Obituary: Sir John Davis
Thursday 01 July 1993
JOHN DAVIS was Chairman and President of the Rank Organisation and co-founder of Rank Xerox, one of the most successful of post-war companies.
Davis was educated at the City of London School. His first job was with the British Thomson-Houston Electric Group, and in 1938 he joined Oscar Deutsch's Odeon cinema chain as chief accountant. In 1942 J. Arthur Rank bought Odeon Theatres, and made Davis joint managing director with Deutsch. Davis was in charge of over 500 Rank cinemas in Britain, and many throughout the Commonwealth.
When the crisis in the British Film Industry came to its peak in 1950, the Rank Organisation was in a particularly weak position - the British film industry was in competition with Hollywood, the duty which had protected British films from American products had been lifted, and television was growing more popular.
It was Davis who went to the National Provincial Bank for help. The bank lent the company pounds 16m - a huge sum in those days, but the bank's assessment of Davis proved correct. He used the money to restructure the company completely, breaking it down into 20 divisions, and to diversify its interests into such areas as television-set manufacture, scientific equipment and leisure interests. The company bought City Wall Properties, Butlin's and Oddenino's Property and Investment Company.
In 1956 Davis met Joe Wilson of the Haloid Corporation and together they created Rank Xerox. When Davis agreed to the principle of the original deal with Wilson he did not appreciate until later that the equipment in workable form did not yet exist - it was a brilliant piece of intuitive investment. It said much for the two men that they operated so effectively for such a long period of time, 15 years as joint chairmen from 1957 to 1972. Subsequently Davis was joint president until 1983. It is easy for people to remember some of the minor failures of the Rank Organisation, such as the lack of success of its health clubs, but the Xerox deal more than paid off. The Xeroxing business came to account for over 40 per cent of the group's sales turnover.
Was Davis autocratic? Certainly, but how many really successful businessmen are not? He had a very tough exterior and frequently when projects were recommended by executives he would ask, 'Do you really want to do that?' If there was the slightest hesitancy he would retort, 'If you don't want to do it, I don't - next subject.'
Davis was President of the Advertising Association from 1973 to 1976 and he chaired the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund to great effect. He was a trustee of the Arthur Rank Foundation for many years, and chaired the Rank Prize Funds until quite recently. The principal use to which these funds were put were opto-electronics and nutrition. The establishment of chairs of nutrition at teaching hospitals was one example of key progress under Davis's chairmanship.
Davis loved farming - he loved pruning his fruit trees; he loved his cows; he loved his black Labrador; he loved his garden; and he did a great deal of manual work on his farm and in his garden in Surrey.
John Davis certainly had an austere presence and on occasions had a slightly frightening effect on weaker mortals, but he worked very hard: he was always first in the office, he had boundless enthusiasm, tremendous discipline and was probably the most punctual man most of us have known, with a very high level of business integrity. A controversial figure, yes, but no one could deny his many achievements.
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