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William Menzies-Wilson: Executive in steel and shipping who guided both industries through troubled times

Bill Menzies-Wilson was an industrialist, first in steel and then shipping, in the second half of the 20th century. During a period of major upheaval, Menzies-Wilson survived the tumult of both nationalisation and attempted acquisitions by "corporate raiders" with his reputation enhanced. In his retirement he was an inspiring chairman of Help the Aged.

William Napier Menzies-Wilson was born in Glasgow in 1926, the son of James Menzies-Wilson and Jacobene Williamson Napier, who was half-Dutch. When he was 11 months old he was taken by his parents with his two older sisters to Vereeniging in South Africa, where his father was to start a new steel tube works for Stewarts & Lloyds.

The family returned to England when Bill was seven and he went to prep school and then on to Winchester, leaving in 1944 to join the Army. He was selected for an Officer Cadet Training Unit and passed out top with the Stick of Honour. He was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade and saw service in Germany, including being a guard at the Nuremberg Trials.

Demobbed in 1946, he went up to New College, Oxford and read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He obtained a graduate traineeship with his father's old firm, Stewarts & Lloyds, which was then at the height of its fame, having built Pluto (The Pipeline Under the Ocean) which was so essential for the Second Front. He rose fast, from his beginnings reorganising the filing system of the South Wales subsidiary to becoming, at 27, the firm's youngest managing director, being appointed MD of the Rhodesian subsidiary. From there he was promoted to MD of the South African subsidiary, fighting a fierce battle to turn the business round.

By 1964 he was on the main board of Stewarts & Lloyds, fighting, like all the major steel companies, against nationalisation. But nationalisation it was, and Menzies-Wilson became Director of Supplies and Transport in the new British Steel Corporation. It was not to his taste.

"I was a most uncivil servant" he wrote. "It was a question of whether they fired me before I got out". And get out he did. In 1972 he accepted an offer from Sir Lindsay Alexander, chairman of Ocean Transport and Trading (OTT), one of the leading maritime liner companies, to take over the chairmanship of Wm Cory and Son, the coastal and short sea shipowners and general energy traders. He rose to become chairman.

It was a difficult time for the shipping industry. As Bill put it, "British shipping has to ride into battle in its underpants while everyone else has free government armour." Nigel Lawson as Chancellor even removed the only help British shipping had – "free" depreciation i.e. the ability to depreciate ships and other maritime capital expenditure whenever, and by how much the company decided. (The situation did not improve until 1998, when John Prescott persuaded Gordon Brown to introduce the "tonnage tax", which revolutionised the fortunes of British shipping.)

It was a difficult time, too, for Ocean which had misguidedly invested £20m in an LNG carrier which spent its life in a Scottish loch, depressing the balance sheet. Ocean, once the doyen of British liner companies, became the target of predators – first, Brierly Investments and then – horror of horrors – P&O, thought of hitherto as a friend. Both predators were asset-strippers and Menzies-Wilson was at pains not only to save the company's reputation and assets but also to safeguard jobs. He fought off the predators, turning Ocean into more of a land-based company in partnership with the National Freight Corporation.

His reputation in the shipping industry grew and in 1984 he was elected president of the General Council of British Shipping (now the Chamber of Shipping). It was in his year of presidency that the General Council succeeded in getting Margaret Thatcher to lunch. She arrived and immediately commented on the drawn curtains. "Do you always lunch in the dark?" she asked. Menzies-Wilson explained that the security services had visited the premises beforehand and advised that the curtains should be drawn.

"Why?", asked the Prime Minister, "who's there?" she said, pointing to the adjoining block. "It's Inchcape and Co," said Bill. "Well, he's not going to shoot me," said the PM. She promptly pulled back the curtains and lunch was taken in daylight. This remark became highly ironic following the later IRA bombing of the next-door Baltic Exchange, which destroyed both buildings.

Later Menzies-Wilson was appointed chairman of the International Shipping Federation, the body responsible for issues of manning, trade disputes and welfare. For his services to shipping he was appointed a CBE. In previous, more palmy days of shipping, such service would have merited a "K".

After retiring from his executive roles, Menzies-Wilson became a trustee and then National Chairman of Help the Aged, working tirelessly for 10 years promoting the needs of older people in the UK and overseas. He foresaw early the need for merging Help the Aged and Age Concern, but for personality and other reasons he was not able to bring it about. Today the two organisations are merged into Age UK.

Menzies-Wilson was a big, bold, bluff man, a good shot and a good golfer, kindly, devoted to his family and to those he was responsible for. At the same time he was a man for plain speaking. He was my last President at the General Council of British Shipping – and a very good one. When I told him that I was retiring to join the Danish shipping conglomerate of AP Moller-Maersk – then the enemy of the British shipping industry, though now No 1 in British shipping – he exploded, "I'd take your pension away if I could." But laughter soon replaced anger.

Patrick Shovelton

William Napier Menzies-Wilson, steel and shipping executive: born Glasgow 4 December 1926; CBE 1985; married 1953 Mary Elizabeth Darnell Juckes (two sons,one daughter); died 9 June 2011.