DCSIMG

Jack Lyons

Businessman and philanthropist Born: 1 February, 1916, in Leeds. Died: 18 February, 2008, in Switzerland, aged 92.

JACK Lyons was the successful businessman who became embroiled in the takeover for Distillers by Guinness. He and three others were prosecuted and were found guilty on six charges: the most important were for contravening the Companies Act and creating a false market in the shares. It was an unhappy end for a man whose widespread charitable donations had gained him a knighthood. Lyons was stripped of that and spent the rest of his years abroad, mostly in Switzerland.

The former prime minister, Sir John Major, spoke for many when he told Lyons that "your good work will always be remembered".

Typical of Lyons's generosity was witnessed at the Edinburgh Festival of 1961. Lord Harewood, the Festival director, had long been planning an exhibition of the works of Jacob Epstein. Funds had been difficult to come by until he approached his friend in Yorkshire, Jack Lyons. The vast sculptures were seen in the Waverley Market and were acclaimed worldwide. As if to underline his canniness, when the exhibition closed Lyons bought some of the sculptures.

Isidore Jack Lyons was born into a prosperous Polish immigrant family whose father had built up the men's chain stores, Alexandre. He attended Leeds Grammar School and then studied business in North America. While there, war was declared and Lyons could not return to the UK so he enlisted in the Canadian army but because of his poor eyesight, he was confined to working in the Board of Trade.

At the end of the war, Lyons returned to Leeds and greatly expanded and improved the shops. In 1954, the company was taken over by the much larger United Drapery Stores (UDS) – which operated the John Collier chain – partly to benefit from Lyons's management. For almost 30 years Lyons managed UDS and through his perceptive management the company grew substantially. He was a man of much commercial acumen, "The buying public", Lyons often said, "know more than you think." He left UDS in 1984 and accepted various non-executive directorships and furthered his sponsorship activities.

His involvement in charity had dated from 1953 when he funded the Leeds Music Festival and supported Lord Harewood in his plans to develop this festival: especially for its centenary in 1958. Lyons co-founded the popular Leeds Piano Festival in 1961. His generosity was also seen at York university, Stratford, the Royal Academy of Music and the London Symphony Orchestra. For many years he was chairman of the Federation of Jewish Relief Organisations.

In 1981, however, he agreed to become a non-executive director of Bain & Co, the American management consultants, who were advisers to the Guinness group. The Guinness managing director, Ernest Saunders, wanted to take over the Edinburgh-based Distillers Company Limited: announcing a 2.2 billion bid in 1986; but so had the supermarket group Argyll. The resulting bid was one of the most acrimonious takeover battles in UK corporate history.

Guinness did not want their bid referred to the Monopolies Commission and Lyons lobbied Margaret Thatcher successfully to ensure "a level playing field" so that the bids could be decided by the DCL shareholders. The problem arose as both bidders were offering their own equity without a cash element. That entailed the shares of Guinness and Argyll having to be maintained at a high level to enhance their underlying bid price. Lyons was thus closely involved in a scheme (of dubious legality) to support Guinness's share price, in order to make the offer to Distillers' shareholders look more attractive than the Argyll offer. Lyons was paid a 3 million fee into a Swiss bank account for ensuring the Guinness price was kept high when they were victorious.

It was, however, something of a Pyrrhic victory for Lyons. A year later the DTI started an enquiry into the bid and eventually, Lyons, Saunders, Gerald Ronson and a stockbroker Anthony Parnes were prosecuted on an array of alleged financial irregularities. The trial was highly dramatic as the scandal unfolded. Saunders pleaded that he was suffering from Alzheimer's and described Lyons's account as "a blatant lie." The judge was critical of all in the dock and labelled Lyons' performance throughout the bid as "shoddy and undignified."

All four were convicted but only Lyons escaped prison. His health was poor and he was ordered to return many of his fees – four years later he was acquitted on one charge of conspiracy and some money was returned to him. In 2000 the European Court of Human Rights declared that all four had been convicted in an unfair trial. By then Lyons was in poor health and had left Britain. He had sold his mansion in Holland Park and a Monet and moved to Switzerland. The humiliation of having his knighthood removed was somewhat reduced in 1990 when the cheque came through from the Treasury after his appeal. The cheque was made out to: Sir Jack Lyons.

Lyons is survived by his wife, Roslyn Rosenbaum, their two sons and two daughters.

 
 
 

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