Sir Adrian Cadbury: Pioneer of good practice in corporate governance who also guided the family firm through the turbulent 1980s

Wednesday 09 September 2015 19:42 BST

Sir Adrian Cadbury was an Olympic rower who went on to run the family business and producing the 1992 Cadbury Report, which became the cornerstone of corporate governance at home and abroad. In a business career spanning six decades he took up senior roles at the Bank of England, the Confederation of British Industry and IBM, while maintaining his family's Quaker traditions, promoting local charities around Birmingham and funding the construction of Aston University. He was once described as "the City's own social worker".

The product of a privileged upbringing, Cadbury – softly-spoken and principled – strived for the workplace to be run as a meritocracy, and he was not afraid to make difficult decisions, such as not giving senior management positions to family members.

Reflecting his own beliefs, Cadbury's report displeased some entrepreneurs who felt their wings were being clipped and that they were being told how to run their companies. With British business acquiring a questionable reputation in the 1980s boom, the report followed a number of high-profile scandals, and the report, Cadbury said, "reflects a climate of opinion which accepts that changes are needed."

Cadbury's report advocated a clear division of responsibilities at the head of a company so that no one individual had too much power, though it stopped short of mandatory separation of chairman and chief executive. Boards, it said, should have independent non-executive directors of sufficient calibre and number to carry significant weight in a public company's decisions, with clear disclosure of directors' emoluments. A code of best practice was set out and companies were invited either to comply or to explain to their shareholders why they were not doing so. Cadbury was modest about its impact. "Codes will not catch rogues," he remarked. "We cannot be a corporate nanny."

He was distraught, having retired, at the controversial takeover of Cadbury by Kraft in 2010, and made the family's feelings known in a letter to The Daily Telegraph. "A bidder can buy a business. What they cannot acquire is legitimacy over the character, values, experience and traditions on which that business was founded and flourished."

Born in Birmingham in 1929, he was one of six children, three of whom died young, to Joyce (née Mathews) and Laurence Cadbury, a grandson of John Cadbury, a Quaker who had started out selling tea, coffee and later drinking chocolate in Bull Street, Birmingham in 1824. Laurence's father, George, built the Bournville factory and developed the surrounding village for the factory's workers. Owner of the social reform paper, News Chronicle, Laurence became a director of the Bank of England and Cadbury chairman in the postwar years.

Adrian was educated at Eton before National Service in the Coldstream Guards and Economics at King's College, Cambridge, where he won a rowing blue. He represented Britain in the coxless fours at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where they finished fourth, an experience he described as "the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

He had spent school holidays working in the mail room and looked forward to his annual visit to the main factories, where he was allowed to gorge on chocolate. In adulthood he enjoyed, he said, a "steady daily intake".

When his older brother died in a motorcycle accident, Cadbury joined the family business in 1952, spending 18 months working in different departments, impressing other family members and learning the value of teamwork: "You listen, learn, get to know and work together," he said. "It's one of the biggest lessons."

In 1958 he was appointed to the board and headed personnel, where his negotiation skills with shop stewards was noted. At 36 he was made chairman in preference to two older and more experienced family members. He saw the need to change, with the ever-evolving mechanisation of plants and the fast-moving world of advertising and branding. He employed McKinsey, the management consultants, who recommended diversifying and reforming the autocratic management structure into a federation of smaller enterprises.

With Cadbury wanting to break into the US market, and Lord Watkinson, chairman of Schweppes, wishing to diversify, the companies merged in 1969. Although Cadbury, with his Quaker background, had reservations about a company so closely associated with alcohol, he reasoned, "at least we were buying the company that supplied the tonic and not the gin".

Watkinson became chairman, with Cadbury managing director, then chairman when Watkinson retired in 1975. He immediately declared his opposition to nepotism, stating that if two equal candidates applied for a position in the firm, the non-Cadbury was more likely to be chosen – although his brother became chief executive in 1984. Sir Graham Day, the first board member from outside the family, took the chair until Dominic Cadbury in 1993.

During the 1980s, the golden age of aggressive takeover bids, Cadbury Schweppes fought off corporate raiders like the US investor General Cinema, which held a large stake in the company for a few years. During Cadbury's tenure, the company retained its independence and prospered. In 1978 it acquired Peter Paul, the US's third largest chocolate manufacturer, for $58m, which gave it a 10 per cent share of the world's largest confectionery market.

In 1982, with trading profits greater outside the UK for the first time, Cadbury Schweppes took over apple-juice processors Duffy-Mott and Canada Dry (1986). Cadbury was thwarted in his attempt to acquire Rowntree's because of UK competition law but he did succeed in acquiring Trebor Bassetts in 1989.

Cadbury retired in 1990, with vastly increased turnover and higher profits but the workforce more than halved, to 17,000. In 1994 he stepped down after 24 years as one of the Bank of England's longest-serving directors. As Chancellor of Aston University (1979-2004) he was instrumental in donating and raising funds for expansion and academic improvement. µ MARTIN CHILDS

Sir Adrian Cadbury, rower and businessman: born Birmingham 15 April 1929; Kt 1977; CH 2015; married 1956 Gillian Skepper (died 1992; three children), 1994 Susan Sinclair (died 2010); died Birmingham 3 September 2015.

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