Sir Richard Morris: Industrialist who took charge of the Great Man-Made River pipeline from the Sahara to the cities of Libya

Richard Morris had one of the most extraordinary – and successful – careers in both business and public service of anyone of his generation. Morris (universally known as Dick) worked for nearly 30 years in a series of increasingly important posts for Courtaulds, the textiles and man-made fibres group which was then one of the giants of British industry. At the age of 53, when he realised that he would not become chairman, he embarked on a second, even more successful career in a variety of roles both in private industry and the public sector, in fields as diverse as civil engineering and university administration. But he was never one to take credit for his achievements and so was far less appreciated by the public than was his due.

Morris was born in London, the son of a banker, and as a boy was a chorister at All Souls', Langham Place – next to the BBC. He went on to Ardingly College and then started medical training before realising that he was not suited to the profession. Proud of his Welsh background, he then served in the Welsh Guards. One friend says that he was "a gentlemanly figure, the perfect specimen of a Guards officer". He was duly promoted to Captain, and served in Palestine at the time of the birth of Israel. The cruelties of some of the Israelis gave him – like other British officers – a sympathy for the dispossessed Palestinian Arabs.

On demobilisation he went to work for Courtaulds, where his potential was spotted by Sir Alan Wilson, an eminent scientist and a leading figure in the group. Wilson arranged for Morris to study Chemical Engineering as a mature student at Birmingham University, where in 1955, at the ripe old age of 30, he took first class honours and won the vice-chancellor's prize. In later life he was recognised as a chemical engineer distinguished enough to become president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

He returned to Courtaulds and rose through the ranks, first at British Celanese, which manufactured acetate yarns, before becoming Courtaulds' youngest main board director in 1967 at the age of 42. When he moved to the textiles business his successes included preventing Sir Marcus Sieff, the chairman of the division's biggest customer, Marks & Spencer, from imposing ever-deeper discounts.

But in 1973 the chairman of Courtaulds, the imperious and irascible Lord Kearton, brought onto the main board Christopher Hogg, one of the acolytes who had worked with him at the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation. Morris saw that his chance of the top job had gone. He was naturally shattered, but proved his resilience by resigning in 1978, the year before Hogg took over, embarking on a second, and in the end far more important, successful and satisfying career in both the public and private sector, where his energy and enthusiasm were enormously useful and influential.

His first job was as vice-chairman of the National Enterprise Board, the Labour government's body guiding major British companies. Here he was lucky: one of the NEB's minor investments was in a North Sea supply business and through this he met the management of the giant American construction company Brown & Root, becoming chairman of their British subsidiary in 1980.

At the time, this was almost entirely concerned with the construction of rigs and pipes for the oil and gas industry and although the company was the market leader in building and installing platforms and pipelines in the North Sea it was lagging behind its competitors in technical progress. Unusually, Morris, though only chairman of a subsidiary, was able to broaden the group's skills base, notably in the tricky area of the technology needed to support oil rigs in increasingly deep waters. Thanks to his leadership, the company survived the recession of the early 1980s in good shape.

While drilling for oil, Brown & Root had discovered massive supplies of fresh water under the Sahara desert and so were the natural candidate to be responsible for the management of one of the world's biggest engineering projects, the Great Man-Made River pipeline, bringing water 1,000km from under the Sahara to the cities on Libya's Mediterranean coast and irrigating vast stretches of land.

A great deal of American sanctions against what was then considered a pariah state prevented anyone from the US parent company from working in Libya. In 1986 the Americans made matters worse when they bombed a number of targets, killing Colonel Gaddafi's adopted daughter. Two years later came the Lockerbie crash, leading to suspicions that the Libyan government was involved. So Morris was appointed to take charge of the project. Because of his experiences in Palestine, Morris was not automatically hostile to the Libyans and his relatively sympathetic attitude was greatly appreciated, not only by Gaddafi and his intelligence chief but also by the Libyan site manager and workers, all of whom found him the only truly trustworthy Englishman they knew.

In 1990 Morris became non-executive chairman of Brown & Root, though he remained chairman of Devonport Royal Dockyard, responsible for servicing Britain's fleet of nuclear submarines. In 1987 Brown & Root had led a consortium to privatise the shipyard with a view to modernising and making it at least partially a commercial operation, and in 1989 Morris had taken on an even more challenging executive role. He was already a director of British Nuclear Fuels when he was appointed chairman of Nirex (the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive), the quasi-governmental body given the near-impossible task of recommending ways to cope with nuclear waste.

After Nirex had looked at sites right around the country, Morris and his team drew up plans for an underground laboratory at Sellafield to test the storage of radioactive waste using a mix of man-made and natural barriers. Unfortunately, the situation was a mess involving a mass of stakeholders both real and self-appointed, ranging from energy companies to environmental activists. As a result, John Gummer, then the Environment Secretary, turned down the proposals because of "scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies" – though subsequently Morris has been proved right. At the time he was naturally bitter and resigned, but not before pointing out that: "We cannot get the information to show whether the site is safe without a rock laboratory but it now appears we cannot win approval for a rock laboratory without showing the site is safe."

Morris's last private sector job, on which he embarked at the age of 72, was as chairman of Chiltern Railways, running trains out of Marylebone station, one of the most successful of all the 23 train-operating companies set up after privatisation.

But alongside his business activities he found time to be equally successful in helping Loughborough University, situated near his Derby home, where he became pro-chancellor in 1986. Following the sudden early death of the vice-chancellor, Morris found himself effectively the executive chairman of a troubled institution, which had been elevated to the rank of university less than 20 years earlier.

After hiring a suitable replacement, he continued to influence the university, setting up one of the first university-based conference centres, expanding Loughborough's business school, now named after him, encouraging the university to recruit high-grade academics, broadening the scope of the university's faculties and generally helping to elevate it into its present position as one of the UK's top 20 universities. His talents were recognised more widely when in 1991 he was appointed Chairman of the Committee of University Councils and Boards – writing a report to persuade the government to modernise these clumsily titled and organised bodies.

Morris had obviously never forgotten his youthful period as a choirboy. Somehow, he also found time to take on the chairmanship of the council of Derby Cathedral and was active enough for a room to be named after him – going on to help advise the Church of England on its finances. So it was only in the past few years that he found time to fully appreciate his estate in Derbyshire, where with his wife he kept sheep, planted thousands of trees and grew his own fruit and vegetables.

Nicholas Faith

James Richard Samuel Morris, engineer and industrialist: born London 20 November 1925; staff, Courtaulds 1950-78, director 1967-78, group technical director 1976-78, managing director, National Plastics 1959-64, deputy chairman, British Cellophane 1967-70, chairman, British Celanese 1970-72, chairman, Northgate Group 1971-76, chairman, Meridian 1972-76; deputy chairman, National Enterprise Board 1978-79; chairman and managing director, Brown and Root Ltd 1980-90, non-executive chairman 1990-92; Pro-Chancellor, Loughborough University 1982-86, Senior Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council 1986-95; CBE 1985; chairman, Devonport Royal Dockyard 1987-91; chairman, UK Nirex 1989-97; Chairman, Committee of Chairmen of University Councils and Boards 1991-94; Kt 1992; Deputy Chairman, Foundation for Science and Technology 1994-98; chairman, M40 Trains 1997-2003; chairman, Laing Rail 2000-03; chairman, Independent Power Corp 2002-08; married 1958 Marion Sinclair (two sons, two daughters); died Derby 1 July 2008.

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