Obituary: Sir Robin McAlpine

Bobby McAlpine
Wednesday 24 March 1993 00:02

Robin McAlpine, businessman, horse breeder and owner: born 18 March 1906; CBE 1957; Chairman, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd 1967-77; Kt 1969; Chairman, Newarthill 1972-77; married 1939 Nora Constance Perse (died 1966); 1971 Mrs Philippa Nicolson (nee Tennyson d'Eyncourt; died 1987); died 19 February 1993.

ALTHOUGH he never sought publicity and received little, Robin McAlpine was in his prime a leading figure in both the construction and racing industries.

Robin McAlpine was my father's first cousin and also my godfather. Originally named Robert after his famous grandfather, he was always known by his family and friends as Robin. In the meticulous manner that characterised his actions in life he used a deed poll at an early age to legitimise his nickname.

After a conventional public-school education at Charterhouse, he was sent into the family construction company, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, and received an unusual 21st-birthday present, a partnership in the company. His first contract was the Empire site at Wembley and he then moved on to the Firestone factory on the Great West Road. These early contracts instilled a serious interest in contract management and particularly the civil engineering rather than the building side of construction.

During the war he played a significant part on the Mulberry project, which was designed to create artificial harbours in literally 24 hours after the beaches had been secured during the invasion of France. The McAlpine method involved the use of heavy prefabricated concrete sections and in the event they stood up to the severe gales far better than the steel alternatives, which were unusable.

After the war Robin McAlpine played an increasingly senior role in the management of the company's large civil engineering contracts, particularly the nuclear power stations which were to be a feature of company activity. While he concentrated on this side of the business, his cousin Edwin was developing an extensive list of clients on the building side and although the cousins were not particularly close personally they formed an effective combination, particularly as Robin had strong back-up from his brothers Malcolm and Kenneth.

In those days family owners of construction companies were expected to take part in the federations which serviced the industry and Robin naturally chose the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors, becoming first its Chairman for a year and then in the late Sixties its President for a five- year term. The road-building programme was in full flow and the federation was at that time at the height of its power and influence with leading construction figures like Godfrey Mitchell, Maurice Laing and Edgar Beck giving it their active support. Even so Robin McAlpine was an outstanding President, being an excellent public speaker and succeeding in aligning himself with such diverse government ministers as Barbara Castle, Minister of Transport in 1965-68, and Julian Amery, Minister for Housing and Construction in 1970-72.

Soon after his term of office was finished there was a determined effort by the 40 larger companies in the federation to merge with the bigger but unwieldly Federation of Builders. The old guard headed by McAlpine and his friend Edgar Beck comprehensively defeated this move by campaigning for support from the smaller firms in the regions who, under federation rules, had an equal vote to their larger competitors.

From an early age McAlpine had been fascinated by the racing scene and initially the betting side. He devised a system after researching 20 years of results by which he had an automatic bet on all horses starting at odds of 2-1 and 4-1 on. The theory was that the public were loath to bet at these cramped odds and consequently prices were better. For some years the family syndicate he headed made large profits from a hefty investment in the system but they were eventually defeated when the bookmakers devised a laying-off technique which ensured that the margin between the bookmakers' initial bet and starting price was sufficient to defeat the system.

In 1952 came the first classic family success on the turf with the victory of Zabara in the 1,000 Guineas. Robin McAlpine had persuaded his unwilling father to buy the filly and subsequently bought out his brothers when she was sold at public auction. In the Fifties and Sixties Robin owned a string of good horses including Infatuation, Ratification and Marsolve but the classics eluded him until 1984 when, under an inspired ride from Lester Piggott, Circus Plume won the Oaks.

The administration of racing also interested McAlpine and he joined the Racehorse Owners' Association where his father was a co-founder. Although he became their longest-serving president, from 1960 to 1969, the Racehorse Owners wielded virtually no power or influence in racing, partly perhaps because whenever they got an able president the Jockey Club silenced him by the simple expedient of electing him to their club; indeed, McAlpine joined the Jockey Club in 1961 just a year after his term as President of the Racehorse Owners Association started.

One of the first leading English owners to see the paucity of the prize money in England compared to France, he transferred almost all his racehorses to France by 1970, only partially to return to England in the Eighties.

In later years severe arthritis had crippled him and, hating his friends to see his condition, he hardly moved from his home, leaving his knowledgeable daughter Caroline to see the horses in the stables and on course. At Robin McAlpine's death there were 32 mares to be covered and 41 yearlings and foals at stud apart from many racehorses, giving him one of the four largest collections of bloodstock owned by a British breeder.

(Photograph omitted)

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