Victor Watson: Waddingtons chairman who took over the family firm and transformed it into a market leader in the games industry

“Mr Monopoly”, as he was known, tirelessly promoted the board game

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The Independent Online

Victor Watson was the charismatic former chairman of Waddingtons who was responsible for much of the success of the playing card and board game manufacturer. “Mr Monopoly”, as he was known, tirelessly promoted the board game, sporting a straw hat, sometimes a top hat, a Union Jack and a suitcase, turning it into an instantly recognisable global brand.

With charm, courtesy and a sharp business mind, Watson was from a bygone era, a one-company and one-city man who promoted and protected Waddingtons while tirelessly pushing Yorkshire, and Leeds in particular. Described by a business associate as having “leadership with the common touch”, Watson attributed some of his success and man-management skills to having started on the shop floor sweeping up. “Everybody should work on the shop floor,” he said. It opened the doors for me to the way people thought, the way they reacted. I was a marvellous sweeper.”

Although he had an ability to get things done with humility, the jolly yet self-effacing Watson could also show steely resolve, in particular with his encounters with the Daily Mirror and Robert Maxwell, who twice tried to take over the company. Following a hostile bid by Norton Opax, another Leeds-based printer, in 1983, Maxwell posed as a “white knight” who would rescue Waddingtons. Watson remained steadfast and ruffled Maxwell’s feathers by sending investigators to Liechtenstein to scrutinise the ownership of Maxwell’s secret trusts. The ploy worked and Maxwell retreated.

He tried again the following year, but again Watson and the board stood firm. “He started off very friendly,” Watson recalled. “When we said we are not for sale he got a bit nasty and started threatening. He was a bully.” Maxwell ultimately conceded defeat.

Watson had become chairman of Waddingtons in 1977, a position he held until he retired in 1993. He also oversaw the launch and re-launch of other games including Cluedo, Buccaneer, Go, Scoop and Sorry! as well as the continued production of No 1 playing cards, a legacy from the First World War.

Born in Leeds in 1928, Victor Hugo Watson was one of two sons born to Norman Victor and Ruby Watson. He was educated at Bootham School in York, then Clare College, Cambridge, where David Attenborough was a contemporary. Watson did his National Service in the Royal Engineers, rising to 2nd lieutenant.

In 1951, Watson joined the family-run John Waddington Ltd, which his grandfather, also called Victor Hugo Watson, had acquired when it was a struggling provincial print firm and transformed into a market leader. In 1935 he bought the international rights to Monopoly from Parker Brothers; developed in the US, the game was originally based on Atlantic City.

Watson’s grandfather based the English version on the London streets he saw with his secretary while on a flying visit around the capital in a taxi. Watson later explained that there were two minor errors; unlike the other squares on the board, The Angel, Islington is not a street at all, but was named after a coffee house his grandfather had drunk in after his taxi dash; and Marlborough Street should actually have been Great Marlborough Street.

During the War the government and Waddingtons conspired to smuggle maps and messages inside Monopoly sets, chess sets and packs of cards to PoW camps via fake charities, which were allowed to send parcels from families and relief organisations. The maps, printed on silk, along with real money and compasses, equipped PoWs with the information to enable them to make escape attempts.

Watson was a lifelong champion of Yorkshire and his home town, and in 1993 the company produced a 500-set limited edition of Monopoly with the squares named after Leeds locations. It  was one of the 10 objects chosen by Leeds museums to represent the city in the A History of the World project.

Following Watson’s retirement Waddingtons’ independence lasted less than a year; the new management sold the games division to Hasbro, which moved it to London. Watson was dismayed. In a £318m deal in 2000 the rest of the company was merged with others to form Communisis, a print and digital marketing business.

Watson became an ambassador for Yorkshire and later became a director of Leeds and Holbeck Building Society and Yorkshire Television and was president and chairman of West Riding Opera. He played a role in moving the Royal Armouries from London to Leeds to help with regeneration and supported the founding of the Leeds International Piano Competition.

In retirement he enjoyed family life and writing, producing and appearing in village pantomimes which included Alice in Blunderland, Aladdin Boots and Robin Hood and his Merry Man. He also did much charity work. In 2008 his book The Waddingtons Story was published, a mixture of archive material and personal recollections; one such was a letter written by Winston Churchill in 1933-34 in which he thanks Waddingtons for a copy of Monopoly, describing it as “most interesting”. He also became a successful after-dinner speaker. With typical modesty, he thought it was because he did not charge a fee.

Victor Watson, businessman and philanthropist: born Leeds 26 September 1928; CBE 1987; married 1952 Sheila May Bryan (two daughters); died Leeds 25 February 2015.

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