Sir Ian Fraser

Soldier who left Reuters for a meteoric City career
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The Independent Online

The first director-general of the Panel on Take-overs and Mergers, and later a chairman of Rolls-Royce Motors and Lazard Brothers, Ian Fraser came of warrior Highland and Roman Catholic stock.

Ian James Fraser, journalist, banker and businessman: born Moniack, Inverness-shire 7 August 1923; MC 1945; Director-General, Panel on Take-overs and Mergers 1969-72; chairman, Rolls Royce Motors 1971-80; CBE 1972; chairman, Datastream 1976-77; Chairman, City Capital Markets Committee 1974-78; chairman, Lazard Brothers 1980-89; deputy chairman, Vickers 1980-89; Chairman, Accepting Houses Committee 1981-85; deputy chairman, TSB Group 1985-91; Kt 1986; married 1958 Anne Grant (died 1984; two sons, two daughters), 1993 Fiona Martin (née Douglas-Home); died Taunton 8 May 2003.

The first director-general of the Panel on Take-overs and Mergers, and later a chairman of Rolls-Royce Motors and Lazard Brothers, Ian Fraser came of warrior Highland and Roman Catholic stock.

An uncle was killed at Ypres in 1914, his father painfully wounded at Gallipoli the following year. His first cousin was the 15th Lord ("Shimi") Lovat, the renowned Commando leader of the Second World War, while another cousin, Veronica, a war widow, was married subsequently to Fitzroy Maclean, dropped by Churchill into Tito's wartime Yugoslavia. Out of a school class of 17, four of Fraser's contemporaries were to die in the Second World War. He himself won the MC with the Scots Guards in Italy; mentioned in despatches, he was captured, and escaped, at Salerno in 1943, and was several times wounded.

Fraser was born in 1923 at Moniack, on the Beauly River in Inverness-shire, a house which had been in the family for 600 years. (Of his Fraser antecedents, Ian used to joke that they, fortunately, missed the Battle of Culloden by tarrying on the way.)

He attended Ampleforth College and Magdalen, Oxford, but his studies were interrupted by the war. His tutor – A.J.P. Taylor – reckoned he would otherwise certainly have got a First. In 1946 he joined Reuters as foreign correspondent in Paris, earning £600 a year, and was later transferred to Bonn, where he became bureau chief for eight years.

In 1956 he left to join Warburgs in the City, and from then on his ascent was meteoric. From Warburgs he was picked by the Prime Minister Harold Wilson to be Director-General of the new Panel on Take-overs and Mergers in 1969; the belief being that someone with Fraser's acute intellect and military training could bring discipline into the jungle that was London corporate finance.

Among numerous other directorships he was chairman of Rolls-Royce Motors from 1971 to 1980 and then of Lazards, from which he retired at the age of 62 in 1985.

In 1958, he had married Anne Grant, a niece by marriage of Evelyn Waugh. She was 19, he was 35; in his memoirs he described her as "tall and straight as a daffodil", and she brought him 26 years of blissfully happy marriage, two sons and two daughters. Then, with tragic suddenness, Anne died of a heart attack while tending her horse in Devon, in 1984: she was still in her forties.

For a long time Ian was inconsolable, living "a hermitic existence" on his farm in Somerset. Then, after 10 years of solitude, renewed happiness came to him in the shape of a second marriage to a fellow Scot and Catholic, Fiona Martin, a niece of Lord Home of the Hirsel, the former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home. But the stress of the war, a frenetic City life and the hardships of a solitary existence caught up with him and he was stricken by serious heart trouble, never to relinquish its grip in his last years.

Fraser published his autobiography, The High Road to England (derived from a well-known passage of Dr Johnson, most uncomplimentary to the Scots), in 1999. Reading the wartime chapters, I found his descriptions of a 20-year-old platoon commander slogging up through Italy just about the best I had ever read.

I first knew Ian Fraser as a fellow foreign correspondent when I was working for The Daily Telegraph in Bonn in the 1950s. Over many evenings we would exchange reminiscences of our wartime experiences, often in the company of German friends who had fought bravely on the "wrong side". Yet never once, until I read his memoirs four decades later, did I have any idea of the sheer hell his war in Italy – virtually a military side-show – had been. Of the last months of the war in the freezing Apennines, he writes:

The cold, the wet, the endless nagging fear of death or mutilation are memories that never leave any of us who went through that dreadful winter.

After the war he calculated that his élite regiment, always in the van, had suffered almost as many officer deaths as in the slaughter of 1914-18.

Fraser spoke flawless German, almost equally good French and Italian, and had an academic's command of Latin. He liked, and admired, the Germans, but was swift to laugh at such national foibles as their obsession with petty legalism. A newcomer in an adjacent newspaper office, I owed much to his "nose" for a good story, and his instinct for detail; he gave me invaluable help with my first book, Back into Power (1955), about contemporary Germany.

He had one of the quickest minds I ever met, claiming that – aged three – he could play a "fair hand" of bridge. As with some other Fraser assertions, one took this with several grains of salt; another tall anecdote was of his kinsman the marvellously eccentric Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, who persuaded Ian that he had to sleep with two large blocks of wood under his bed – because he had a "dropped stomach – like all Moncreiffes".

"What's dropped stomach?" asked Fraser.

"You have 27 feet of long gut in your stomach. We have only 12 feet because an ancestor got the pox at the siege of Naples in 1498, and we've all had dropped stomachs ever since."

Fraser had a special way of telling a "whopper" to catch out the unwary, prefacing it with ". . . as everybody knows", then looking out of the corner of his eyes, or down a drooping cigarette, to see who was taken in. And woe betide! He was intolerant of stupidity, and the phoney; those who didn't know him could find him arrogant, but with it went a deep streak of kindness, and huge sense of fun. In Germany he was much tickled by the fancy that all his fellow correspondents (bar himself) were "spies" – working for one or other Allied intelligence. Maybe he was right; in the days of the Cold War journalists may have been more disreputable, or patriotic – depending on how you look at it.

He was treated shabbily by the then Reuters regime, which kept him on in Bonn with gilded promises of elevation. It was Reuters' loss. In 1956, he quit and returned to London. In his mid-thirties he had no job – and no wife. It was a risky decision; second son of a younger son of a Catholic family with more children than cash, he had no resources to fall back on. Then, suddenly, with the opening at Warburgs, and meeting Anne, everything fell into place.

Coming from the "Economic Miracle" that was Ludwig Erhard's 1950s Germany, Fraser brought with him a healthy contempt for the incompetent "squires" then managing British industry, coupled with the "lead weight of English trade unionism". He lashed out at the managerial inefficiency he found – by comparison with Germany. Again, some thought him arrogant, but he was generally in the right. Appalled by what he had seen of the technical inferiority of British tanks during the war, he attempted to use this to shock Rolls-Royce out of its lethargy when he took charge in the 1970s. Clearly, however, it proved too much for him, and he was saddened to see this flagship of British industry taken over by a German manufacturer of popular cars.

One of Fraser's earliest "scoops" as a journalist was the discovery that a certain Captain Robert Maxwell was using his Occupation status to smuggle vast quantities of gold out of Central Europe. Because of the threat of libel, it was a "scoop" he couldn't print. The day of reckoning, however, came 30 years later when the "Bouncing Czech" came before Fraser's takeover panel, in a series of "collisions" that were to presage the eventual fall of Maxwell – whom Fraser considered "the most evil person".

Fraser's knighthood came in 1986, but by then Fortune had rounded on him. First came the heartbreaking death of his wife, Anne; followed almost immediately – having made "a little money" – by crippling Lloyd's losses. With his ever-active, restless mind, he hated leisure – or otium as he noted the Romans called it. Retirement, tending his sheep in some isolation in Somerset, never quite suited him. Despite the loving care of his second wife, Fiona, with illness came the Scottish "black dog" of acute depression. Deeply clannish as he was, he felt painfully the tragic collapse of the Lovat dynasty, forced to sell everything in the Highlands because of a series of deaths and mismanagements.

In what he once anticipated as the "final battle action", though illness had all but destroyed his body, the warrior attribute of the Frasers triumphed. For many painful weeks he fought the inevitable with extraordinary willpower. If nothing else, courage never deserted him.

Alistair Horne