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

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.

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
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
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: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot