Sir Lewis Robertson: Industrialist and company doctor who turned around the fortunes of ailing British businesses
Saturday 29 November 2008
At any significant gathering of the great and the good in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and at many an occasion in London, a huge man, with a large face and spectacles to match would heave into the room, with a supporting crutch. This was Lewis Robertson, company director extraordinary, who, in my opinion, was both good and great. He was an industrialist in his own right, not merely a consultant; he was an extremely effective administrator; but, above all, he excelled as a corporate recovery specialist.
It was Robertson's skill, patience and understanding that enabled many a firm, teetering on the brink of disaster, to recover, and to allow faithful, long-term employees to keep their jobs. Many owe a debt to Robertson's candid realism and solution-finding imagination.
Just one example: in October 2002, the well-respected consulting engineers W.S. Atkins Plc found itself in dire straits. Roberson was "brought in". Three years later, the group's market capitalisation had increased more than 12 times, and stood at £700m. The group found itself in a strong position, with a turnover of £1.2bn. Atkins employs more than 14,000 specialist staff, and can justifiably claim to be the largest engineering consultancy in the UK, with immense influence throughout the world.
Credit for the turnaround, of course, must be distributed among a number of senior executives, but I am told Robertson's input was significant and crucial. He himself was modest. "A person can be ever so much more effective in doing good deeds, if he or she eschews the propensity to claim personal credit in the press for what has happened."
Lewis Robertson was a second son, born into a family of jute manufactures, in the city of the 3 Js: jute, journalism and jam. He was also a scion of the house of Robertson's Jams and Marmalades, for which Dundee was famous. In his last term at Trinity College, Glenalmond, in Perthshire, Robertson, having just heard that he had successfully won entrance to Cambridge University, received the shattering news of his brother's death.
Called up into the Navy and serving on the battleship Barham (vetern of Jutland), Lewis's brother had been drowned, nine miles off the Mull of Kintyre, on 12 December 1939, in a tragic collision with one of the escorts, the destroyer HMS Duchess. The North Channel was a vulnerable location for U-boats, and both ships had their lights out. (HMS Barham was to be sunk two years later off Alexandria). On hearing the news, Lewis Robertson volunteered for the Army, and was never to take up his university place.
He would give a hilarious description of how his call-up papers required him to take the train to London. When he arrived off the night train, a sergeant told him that due to the bombing, there was "bugger-all accommodation," that he was "surplus to requirements," and that, as he seemed to be a "brainy fellow," he'd better get the train to a place called Bletchley – where, according to Robertson, there would be a bunk on "which to lay my outsized arse". With his sardonic twinkle, he had a delicious sense of humour, often at his own expense, which served him well, as an antidote to didactic pomposity.
For Robertson, as for the 9,000 others who descended on Bletchley, the code-breaking and related work was a formative experience– "in particular Bletchley taught me how to work as part of a team," he recalled.
On demobilisation, Robertson became a director of the family textile business, T.F. Robertson Ltd, later Robertson Industrial Textiles. They metamorphosed into Scott and Robertson Ltd, of which he became managing director from 1965 to 1970 and chairman from 1968 to 1970. He then moved turned around the fortunes of Grampian Holdings, as chief executive 1971-76 and deputy chairman 1973-76. Five years followed as Chief Executive of the Scottish Development Agency. In 1981, his contract came to an end, and was not renewed, partly because Robertson had developed a distaste for the cavalier way that he believed Margaret Thatcher's government was treating manufacturing industry in Scotland.
Other companies with whom Robertson was connected at senior level included Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, ICI, Berkeley Hotel Company, Girobank Scotland, Thomas Borthwick and Sons, the construction firm Lilley's, Havelock Europa and the hotel group Stakis. What does Robertson give you, I asked one CEO. There was a one-word answer: wisdom. Sir Charles Fraser, the heavyweight lawyer (and Purse Bearer to the Queen) who has sat on many company boards, assessed Robertson's abilities: "His special skill was in recovery, but there was always a time to go and let others manage. He was excellent at devising proper shapes for governance, but not so good at governing. There was a delightful arrogance about him."
I first got to know Robertson because the Eastern Regions Hospital Board (Scotland) which he chaired from 1960 to 1970 covered my West Lothian constituency. In dealing with MPs, he was characteristically direct; it was either, "You have a good case, and I'll get something done" (and he did); or it was "Don't waste the board's time, and that of officials, to curry favour with voters!" A combination of industrial and health service experience made Robertson a good choice for the token Scot on the Committee of Inquiry into the Pharmaceutical Industry, 1965-67, chaired by Alan Sainsbury. Robertson recalled: "I learned a great deal about not only the retail industry but the art of chairmanship from Alan Sainsbury."
As soon as the Sainsbury Committee had completed its work, Robertson agreed to become Finance Convenor of the Court of Dundee University, then in the throes of extricating itself from the 800-year-old University of St Andrews. Having impressed Whitehall, Robertson became a Member of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, the most searching interrogators before whom I have ever appeared in my life, serving from 1969 until 1976. For a subsequent 13 years, 1983-96, he was a key member of the Restrictive Practices Court.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Robertson led substantial turnarounds as an executive chairman. He was responsible for seven major turnaround assignments as executive chairman of substantial groups with numerous subsidiaries across the length and breadth of the UK, and throughout the world. Between 1991 and 1996, Robertson was Founding Chairman of Postern, the first specialist turnaround consultancy in the UK.
A member of the government-appointed Arts Council of Great Britain, he was also Chairman of the Scottish Advisory Committee of the British Council 1977-83. When he was Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir Timothy Clifford hosted frequent Patrons' Dinners at the Mound in Edinburgh. Robertson's knowledge of Italian art, especially on Sienna and Urbino almost matched that of Sir Timothy.
Sir Thomas Risk, former Governor of the Bank of Scotland, who lived in the same block of flats as Robertson in Inverleith Place, Edinburgh, said: "Lewis, as a company doctor, was seriously strict about applying the remedies which he had suggested. He was the most methodical of men. He never destroyed a paper, document or letter of any significance which he had received during his working life. Tins of documents have been deposited in the National Library of Scotland". Business historians have told me that the Robertson documents are a fascinating treasure trove.
Lewis Robertson, industrialist and administrator: born Dundee 28 November 1922; chairman, Eastern Regional Hospital Board (Scotland) 1960-70; chairman, Scott and Robertson 1968-70, managing director 1965-70; Member, Monopolies and Mergers Commission 1969-76; CBE 1969; Member, Arts Council of Great Britain 1970-71; Chairman, Scottish Arts Council 1970-71; chief executive, Grampian Holdings 1971-76, deputy chairman 1973-76; Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive, Scottish Development Agency 1976-81; chairman, Girobank Scotland 1984-90; chairman, Borthwicks (formerly Thomas Borthwick & Sons) 1985-89; chairman, Lilley 1986-93; chairman, Triplex Lloyd 1987-90 (F.H. Lloyd Holdings 1982-87; Triplex 1983-87); chairman, Havelock Europa 1989-92; chairman, Stakis 1991-95; chairman, Postern 1991-96; Kt 1991; married 1950 Elspeth Badenoch (died 2001; two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Edinburgh 24 November 2008.
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