Sir Ian Morrow

Accountant turned business troubleshooter who guided Rolls-Royce out of financial crisis
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The Independent Online

Ian Thomas Morrow, businessman: born Manchester 8 June 1912; partner, Robson, Morrow & Co 1942-51; financial director, Brush Electrical Engineering Co (later the Brush Group) 1951-52, deputy managing director 1952-56, joint managing director 1956-57, managing director 1957-58; chairman, UK Optical and Industrial Holdings Ltd (later UKO International) 1959-86; director, Hambros Industrial Management 1965-91; deputy chairman, Rolls-Royce 1970-71, managing director 1971-72; director, Hambros Plc 1972-90, deputy chairman 1983-86; Kt 1973; director, Laird Group 1973-92, chairman 1975-87; chairman, MAI 1974-93; director, Psion plc 1987-98; married 1940 Elizabeth Thackray (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1967), 1967 Sylvia Taylor (one daughter); died Saffron Walden, Essex 19 April 2006.

Ian Morrow was one of the most successful British businessmen of the last 30 years of the 20th century. Yet he was rarely in the limelight during a business career which lasted over 60 years, from 1936, when he qualified as an accountant, until 1998, when he retired from his last public company directorship - of Psion, the electronics group - at the age of 85. But, as he always insisted, "age shouldn't be considered an absolute barrier, any more than youth should be considered an absolute virtue".

The only time Morrow hit the headlines was as deputy chairman of Rolls-Royce when Britain's most prestigious engineering firm appointed receivers in early 1971 after the costs of its revolutionary new aero-engine, the RB211, had spiralled out of control. The crisis was so grave that the newly installed prime minister Edward Heath, who had resolved not to save any industrial "lame ducks", was forced to nationalise the firm.

Morrow was promptly appointed managing director and, as he told me at the time, knew perfectly well what was wrong. "Engineers invariably tell the board not the real figure for a new product," he said, "but the biggest sum they think the board will accept." In that spirit he soon got the costs under control, ensuring that the engine was not over-engineered - British engineers, he always said, were prone to making the products "too good for the job".

Morrow was due to be promoted to chairman but resigned when Michael Heseltine, his political master as Minister for Aerospace, refused to accept Morrow's candidate for his old job. Subsequently, Morrow felt that his sudden departure had blighted his business career, but judging by the number of often challenging and important appointments he held in the following quarter of a century, he was profoundly mistaken.

Morrow's superlative salvage job was due to his characteristic way of working. Unusually, he combined an acute capacity for financial analysis with a willingness to listen to the shop floor rather than top management, combining the qualities of a first-rate cost accountant and, when necessary, a hands-on manager.

Morrow was often described as a pioneering company doctor, which indeed he was - his motto "where there's cash there's hope" saved many a company - but he also shone in entrepreneurial roles and in encouraging and guiding younger executives. Moreover, his lengthy list of company directorships and chairmanships did not prevent him from involvement in such various public bodies as the Performing Right Tribunal, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland - and even the Press Council.

Morrow's father managed a jute mill in Brazil, and Ian was born in Manchester while his mother was returning to the family home in St Andrews - not surprisingly Ian Morrow became an expert golfer, a skill inherited from his great-great-grandfather, "Old Tom Morris", greatest of Victorian golfers. Morrow would have liked to go to Oxford but his father insisted that he become an accountant - and he qualified at the age of 20, both as a chartered and a cost accountant.

During the Second World War, he and a fellow-accountant created a consultancy which worked for the Ministries of Supply and Production. In 1950, while still only 38 and at a time when youth was considered a major handicap, he was sufficiently well- regarded to lead a team of management accountants on a mission to the United States under the aegis of the Anglo-American Council on Productivity.

The next year this quiet, self-effacing accountant made a decisive move to work with his total opposite, the swashbuckling, high-living, aristocratic one-legged war hero Jocelyn Hambro, for over two decades the inspiration behind the family bank. For nearly 30 years this apparently ill-assorted pair provided complementary talents, although sharing a similar and well-founded self-confidence.

But for eight years - the only time after 1951 that Morrow was in full-time employment, apart from his short stint at Rolls-Royce - he worked at Brush, a major engineering group, rising to be managing director in 1957. A year later, Brush was taken over by Hawker Siddeley and Morrow was unceremoniously sacked, the biggest single shock in his business life.

His departure proved to be merely the prelude to nearly 40 years of acting as a troubleshooter, often as company doctor, but also as guide and guru to several generations of younger executives. In the 1960s his charges included Kenwood, an innovative manufacturer of food mixers and other kitchen gadgets, Crane Fruehauf, maker of road trailers, and Associated Fire Alarms. But his days of glory really started when he returned to Hambro from Rolls-Royce at the age of 60.

Morrow's strength and independence of character were shown in two major crises. Within two years he had to clear up Vavasseur (known to the flippant as "Vavawho?"), one of the most notorious of the many secondary banks left hopelessly indebted by the first oil crisis of 1973-74. He was successful despite a flaming row with the formidable Sir James Goldsmith, whose histrionic opposition had no effect on Morrow, nor indeed on the great lawyer Lord Goodman, who had been called in to adjudicate. In 1977 the remains of Vavasseur was merged with Mills & Allen, an advertising firm. Jocelyn Hambro had lent Morrow the services of a young Hambros executive called Clive Hollick, whom Morrow left in charge of the merged MAI. Hollick transformed this firm into a major player and later acknowledged Morrow as his guru.

Following this episode, the chairmanship of an entrepreneurial advertising agency, Collett, Dickenson and Pearce, must have seemed a peaceful reward for Morrow's efforts, but in the mid-1980s he was again fully stretched after Lloyd's insurance market crashed and he became chairman of a company "owned but not controlled" by Lloyd's to hold some of the massive losses suffered by the Names.

But the final triumphs of his career began when he was well into his seventies. From 1975 to 1987 he was chairman of Laird, the industrial group, run by a bloody-minded former journalist John Gardiner, who went on to be a successful chairman of Tesco. Instead of retiring, he then took on an even more challenging task, as director of Psion, one of the few British groups to challenge American dominance of hand-held electronic devices. Nothing could have illustrated Morrow's formidable qualities as a business guru and champion of the young and entrepreneurial than this, his last job, undertaken when he was well into his seventies.

Nicholas Faith

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