Introduced to Lord Cowdray at a polo match once, a journalist remarked that, rather distantly, the Viscount had been his boss. When the Viscount enquired how this was so, my friend said he had once worked for the Financial Times. "Oh that," murmured Cowdray. This lack of immediate interest was not in disparagement of a famous part of the Cowdray empire but reflected a rather patrician attitude to life, in which business properly serves the ends of family and country, and can be effectively managed through prudent delegation, leaving one free for estate management, and polo.
The commercial acumen and secure wealth of the tightly knit family of the third Viscount Cowdray, born Weetman John Churchill Pearson, derived from the 19th-century Yorkshire brick-making firm which Weetman Pearson (created first Viscount Cowdray in 1917) transformed into a huge international construction business and subsequently diversified conglomerate through the launch of Mexican Eagle Oil, whose rich discoveries in 1910 initiated one of the great early oil booms of the century.
Said to be the sixth richest man in Britain when he died in 1927, the first Viscount left enormous wealth and extensive estates to his family and the reputation of having been a man blessed by luck - the "Pearson touch" - though his prosperity was won through unrelenting work and driving ambition, assisted by a natural talent to lead and professional engineering skills: he had eschewed university and gone straight into the family business. The first Viscount Cowdray stares at us commandingly
over the decades like a typical business hero from the pages of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help and it is tempting to cast his grandson John Pearson, the third Viscount, educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, a shy reclusive man with his passion for property and polo, as an exemplar of the decline of Britain's entrepreneurial class. He would not have cared for, nor much cared about, this aspersion and it misses the point that he possessed a sense of business and family pride that sustained and expanded the Cowdray empire.
In running its affairs his most important decision was to secure a public quotation for the group in 1969, when 17.5 per cent of the group's ordinary share capital was offered to the public. This move was partly for tax reasons, critical to family businesses and partly, as urged by Cowdray's small, select team of boardroom colleagues, notably Oliver Poole, to recruit top managers of high quality in days when not inflated salaries but long-term prospects and serious responsibilities were attractions for the high-flyers.
Since becoming chairman of S. Pearson in 1954, on the retirement of his uncle, Cowdray with his small team of close advisers had pursued a prudent policy in the wake of the nationalisation of its varied interests in aviation, coal-mining and electric utilities, of expanding into respectable areas of publishing (adding to its provincial papers, for example, the Financial Times, Longmans and then Penguins) and prudently nurturing its interests in oil, banking (Lazards) and pottery. One of the mouth-watering, eyebrow-raising acquisitions during his chairmanship was of Chateau Latour, in which however he was not the prime mover (and which was subsequently sold at a very big profit on the original price).
After the group went public, Cowdray remained firmly in control, rather more distant from daily events, and he was made life president when he retired as chairman in 1977. His nephew, Viscount Blakenham, is the present chairman and the group still bears the Cowdray stamp in its family orientation (with about 10 per cent of shares owned by the family or its relations) and the unexciting decency of its business culture.
As for Cowdray's personal culture, it was rooted in the privileged, dutiful, tenacious world of the remaining British gentry. He was a soldierly man, a captain in the Sussex Yeomanry, wounded at Dunkirk, where he lost an arm. He was a knowledgeable gentleman farmer and an authority on forestry. He was a prime mover in the revival of polo in Britain after the Second World War, alongside the Duke of Edinburgh, and he himself played with vigour and expertise at Cowdray Park. He also, naturally, fished and shot, with impressive results despite the disability which otherwise added to his reticence.
At one time, Cowdray sat as a Liberal in the House of Lords, but he decided to become an Independent in 1950. He was an independent spirit, courageous, painstaking, well liked by those who worked with him, loyal and dedicated: nearly if not quite out of his time.