Sir Brian Shaw: Leading figure in UK shipping who reformed the Port of London Authority and the AA

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The Independent Online

Brian Shaw was a leading figure in the UK shipping world in the 1970s and '80s. He rose from graduate trainee of the old Pacific Steam Navigation Company to Chairman of the parent company, Furness Withy. In that capacity he was president of the General Council of British Shipping and subsequently chairman of the Port of London Authority, an Elder Brother of Trinity House, chairman of Grindlay's Bank and the Automobile Association. In all these posts he faced challenging and controversial issues which he dealt with calmly, quietly and with outstanding efficiency.

Brian Shaw was born on 21 March 1933 in Liverpool, the son of Percy Shaw, a branch manager of the Provincial Building Society, and Olive Hart, who came of a musical family. He was an only child and, by his own admission, rather spoilt – but one never saw any sign of that in later life. He was schooled at Wrekin College, where his successful career started; he became Head Boy and Captain of cricket.

He was a clever boy and secured a place at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, but before he could take it up he was called up for National Service, commissioned in the Cheshire Regiment, and served for two years in the Suez Canal zone in the period leading up to Nasser's nationalisation of the canal – a fraught time.

On going up to Cambridge Shaw read Economics and Law with a view to becoming a barrister. With this in mind he completed his dinners at Gray's Inn. But due to a fortunate telephone conversation his life changed – his dinners had been eaten in vain. Instead he joined the Pacific Steam Navigation Company as a graduate trainee, learning the shipping liner trades not only at head office in Liverpool but also in the fleet and at ports up and down the east and west coasts of South America. He was recalled to Liverpool in 1959 and promoted to company secretary. Thereafter he rose steadily through the ranks of the parent company, Furness Withy, until he became its chairman. It was then that he became President of the General Council of British Shipping and among other duties played an influential part in the arguments between European and Japanese ship-owners and the European Union and the US over the alleged anti-competitive practices of Liner Conferences. For this work he was knighted. After doing his turn as UK president he took on for several years the chairmanship of the International Chamber of Shipping, where he once again shone.

However, this was a time of serious decline in British shipping. Furness Withy was not exempt and with the agreement of the Board and shareholders Shaw sold the company to Orient Overseas of Hong Kong – the Tung family's leading company. But the sale did not prosper and the Tung family investments proved vastly over-indebted. Their interests were eventually saved by the Chinese Government and CH Tung was appointed Chief Minister of Hong Kong after the Chinese takeover. Furness Withy disappeared after 160 years under the British flag.

Despite the débâcle of Furness Withy, Shaw was much sought after for other jobs. His shipping interests had brought him into close contact with ministers and senior officials in Australia and New Zealand and he was invited to become chairman of Grindlay's New Zealand bank, leading to the chairmanship of Grindlay's itself.

At the age of 60 he was appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport to be a member of the Port of London Authority, then on the verge of being broken up following the privatisation of Tilbury Docks. The PLA was left with their up-river commitments and Shaw became chairman of the River Committee. He sold the vast, imposing Edwardian headquarters of the old PLA, not without much controversy.

About the same time – 1989 – Shaw was invited to become an Elder Brother of Trinity House, the 16th-century institution which governed the lighthouses and pilotage of the UK. The organisation was in trouble due to injudicious property investments but with the support of fellow-thinking members of Trinity House – including the Master, the Duke of Edinburgh – Shaw was instrumental in reorganising and reforming their finances.

In 1995 Shaw was invited to take over as chairman of the Automobile Association. Here was another fuddy-duddy organisation living in the past; Shaw took it by the scruff of the neck – not without controversy – led the campaign for demutualisation and saw it through. Then he organised the sale of the AA to Centrica, another bold decision.

All this time Shaw continued on the boards of several shipping companies – Andrew Weir (with the support of its chairman, Viscount Runciman), AWSR Shipping, as well as Enterprise Oil and AMP Asset Management. He retired at the age of 70 from these numerous commitments and devoted himself to a number of charitable enterprises. He was elected Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights and Vice President of the King George's Fund for Sailors, as well as a Bencher of Gray's Inn.

In his day Shaw had been a fine cricketer and golfer – he continued to play golf until his dying year, regretting the mounting of his handicap. He was a genial and kindly man, masking a spirit of great determination and sound business and financial sense. He was a devoted family man, his wife Pennie travelling with him as far as possible to his manifold overseas interests and bringing up three successful sons.

Patrick Shovelton

Brian Shaw, shipowner, banker and company director: born Liverpool 21 March 1933; Chairman, Port of London Authority 1993–2000; Kt 1986; married 1962 Penelope Reece (three sons); died London 5 February 2011.