ROWAN BENTALL was the grandson of the founder of the department store group which bears his name and which, in addition to its flagship store in Kingston upon Thames, now has six other stores in the South-east. All six - in Bracknell, Ealing, Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Thurrock and Worthing - were opened during Rowan Bentall's association with the business. It spanned 63 years, from the time he began working behind the counter in 1930, after a year's training at Harrods, until his presidency dating from 1978, and he presided at the group's most recent big development, the opening of the 600,000 sq ft Bentall Centre in Kingston last November.
The family atmosphere which is a characteristic of Bentalls stores owes much to Rowan Bentall's own personality. Though naturally reserved, he was a thoughtful and kindly man who took immense trouble to get to know his staff - at one time numbering over 3,000 - their families and their problems. He knew many of his customers, too, and showed the highest example of personal and courteous service - on one celebrated occasion interrupting a board meeting to go into the store when all other efforts to resolve a customer's problem had failed. It seems her neighbour's bees had swarmed and since she always went to Bentalls for all her needs, assumed they would be able to help. Rowan, whose mother had been a beekeeper, was able to provide the appropriate advice.
He schooled himself to make speeches and public appearances and overcame his inherent shyness to make sure he spoke to almost everyone present and to make them feel welcome. 'If it's good for Bentalls,' he used to say, 'then I must do it.'
He developed a great flair for marketing the store, and in the days before most people had the opportunity for travelling abroad he staged numerous in-store promotions featuring the merchandise of foreign lands. Subsequently 'Friendly Finland' was put on in 1976 to help neighbouring British Aerospace secure a foreign contract, a deal which was conditional upon some degree of reciprocal trade. In the face of much scepticism, Bentall sent his buyers to Finland on an exercise which generated national publicity there, as well as in the UK, and British Aerospace secured orders for pounds 128m worth of Hawk aircraft. Many of his initiatives live on in his history of Bentalls, My Store of Memories (1974), which was reprinted last year; it includes anecdotes about his predecessors and colleagues.
Bentall was well-known for his generosity and support for the community - not just in Kingston, where it included the church, hospitals, scouts, sea cadets, British Legion, arts trust, grammar school and rugby club, but also the charities for employees in the retail trade, and in 1960 he founded the Rowan Bentall Charity Trust which benefits numerous charitable organisations.
During his decade as Chairman, from 1968 to 1978, the group turnover more than doubled from pounds 14.5m to pounds 35.1m. It was a source of pride to him that his eldest son, Edward, became chairman in 1982 and stood beside him on many Bentall occasions thereafter, among them the 125th anniversary of the business exactly 12 months ago.