Obituary: Sir Basil Smallpeice
Friday 17 July 1992
WHEN Basil Smallpeice was recruited in 1950 by Sir Miles Thomas, Chairman of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), neither could have foreseen that Smallpeice, a quiet, reserved accountant, would shortly be immersed in the series of disasters involving the Comet aircraft, and emerge a respected power in the airline business.
Thomas was badly in need of a competent accountant, someone to deal with, as he put it, 'too much delay in presentation of figures and too much confusion in the way they were put forward'. Thomas was eager to get away on a long trip. Having discovered Smallpeice, he 'had no qualms about leaving, secure that at least the figures he produced would tell a true story, however sour'. Smallpeice's appearance was as neat and dapper as his book-keeping, developed in his long period of clerking before qualifying as a chartered accountant. Quietly, he took a grip of BOAC's troubled accounts, producing a programme of economies, staff slimming, automation and mechanisation.
The ice-cool Smallpeice soon had his feet well and truly under the BOAC table and the chairman, congratulating himself on the wisdom of his selection, created a job title which reflected his pleasure. Henceforth, Smallpeice would be no mere Chief Accountant. Financial Controller was considered. 'No,' said Thomas, 'improve on that. Make it Comptroller.' Very soon, Smallpeice was involved in decisions which would make BOAC second only to Pan American in the world airline league. He joined the board in 1953, became deputy chief executive the next year and managing director in 1956.
A great believer in buying British, Smallpeice strongly supported the purchase of the world's first jet passenger aircraft, the De Havilland Comet. If military aircraft were moving out of the propeller age, then why not airliners? Throughout the early 1950s and their catastrophic Comet disasters - at one point a Comet broke up in mid-air - he stuck loyally to the De Havilland concept and design. He led BOAC through the consequent storm, kept up the corporate spirit and, once the metal- fatigue problem had been investigated and corrected, renewed faith in the aircraft by introducing in 1958 the Comet IV. Boldly he played BOAC's trump card, transatlantic jet travel, and beat Pan American's Boeing 707s to it by three weeks with a same-day return trip to New York.
Smallpeice's fortitude had seen him through disaster. But his other prime quality, integrity, was to put him at a disadvantage amid the politics inevitably attaching to a highly visible nationalised industry. In the early 1960s just as the loss-making BOAC's fortunes were recovering, his integrity - telling a true story however sour - brought an end to his time there. Julian Amery, the then Minister of Aviation, was determined on a shake-up at the airline. Throughout his career Smallpeice neither desired nor was competent at politicking. In 1963, Amery asked for his resignation and that of his chairman, Sir Matthew Slattery.
Smallpeice was out of work for the first time since qualifying as an accountant and joining Hoover in 1930. He took a long voyage home from Hong Kong and found refuge with the Royal Household which he served part-time for 16 years as a financial adviser. For the first time since his schooldays, at Hydneye House, a Hastings prep school, and Shrewsbury, followed by Christ Church, Oxford, he slowed down.
His father had lost much of his money towards the end of long service in Rio de Janeiro with the London and River Plate Bank. Smallpeice had then learnt the necessity for applying himself professionally which took him up the ladder at Hoover and Doulton and into sporadic wartime service during which he made useful contacts in the civil service. These contacts led him in 1948 into the British Transport Commission - set up to run the nationalised railways, their hotels and docks - as director of costs and statistics. In 1950 he moved on to BOAC.
In 1965, a year after resigning from BOAC, he took the helm at Cunard as chairman. His work at BOAC had helped to scupper Cunard's steamship passenger trade. Now, with equal enthusiasm, he saw the QE2 through teething troubles, pressed ahead with a cruising programme and pioneered cargo containerisation.
In 1972 he left the Cunard to accept an offer which exposed him to practices for which he was not equipped by nature. He was pressed by Duncan Sandys to take on the non-executive chairmanship of Lonrho, where he was nonplussed by a tendency to take decisions without board-room discussion. Inevitable confrontation with the managing director of Lonrho, Tiny Rowland, led to an attempt by Smallpeice and seven colleagues to remove Rowland from the board. Rowland frustrated it, turned the tables, and Smallpeice and his directors were purged by shareholders.
There were compensatory directorships at Martins and Barclays Banks and in Australian shipping, but Smallpeice was out of the mainstream and retired in 1979. He enjoyed chairing the Leatherhead New Theatre Trust and the Air League as well as his membership of his London clubs. He also wrote a candid autobiography, Of Comets and Queens (1981).
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