Sir Lewis Robertson: Industrialist and company doctor who turned around the fortunes of ailing British businesses

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions
Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions