Weinstock, founder of GEC, dies

Wednesday 08 January 2014 04:09
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Lord Weinstock, the son of a London tailor who became one of Britain's last great industrialists, died yesterday after a short illness.

The entrepreneur and philanthropist died at his country home, in Wiltshire.

Lord Weinstock, 77, founded the General Electric Company, transforming it over 33 years from a telecommunications firm with a turnover of £135m to a global conglomerate with profits of £1bn in 1996, the year he retired. But the company, eventually renamed Marconi, collapsed last year.

Feted as much for his love of horses and Mozart operas as for the hard-headed acumen that created one of Britain's biggest companies, Lord Weinstock was remembered last night as a pillar of industry, culture and racing.

The peer will be buried today at a private ceremony. He died aged 77 yesterday morning, after a life in which he was orphaned at the age of nine but ended up as a business tycoon worth £350m.

Tributes were led by former colleagues and figures from the world of horse-racing, Lord Weinstock's enduring passion after he stepped down in 1996 as head of the General Electric Company (GEC), the defence to domestic appliances conglomerate he transformed over three decades.

Lord Prior, a fellow industrialist and former Conservative cabinet minister, said: "He had a brilliant mind and he did a great deal to help regenerate British industry.

"He was a man of many parts. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and, if he had not been a great industrialist, he could have been a very considerable music critic and perhaps even a conductor."

The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Arnold Weinstock's father, a tailor, died when he was four, and his mother five years later.

Until last week, he was undergoing treatment in a private London hospital for an unspecified illness, but he returned to his country house in Bowden, Wiltshire, where he died. His wife, Netta, was with him at the time.

A family friend said last night: "Up until a fortnight ago he was as bright and alert as he had ever been. His illness was sudden ­ you could say it followed two of the greatest disasters in his life."

Last year, the peer had seen his creation, GEC, which had a turnover of £11bn and reserves of £2bn when he stepped down, collapse amid a series of disastrous acquisitions and demergers.

The peer, who had a degree in statistics, was said to have been furious at the direction taken by his successors when they tried to reposition GEC as a telecommunications company under the Marconi name, only to see its share value plummet from £12.50 to pennies. Last night, Marconi's share price was 3.75p. The financial disaster cost Lord Weinstock an estimated £500m.

Six years ago, he had to deal with the death from cancer of his son, Simon, who was being groomed to take over the helm of GEC.

Latterly, the peer had concentrated his activities on racing ­ dominated by his 300-acre stud in Ireland ­ and opera. He once described Mozart as the "pinnacle of civilised music" and toured Europe to listen to concerts.

The jockey Willie Carson, who rode the Weinstock thoroughbred Troy to victory in the Derby in 1977, said: "He really loved his racing and he really loved his horses. It really revved him up, especially seeing a good horse."

Lord Weinstock was also a trustee of the British Museum and the Royal Philharmonic Society. He also backed campaigns opposing British entry to the euro.

The entrepreneur, a darling of the Labour Wilson governments, who was given a life peerage by the Tories, was renowned for ruling his enterprises with a rod of iron. His dislike of corporate profligacy led him to order the lights of the group's headquarters be turned off every night.

Alluding to Lord Weinstock's famed stubbornness, Sir Michael Stoute, who trained many of the industrialist's horses, said: "He was a man of great wit and wisdom.

"We had some great times and very occasionally difficult ones: that typified Lord Weinstock ­ he made sure you remained focused."

Tim Yeo, the shadow trade and industry secretary, said: "He was highly respected in industry and in the City, and for good reason. He left his firm imprint on British industry."

Despite Lord Weinstock's expensive personal taste, he instilled a puritanical ethicthroughout his business and private life, GEC colleagues said. Instead of using the company Rolls-Royce, the peer insisted on using a black cab that was part of company car pool for trips around London on the ground that it would not attract attention and was more fuel efficient.

He did make use of the company jet for trips to see his favourite conductor, Ricardo Muti, lead orchestras in Milan and Vienna. But the bill was paid out of his pocket.

As one senior GEC executive once put it yesterday: "The higher you went, the fewer privileges you had."

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