OBITUARY : Sir David Nicolson

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The Independent Online
Sir David Nicolson was not only one of the most outstanding businessman of his generation but also a highly influential figure in the European Movement. Yet he preferred, as one former colleague put it, "to do good by stealth".

Unlike many businessmen with far fewer achievements to their credit, he was unstuffy, invariably courteous, spoke only when he had something to say, and never sought to claim the credit for his achievements. To the day of his death he retained a faint sense of surprise and pleasure at the honours heaped on him. Yet, as the same colleague said, "things seemed to happen when he was around".

Nicolson's father was a Canadian consulting engineer who had settled in Britain and, after Haileybury, he was educated as an engineer at Imperial College, London. In the last years of the Second World War he served with distinction as a Lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors in the Atlantic and in Normandy, where he was mentioned in despatches.

More importantly he met his first wife, Joan Griffiths, on the beaches where she was serving as a nurse. They married the following year and until her death in 1991 he remained the most romantically devoted of husbands - friends remember his face lighting up as she came into the room. The practical and romantic sides of his character were combined in his great love sailing, where he enjoyed both the nuts and bolts aspects and the romance of the sea.

In the 20 years after the war Nicolson worked primarily as a manager and then as chairman of Production Engineering, then probably the leading British industrial consultancy group, a position in which he built up his formidable network of business contacts.

But his best known role was as chairman of BTR between 1969 and 1984, years in which the company grew, quietly and exceedingly profitably, into one of the country's leading holding companies, one unlike its fellows in that it grew not only by acquisition but also by highly-disciplined internal growth.

Nicolson was very much a non-executive chairman, the company's expansion being largely directed by Sir Owen Green and his colleagues, yet he played to perfection the role of a consultant, available to provide sound advice when required. He was also highly influential in setting the company style, which, in keeping with his own personality, was unpretentious and so low key as to be practically invisible to the press and the public.

As BTR grew Nicolson naturally became much in demand as a company director. In 1972 he became the first chairman of British Airways, a potentially explosive mixture of two greatly contrasted companies, British European Airways and British Overseas Airways, and before he left the chair in 1975 - with a knighthood - had overseen a most successful merge.

In the following 20 years he served as a director of a number of major companies, usually with distinction - returning to his roots as non-executive chairman of the managerial consortium which bought the VSEL (Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering) shipyards at Barrow-in-Furness from state ownership.

Nicolson's greatest contribution to public, as opposed to business, life came from his connection with the European Movement, which he clearly - and untypically - saw as pos- ing no conflict with his involvement with North America. He represented the London Central constituency in the European Parliament between 1979 and 1984 and in 1985 became chairman of the then nearly-defunct European Movement.

He was by no means a federalist, but proved himself a genuine internationalist. The romantic side of his character had been inspired by the idea of peoples working together as he had done with the Continental members of the European Parliament. At the European Movement his style resembled that at BTR: he delegated power and trusted those who worked with him to rebuild the Movement.

He carried his European convictions with him during his stint as pro- Chancellor of Surrey University between 1987 and 1993. He got on well with the students, initiated and attended debates on the subject.

He was also "influential" - a word much used about him - in helping to set up what is now a most successful European Management School at the University.

He had never neglected his father's native country, serving as a member of the British National Export Committee for Canada, and as a director of the Canadian group Northern Telecom for some years. But the most tangible evidence of his influence is the Memorial in the Mall to the Canadians who had served and died in two world wars.

This, dedicated by the Queen on 3 June 1994, was the result of Nicolson's capacity to bring together a group of often dissimilar people to achieve a definite aim, and remains a monument to him, almost as much as to the heroes it commemorated.

Nicholas Faith

David Lancaster Nicolson, businessman and politician: born London 20 September 1922; deputy chairman, BTR 1965-69, chairman 1969-84, director 1984-96; Kt 1975; MEP (Conservative) for London Central 1979- 84; Pro-Chancellor, Surrey University, 1987-93; married 1945 Joan Griffiths (died 1991; one son, two daughters), 1992 Beryl Thorley; died 19 July 1996.