Leslie Silver: Businessman who built up a paint empire then led the way as Leeds United surged back to the top flight

When Silver retired from his business in 1991 it was worth £100m. A year later he was awarded the OBE for services to exports, having previously been named Yorkshire Businessman of the Year in 1983

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The Independent Online

The grandson of poor 19th-century Jewish émigrés from Poland, Leslie Silver had a public profile which stemmed largely from a successful 13-year spell as chairman of Leeds United football club. But he also built one of Europe's biggest paint-manufacturing companies and was a pilot with a distinguished record in the Second World War.

Silver, who changed his surname from Silverstein, was born and raised in East London, leaving school at 14 to work in a clothing factory. The family moved to Leeds to escape the Blitz, intending to return south when the war was over. They put down roots in Yorkshire, however, and Silver's boyhood devotion to Arsenal gave way to an interest in his local club. A love of his adopted city manifested itself in philanthropy which continued until his death.

In February 1944, a month after he turned 19, Silver joined the Royal Air Force as a flight engineer. A member of the Marxist-Zionist organisation Poale Zion as a young man, he explained in later life that "hated fascism and wanted to play a part". Pilots were limited to 250 hours of missions and he completed his full allocation, flying with 138, 161, 291 and 356 squadrons in Europe and the Far East. On one sortie he dropped supplies into Singapore's Changi jail.

After he was demobbed, Silver used the gratuity he received in respect of his service to start the Silver Paint & Lacquer Company in 1947. In 1982, having taken over other companies in the north of England, SPL was rebranded as Kalon Ltd, later taking over Leyland Paints and becoming a public limited company.

When he retired from the business in 1991 it was worth £100m. A year later Silver was awarded the OBE for services to exports, having previously been named Yorkshire Businessman of the Year in 1983.

The self-made entrepreneur remained a supporter of the Labour party. With his deeply rooted sense of community he saw no contradiction in being a millionaire with left-of-centre political views. When approached in 1982 to become a director of Leeds United – then going through one of their frequent financial crises – he asked the chairman, Manny Cussins, how much it would cost him. "Nothing," said Cussins.

No sooner had Silver joined the board than he was writing a £200,000 cheque to avert bankruptcy. But, as Anthony Clavane would remark of his chairmanship in a book about Jewish involvement, Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United, he ran it "out of a sense of civic duty".

By the time Silver succeeded Cussins at the helm in 1983, Leeds were in the former Second Division. Compared with the decade up to 1974, during which his friend Don Revie brought unprecedented silverware to Elland Road, the fanbase was shrinking and funds almost non-existent. To compound their difficulties, a hooligan element were damaging the club's reputation and the far-right, anti-semitic National Front was attempting to gain a foothold on the terraces.

Silver could have been excused for walking away but he understood Leeds's vast potential. They had trusted the managerial reins to three ex-Revie players – Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner – without success. In 1988 Silver offered the job to Howard Wilkinson, then working a division higher with Sheffield Wednesday, and his first full season saw Leeds end an eight-year exile from the top flight.

Two years on, with a squad that cost £8m, Leeds beat Manchester United to the 1991-92 Football League championship, the last before the advent of the Premier League, Sky and all. From boardroom to dressing-room it was an old-school triumph.

Wilkinson's eight-year reign was terminated in 1996 soon after Silver floated the club on the stock market and sold it to a London-based investment firm, Caspian plc. On hearing of his chairman's death he hailed his "great humility, great modesty and enormous integrity" and added: "Along with those more gentle virtues, he had a strong spine and balls of steel."

Interviewed for Clavane's book, Silver reflected on the antagonism he faced when Leeds failed to build on the League title. "When we won the championship I was very popular as a Yorkshireman. But when things went wrong I was criticised by some fans as a Jew." The "final straw", he recalled, was being burgled and handcuffed to a door by men in balaclavas. "I wanted to get out of the limelight. I'd never been comfortable with it."

Yet reclusiveness was not his style. In 1999 he became the first chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett University), serving until 2005. A stalwart Zionist, he received a certificate from the United Jewish Israel Appeal in 2008 for 60 years of support for the country. In 2013 he was awarded the Bomber Command Clasp, granted to air crew who completed at least 60 days' service.

When it was put to him that his generosity had contributed greatly to the life of the Jewish and wider communities in Leeds, Silver replied with a smile: "On the contrary, Leeds has given a lot to me."

PHIL SHAW

Leslie Howard Silverstein, pilot, businessman, football club chairman and university chancellor: born Walthamstow, London 22 January 1925; OBE 1992; married 1946 Anita Feddy (deceased; two daughters, one son), 1983 Sheila Harris (deceased); died Leeds 29 December 2014.

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