Garry Weston

Saturday 16 February 2002 01:00 GMT

Garfield Howard Weston, businessman: born 28 April 1927; managing director, Ryvita Co 1951-54; managing director, Weston Biscuit Co 1954-67; vice-chairman, Associated British Foods 1960-67, chairman 1967-2000, chief executive 1969-99; chairman, Fortnum & Mason 1979-2000; chairman, Wittington Investments 1979-2000; chairman, British Sugar 1991-2000; married 1959 Mary Kippenberger (three sons, three daughters); died London 15 February 2002.

Garry Weston was for 33 years until 2000 chairman and chief executive of Associated British Foods, best known as makers of Sunblest and other brands of bread and as owners of Twining's Tea and the Fortnum & Mason department store.

Although he was one of Britain's richest men, with an estimated billion-pound fortune, he was the most modest and retiring of tycoons. Indeed he was once described as "looking like everyone's favourite grandfather". He used to walk, or take a bus, to work or drive his second-hand diesel Mercedes himself. He once employed a chauffeur, though only for a few weeks, after realising that most of the time the chauffeur was employed simply to take Mrs Weston shopping. Moreover he regularly drew a salary lower than most of the other chief executives of major British businesses.

Weston – known as Garry to distinguish him from his father, also Garfield – was the third generation of a distinguished, if sometimes controversial, Canadian business family. Indeed the Westons still control a major Canadian business, Loblaw. This is run by Garry's younger brother Galen, who is better known than his brother, though more as a polo-playing playboy than for his business acumen.

Garry's grandfather George (all male Westons have Christian names starting with G), the son of a London-born immigrant, made a series of fortunes in the baking business. Starting at the age of 10 as a baker's delivery boy, seven years later he had opened his own bakery. Realising the potential of selling bread door-to-door he became a millionaire when he sold the business in 1911, then made two more fortunes, first in biscuits, then by returning to the bakery business.

His son Willard Garfield (invariably known by his second name) was nearly wiped out in the 1929 stock-market crash, but picked himself up and returned with his family to England in 1931; even though the then four-year-old Garry had lived in England for most of his life since then he retained his Canadian nationality (probably for tax rather than sentimental reasons). The father prospered in Britain, mainly by introducing Ryvita to the British public and in 1951 was able to buy the famous Piccadilly food store of Fortnum & Mason, which the family has kept in immaculate, ageless, trim ever since.

Neither George nor Garfield were exactly kindly souls – although Garfield at least was a firm supporter of Billy Graham. George was fond of the unappetising saying "People will eat horseshit if there's enough icing on it" and Garfield was not averse to sacking employees at Fortnum's unlucky enough to be caught smoking or eating an apple.

His father had a considerable, if somewhat contrary, effect on the young Weston. According to one close friend the father was

a magnetic personality who ran the business by hunch and intuition, with scant regard for accountants or figures. He was a charismatic fuigure whom people either loathed or adored. He was very tough on Garry and the rest of the children.

Not surprisingly the young Garry grew to be the total opposite of his father, meticulous, polite and shy, a man who throughout the more than 30 years he ran one of Britain's biggest businesses was rarely interviewed, and was even more reluctant to give his opinions in public – though he was known to be a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher and a generous contributor to the Tory party until, like so many other leading businessmen, he became disillusioned with John Major.

It was his father's impetuousness and irascibility which gave the young Weston his first chance. At the age of 23, after reading PPE at Oxford and a time at Harvard studying economics, he entered his father's office just after the old man had sacked the managing director of Ryvita and was promptly given the job. (Typically Weston played down the opportunity. "My father followed him out of the office," he said later, "saw me there and gave me his job. But he would have given the job to anyone who was passing.")

But in 1954 Garry, whose business style was gentle, in marked (and probably deliberate) contrast to that of his father and grandfather, could not stomach working directly for his father, and spent 14 years building up the family's business interests in Australia, a society which suited his dislike for pretentiousness and snobbery.

When his father abruptly handed over the reins on reaching the age of 70 in 1967 the then 40-year-old Weston was fully aware of the old adage that the third generation of a rich business family was, as he put it, "pretty useless" but he certainly bucked the trend. In his years at the helm the group's market value jumped nearly 30-fold.

During his long business career Weston had his share of inspirations – 50 odd years ago he enclosed a lump of marshmallow between two chocolate wheels and thus invented that perpetual favourite, Wagon Wheels – but most of his success lay in attention to detail, literally slicing the cost of baking bread to levels far below his competitors, usually by ensuring that his bakeries were the most efficient in the country. His grip was so tight that he personally authorised every piece of capital spending of over £5,000.

Weston had an intense dislike of the City of London and indeed of most standard British business practices. He compared other companies where he said the management

is inhibited by boards that contain powerful personalities and are not close to the day-to-day management of the company. The real power here is with the management of the subsidiaries and we believe in short lines of comunication. This has been responsible for our success over the years.

He measured success, or so he claimed,

in the fulfilment of an idea, the development of a new product, or in the motivation and development of people. This is what gives the thrill, and it's a thousand-fold more than any takeover deal.

Occasionally his sense of timing and the competitiveness bred in the bones of the family came through. He sold the family firm's stake in the South African Premier Group in 1983 for a healthy £500m and received £1.4bn for the Fine Fare supermarkets three years later.

His biggest coup came in 1991 when he outmanoeuvred Tate & Lyle, and, improbably, the Hanson group, to acquire control of British Sugar for what now seems a minimal sum from its previous owners, the cash-strapped Berisford Group (he had cannily withdrawn an earlier bid after the stock-market collapse of October 1987). At the time his only comment was simply "I like to win".

Yet, apart from the acquisition of British Sugar, he never strayed far from the flour, baking and biscuit business which he had inherited, although as well as brands like Sunblest and Ryvita it did include Twining's, one of the few brands of tea with a world-wide reputation. Nevertheless the narrowness of his approach to business naturally led to reproaches that he had accumulated far too large and unhealthy a cash mountain.

Possibly his most tense experience had come when one of the senior executives in his supermarket business, Don Tidy, was kidnapped by the IRA, a crime he took very personally, emphasising the way he regarded his business associates as members of an extended family.

His own family life, unusually for so rich a businessman, was tranquillity itself. He was married for more than 40 years to a famously warm and delightful wife and mother, Mary, the daughter of a distinguished New Zealand General. When Weston received an award as Businessman of the Year he ended his speech with the most graceful of tributes to his wife, thanking her "for not drowning me with social activities and for the pleasure of your presence and the physical and emotional renewal I find in my own home".

She and her husband had two homes, a house in London and a farmhouse in Oxfordshire ("comfortable but not ostentatious", according to one guest) and lived a quiet life. His major hobby was his garden – including regularly dismantling and reassembling his lawnmower. But his major preoccupation was his family, of three sons and three daughters; Garry himself was one of nine children.

All six of Weston's children were brought up strictly, without any of the luxurious trimmings enjoyed by the offspring of more lenient parents, who, perhaps conscious that they, unlike Weston, had not bothered much about their offpsring in their youth, later over-compensated by lavish gifts of cash.

All his children have worked in the family firm, and the succession seemed to lie between Guy, the eldest son, and George, the second. Nevertheless when Weston, like his father, retired as chief executive at the age of 70, the job went to a long-serving director, Peter Jackson.

In 1994 the trust which held the family's shares in ABF was restructured at a cost of over £5m in fees to ensure that there wouild be no tax liabilities on Weston's death. The restructuring also helped relieve possible tensions among members of the family less attached to the business than Weston himself and released £200m for the 40 or so members of the family, but leaving them with the same proportion of the family fortune as they had previously enjoyed, while ensuring that the family retained total control over ABF with two-thirds of the shares.

Typically, Weston was a large, and exceedingly discreeet, donor to good causes. His own trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation, is allegedly worth some £2bn and the £30m or so of annual income it produces is distributed to medical research, the arts and education.

In May 1999 he was revealed as the donor of £20m to the British Museum, the largest sum it had ever received, though, typically, he never talked about the gift. Yet it removed the financial worries surrounding the ambitious scheme designed by Lord Foster of Thames Bank for covering the museum's Round Reading Room and its internal courtyard with a gigantic glass dome. The "Great Court" will stand as an appropriate memorial to an unusual tycoon.

By Nicholas Faith

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