Obituaries: Matthew Harding
Friday 25 October 1996
Although only 42 at the time of his death, his achievements are the stuff of lengend. He built a successful but small broking business into a highly profitable and independent reinsurance-based group, amassing a personal fortune estimated at pounds 150 million in the process.
He will be remembered in the business world as an innovator and motivator. His lasting legacy, though he will long be remembered at Stamford Bridge, is the Benfield Group.
The personal fortune he created allowed him to demonstrate further his passion for the club (he rarely and very reluctantly missed a Chelsea fixture) as a supporter by providing financial backing. The new North Stand was built with funds provided by him, and more was made available for player purchases and transfers. He became a director of Chelsea in 1993, having watch-ed his first game as an eight- year-old in 1962, and, despite some public tussles with the chairman, Ken Bates, subsequently became vice-chairman in 1995. He remained, however, more at home on the terraces than in the directors' box, and was revered by the fans.
The club to him was always better than the combined talents of the players - though he would relish the opportunity to travel on the team bus and displayed, with boyish glee, an autograph or memento from many an admired player. His vision of the future was one nurtured in the stands of 25 years ago, when Chelsea, bristling with talent and tenacity, would once again win the major titles and trophies. He had recently bought the freehold of the Stamford Bridge ground at a cost of pounds 16.5 million, and in all, it is estimated, committed more than pounds 26 million to the club.
Born in Haywards Heath on Boxing Day in 1953, Harding was educated at Abingdon School where, in particular, he grew to love the classics and, by all accounts, to hate many of the public-school tenets, including rugby. Quite simply, he wanted to play football. He left with one A level, in Latin, as well as ten O levels. He was very far from being an intellectual, and was completely untouched by pomposity or self-aggrandisement, but he possessed nonetheless a fearsome intellect.
It was, no doubt, his grounding in Latin that gave him an inspirational but wholly natural command of English. Highly articulate, he could debate or discuss (always at high speed) and write with astonishing fluency. Nowhere was that skill more visible than in the Chairman's Statement that prefaced the Benfield Group's annual Financial Statements. So far from being traditional tours d'horizon, focused on corporate success, Harding's was an eagerly awaited and trenchant comment, as often as not, on the business of being in business.
They bear witness, with many a classical or contemporary allusion and quotation, to Matthew Harding's vision. They were heartfelt, concise and compelling, driven by his passion for "making a difference" in the business world at large and in the somewhat rarefied world of reinsurance in particular.
His refusal to accept every (or any) business standard or practice as sacrosanct fuelled his ability as an innovator. His chairmanship of the Benfield Group, a position he achieved in 1988 after spearheading a successful management buy-out, was characterised by two things in particular.
He was not the traditional titular head but very much at the heart of the business. His knowledge of his clients (or customers, as he much preferred to call them) was encyclopaedic, and his commitment to them unquestioned. The other distinguishing feature of his business career was both to recognise the limitations of his own skills, extraordinary though they were, and to work in harness with a hand-picked and extremely tight-knit team, whose skills were complementary.
Matthew Harding had a vision and built a team around that vision, and Benfield's primary objective is to complete that vision. The sad thing is he will not be around.
Whether discussing the prospects for Chelsea's next game, the future ("never look back" was a favoured maxim) of the insurance industry, or the merits of Bob Dylan or Wagner (firm favourites both), Matthew's impish and self- deprecatory sense of humour was never more than a heartbeat away. Even the most solemn topic or occasion would be punctuated with a perfectly- timed flash of wit. A giggle would instantly become a belly-laugh, shared by all present, and as often as not, the working day would start with him dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief at the first full-blown joke of the day.
As his public profile grew, his humour and sense of proportion never left him. He wanted very much to win, in the boardroom or the locker room, but fully accepted that life was not supposed to be fair. Nor did he believe in luck. His skill, however, was to make everything he undertook look simple. It never was. His ability to compartmentalise his life, with its broad range of interests, was much admired by those who knew him well. Whatever or whomever was in front of him at the time would be given his fullest attention. And then swiftly on to the next matter, as like as not an entirely different topic. To be caught in his gaze in this way was, for many, personally enhancing but always challenging. One colleague described the experience as "feeling transparent - he simply sees right through to the core, and there had better be one."
Yes, he was charismatic. Yes, he was an original. And yet he was a man of the people. Above all, though, he was the truest kind of friend whose loss leaves many people with an overwhelming sense of abandonment.
My working association with Matthew Harding, for the last 11 years, has been the most exciting, challenging, stimulating and fun part of my business life. Matthew's favourite expression was "Enjoy the game!" He did and he lived life to the full.Matthew Charles Harding, businessman: born Haywards Heath, Sussex 26 December 1953; Vice-Chairman, Chelsea Football Club 1995- 96; died 22 October 1996.
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