Sir Maurice Laing: Firebrand head of the Laing construction company who became the first president of the CBI

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The Independent Online

Maurice Laing was the younger son of John Laing, creator of arguably the best building company the UK has ever known. Born in Cumbria in 1918 and brought up in a strict, evangelical family, Maurice was imbued from childhood with the virtues of fair-dealing and hard work. Particularly as a young man, he sometimes groaned under the discipline imposed by his authoritarian, puritanical father, but he had a talent for enjoying life without offending his family's Christian precepts.

Maurice Laing joined the family firm in 1935, aged 17. His father had told his two sons that he could only afford to send one of them to university. It was an absurd statement by the owner of what was already one of the most successful building companies in the UK, and deeply unfair. Fortunately Maurice had not enjoyed his days as a boarder at St Lawrence College in Kent, although he had become the youngest prefect in the school, and was happy to go directly to work as a costing clerk on a school Laing was building a stone's-throw from its head office.

A combination of inherited drive and privileged position as the guvnor's son ensured a rapid rise in responsibilities and within two years Maurice was in charge of a £135,000 contract employing more than 80 men. His inexperience resulted in what his father described as "a pretty awful shambles" when he arrived to inspect the work in progress. But Maurice was too much his father's son to take the dressing-down he received. "You can talk to your men like that as much as you like," he said explosively. "But do it to me once more and you'll never see me again." White with rage, John Laing walked out of the site office and drove away. Fifteen minutes later, he returned and apologised. He never upbraided Maurice as caustically again and the episode made its mark on the autocratic builder's treatment of all his staff, although his displeasure was never less than daunting.

But Maurice Laing was not deaf to his father's criticism, either. As well as building a huge number of private houses around London, Laing's was beginning to win more and more work from the Government. Between 1928 and 1939, the company built 10 new aerodromes for the RAF, plus a string of barrage balloon stations. And this was just the beginning. During the Second World War, John Laing & Sons was one of a handful of contractors trusted by the Air Ministry to take charge of the mammoth task of building nearly 500 airfields across the UK. "The plain fact is that they are far and away the most efficient of any airfield contractors and are prepared to put in very low prices," the Air Ministry's director-general of works said in response to complaints that the company was given too much work.

As a result, Maurice Laing learned both the meaning of hard work and how to manage very large contracts. But he was too much of a firebrand to accept a non-combatant's role, however essential it might be to the war effort. In 1941 the RAF opened its doors to men in reserved occupations. Maurice Laing threw away the glasses he wore to correct a tendency to double vision and joined up. His father telephoned the Air Ministry and had him thrown out again. There was a dreadful row which ended with Maurice telling Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, that he would go to prison if he was not allowed to fight. Back in the RAF, he was in trouble for hitting a sergeant during his basic training, and only passed his flying fitness test after weeks of being nice to the camp optician. He finally qualified as a pilot in South Africa, too late to see active service.

The moment Germany surrendered, his father plucked Maurice back to play his part in rebuilding Britain. John Laing & Sons made a significant contribution to the huge task of restoring the UK's shattered housing stock. In 1953, the company went public, John Laing relinquished day-to-day control, and at the age of 35 Maurice became chief executive of the building and construction business. At last, the firebrand was free to make his own decisions.

One of the biggest came five years later, when the company was invited to tender for one of four 13-mile sections of Britain's first offical motorway, the M1, which was to run from Luton to Rugby. Ambitiously, Laing put in bids totalling £16.5m for all four sections. To Maurice Laing's shock, the Ministry of Transport offered his company the whole job. The dual-carriageway, three-lane motorway was on a scale of road construction unparalleled in Britain, with completion due in only 19 months. Appalling weather throughout 1958 put the contract five months in arrears. But the sun came out in February 1959 and stayed out. On 2 November, Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport, declared the M1 open. Its creation, on time and to price, was a stunning achievement.

Not all Maurice Laing's gambles paid off. In 1966, Richard Crossman, the new Labour Minister of Housing and Local Government, chose the opening of a Laing housing scheme in Bristol to set a target of 500,000 new homes a year. Always an enthusiast for new technology, Laing decided the only answer was prefabrication. He bought the UK rights to a patent French method for building multi-storey flats named Sectra and to a Danish industrialised building system called Jespersen. In spite of desperate efforts, both failed to attract buyers and Jespersen dragged down Laing's profits until the early Seventies.

Maurice Laing took the setback philosophically. In any case, he had other interests. He had been unable to resist the challenge of presiding over the merger in the early Sixties of the Federation of British Industries and the British Employers' Federation into the Confederation of British Industry – the CBI – and the reward had followed in the form of a knighthood in 1965.

He became chairman of John Laing & Son in 1976. Harold Wilson's government was struggling and Maurice Laing became increasingly pessimistic about prospects in the UK. A dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, he was deeply worried about Labour's threat to the largest companies in the building industry. He chaired the pressure group Cabin, the acronym standing for the Committee Against Building Industry Nationalisation, and campaigned vigorously. In the meantime his company took precautions of its own. The boom in property values since 1973 had made Laing's property holdings extremely valuable. When shares in Laing Properties were floated in 1978, they doubled the value of the group.

Fourteen years later Laing Properties fell foul of a hostile takeover bid from P&O. Maurice Laing was vociferous in his resistance to this attack on the other half of the Laing heritage, and was appalled when the other shareholders, including John Laing & Sons' pension fund, decided that the terms were too good to refuse. The fact that his family and charitable trusts made a great deal of money was little consolation.

At heart, though, Maurice Laing was an incurable enthusiast, never cast down for long. His judgement was not always perfect, but his intelligence was keen, his integrity was absolute, and goodness was bred in his bones.

Berry Ritchie

John Maurice Laing, industrialist: born Carlisle 1 February 1918; director, John Laing & Sons Ltd (later John Laing plc) 1939-88, managing director 1954-76, deputy chairman 1966-76, chairman 1976-82; director, Bank of England 1963-80; president, British Employers Confederation 1964-65; Kt 1965; president, CBI 1965-66; married 1940 Hilda Richards (one son); died London 22 February 2008.