Sir David Orr: Unilever chairman who helped recreate Shakespeare's Globe

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The Independent Online

David Orr was one of the most outstanding business managers ever produced by Ireland. After winning an MC and Bar in Burma in 1945, he rose through the ranks to serve as a distinguished chairman of Unilever. For 10 years after his retirement in 1982 he proved to be an equally effective non-executive director of a number of other groups, while also serving as chairman of the British Council for seven years – and he was a driving force in turning Sam Wanamaker's dream of creating a "new" Globe theatre into reality.

Orr was born a few miles from Dublin into the Protestant ascendancy, the third child of Canon A.W.F. Orr, Rector of a Dublin parish and Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. He won a scholarship to the High School in Dublin and studied classics at Trinity College Dublin, then a pillar of Protestantism in an increasingly Catholic environment, where he became a notable boxer and rugby player. Later, as a centre three-quarter he captained London Irish and even had a trial for the Irish rugby team.

Before the Second World War Orr had joined a Territorial unit of the Royal Ulster Rifles and left university to join the Royal Engineers. In the latter part of the war he served with an Indian regiment, Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners, and earned two Military Crosses during the rapid advance of the Fourteen Army from Mandalay to capture Rangoon in the spring of 1945 before the monsoon set in.

His squadron supported a Tank Brigade which spearheaded the advance by repairing airfields captured from the Japanese. But his MCs were awarded for daring and gutsy leadership in employing a bridge-laying tank to install an assault bridge over a deep gully under intensive fire, enabling British tanks to cross. Typically he never talked of his war record, even to his family.

In 1948, after completing a law degree, Orr became a graduate trainee at Unilever. Seven years later he returned to the East to work for Unilever's important Indian subsidiary before returning as a member of the group's "Overseas Committee" supervising Unilever's activities in the developing world. By 1965 he had been promoted to be president of Lever Bros, one of Unilver's American subsidiaries and in 1967 joined the main board.

By 1970, while still only 47, a youngster in group terms, he had risen to vice-chairman and was a member of the three-man Anglo-Dutch "special committee" which controlled the group. As chairman for eight years from 1974, he had to cope with the economic upheavals of the late 1970s as well as the problems inevitable in steering an enormous global business, with its two headquarters, in London and Rotterdam, covering a wide range of products from Lipton's tea to washing powder.

Until recently, the double-headed nature of the company imposed considerable obstacles to any dramatic change in the group's policies and resulted in a far more consensual atmosphere than in most other groups of Unilever's enormous size. So, in terms of character, Orr was an ideal chairman, in what one colleague describes as "succeeding in building a consensus around what were in fact his own views".

Endowed with a phenomenal memory for names and faces he was modest, friendly, approachable, thoughtful to subordinates and, unlike many other successful businessmen, did not lose touch with friends he had known before his ascent to power. Moreover his background left him without the social snobbery still associated with the upper ranks of British business at the time.

Orr had two major achievements to his credit. For his shareholders his biggest was to provide a new impetus to the group's enormous, but under-performing American interests, which had always run a bad second to its rival, Proctor & Gamble, and had underperformed Unilever's businesses outside the United States. Legally, Unilever's American interests were a nightmare muddle, the result of the trusts that had been created during the war because of Unilever's partly Dutch ownership, which made the group's American interests liable to confiscation as enemy property. To make matters worse – and partly for legal reasons – the group's interests had been divided into separate, and fiercely independent, companies.

Orr sent to New York Michael Angus, a future chairman of the whole group, and divided the business into three companies all reporting to him. With Orr's support Angus was able to boost the group and embark on a large investment programme, which included two important acquisitions – though untangling of the legal position was not completed before Orr retired.

A more unusual success came with the refurbishment to the highest standards of Unilever's imposing headquarters by the Thames, one of London's few important Art Deco buildings. The refurbishment involved a major operation which ensured that both the building's exterior and interior specific attractions were retained.

In the decade after his retirement from Unilever, Orr continued to demonstrate the qualities which had served him well within the group. Until his final retirement in 1993 at the age of 70, he served on a number of salary-review boards in the public sector, but shone more obviously as a – very active – non-executive director of a number of companies including Shell and Rio Tinto Zinc.

He was far more involved at the Inchcape Group, which he joined in 1983 after the retirement of the third Lord Inchape, who had built up the company over a quarter of a century into an international trading group. But when Orr took over as chairman, he faced a familiar situation which occurs when a dominating figure retires from a company. As he said at the time, "we didn't have a director under the age of 55", and he so brought in new blood, thus professionalising the management, before handing over what had become largely a world-wide network of car dealers to John Barber, a veteran of the motor industry.

Not content with his directorships, Orr also took on what could have been full-time chairmanships, of the British Council and the Globe Theatre Trust. At the British Council he succeeded in getting a considerable – and long-awaited – funding increase from the Thatcher government which enabled the Council to provide new or expanded offices and programmes as far afield as Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China and the Caribbean.

But perhaps his most unusual role was at the Globe Theatre Trust. He had been brought in by the architect Theo Crosby, who had worked on refurbishing the Unilever Building and together they provided crucial support for the American actor Sam Wanamaker, for whom rebuilding the Globe was a life-long dream facing apparently insuperable problems.

Southwark Council had originally been willing to provide the site – once that of a Borough depot for dust carts. But in the early 1980s a newly elected, very left-wing council reneged on the deal on the grounds that it would not provide unskilled jobs. Wanamaker fought a tenacious and eventually successful battle in the High Court to get the council's refusal rescinded – an action which would never have succeeded without David Orr's backing.

Nicholas Faith

David Alexander Orr, businessman: born 10 May 1922; MC and Bar 1945; staff, Unilever companies 1948-82; staff, Hindustan Lever 1955-60; president, Lever Bros, New York 1965-67; director, Unilever 1967-82, vice-chairman 1970-74, chairman 1974-82; Kt 1977; Chairman, Leverhulme Trust 1982-92; chairman, Inchcape 1983-86, 1991-92; Governor, London School of Economics 1980-96; President, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine 1981-89; Chairman, Shakespeare Globe Theatre Trust 1982-93; Chairman, British Council 1985-92; President, Children's Medical Charity 1991-96; married 1949 Phoebe Davis (three daughters); died 2 February 2008.