more rapidly after he became chairman following the Second World War, with acquisitions including the fashion house Burberry.

Wolfson and his father ran the company together until the latter succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. Wolfson became a director in 1952, managing director in 1962 and chairman in 1981. In the 1980s he swam against the commercial tide, selling more than 2,000 high street shops to the puzzlement of rivals who were in headlong expansion. His approach, which was one of consolidation, concentrating on mail order and on a large property portfolio, paid off. He remained chairman until 1996 when he handed over control to his cousin David, Lord Wolfson of Sunningdale.

Choosing to run his operation from an office near the Tottenham Court Road rather than from within the Square Mile, the style Leonard Wolfson cultivated for GUS was austere, ascetic, even secretive. These traits did not always endear him or his company to the City. While acknowledging the virtues of the company as a "reliable colossus", the financial press complained that all it did was to carry on "monotonously churning out profits".

Wolfson was oblivious to such carping: he was in the business not of winning friends, but of influencing people and making profits. He was content to preside over what has been described as the longest period of continuous profitability of any company in these islands, reporting year-on-year profits for 48 years. His style was autocratic not only in business but also in philanthropy. The Wolfson Foundation, formed in 1955 after much careful planning, came into being after his mother, father and Wolfson himself gathered in his magnificent apartment in central London to establish the enterprise. The signing of documents took place under a legendary art collection worth millions of pounds.

In the years that followed, millions flowed out to good causes in the UK, Israel and elsewhere. But funds were released only after the most detailed research and under Wolfson's own exacting scrutiny. Its grants and endowments were myriad, among them one Wolfson College in Oxford and another in Cambridge. In all, more than 8,000 grants have been distributed.

While most of these went to UK causes, he reportedly gave a total of $300m to Israel, where he was friendly with many of the country's leaders, including Shimon Peres and Chaim Herzog. Tel Aviv academic Professor Haim Ben-Shahar, a member of the Foundation's advisory board, said of him: "He felt very Jewish and Zionist. In 1948, as a young man, he came to Israel during the war of independence by ship so that he could be with the young country at a crucial moment."

In British politics he was a Tory, taking the Conservative whip in the House of Lords after receiving a peerage in 1985. He was not, however, a Thatcherite, supporting Michael Heseltine for the party leadership. He received a knighthood and, in 1985, a life peerage. He also received innumerable awards and honours from academic and other institutions, most of them in recognition of his bequests, and sat on scores of committees.

The only son of Sir Isaac and Lady Wolfson, his first marriage took place in 1949, producing four daughters, who survive him. This marriage was dissolved in 1991; later in the same year he married again.

David McKittrick

Lord Wolfson, businessman and philanthropist: born 11 November 1927; married first Ruth Sterling 1947 (marriage dissolved, four daughters), second Estelle Feldman 1991; died 20 May 2010.