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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue