Obituary: Eric Stevenson, businessman who relished a challenge and built up a very Scottish company in Asia
Born: 19 September, 1923, in Edinburgh. Died: 14 February, 2012, in Singapore, aged 88
Eric Stevenson had a zest for living which he brought to his business career and his personal life. His shrewd commercial brain was matched by his ability to make and keep friends. His generosity touched many and his love of throwing parties was legendary.
When he was 80 Stevenson held six parties throughout the world – the warmest and most enjoyable, it was said, was back among friends in Edinburgh.
In 1969 Stevenson moved to Singapore where initially he managed a subsidiary of Rank Hovis. But he founded, in 1972, a hugely successful business in Singapore called Highland Flies, which manufactured fishing flies for anglers.
He had no experience – and had never fished – but with his keen eye for an opportunity he built it up into an international company. A feature of the company was that it offered employment to disabled people whose working opportunities were otherwise limited.
Eric Houston Stevenson was the son of a successful Edinburgh businessman who owned Abernethy Biscuits. He attended Edinburgh Academy (1930-40) where, when asked what he was going to be, replied resolutely: “A businessman”.
He read commerce at Edinburgh University and at the same time qualified as an accountant with the renowned Edinburgh firm, Chiene and Tait. In 1942, Stevenson joined the 5th Royal Tank Regiment and after Sandhurst saw service in France on D-Day plus one. Stevenson was with the Allied forces as they advanced through Europe and led the British Tank Corps into Berlin in 1945. He then joined his father’s company back in Edinburgh and was instrumental in merging the business with Rank Hovis. He won a Ford Foundation Grant and studied business methods in the US.
Throughout the 1950s Stevenson was active in the Edinburgh Junior Chamber of Commerce. He was president in 1955, when Edinburgh hosted the World Congress of Junior Chamber International.
In 1958 Stevenson was president of the Scottish Junior Chambers of Commerce and international president in 1963. He was to remain a keen supporter of the organisation, sponsoring a debating competition at the international meetings and providing a Friendship Quaich as a prize.
Stevenson worked with Rank Hovis in Berkshire before being sent by the firm to Singapore to head its operations in the Far East. He rapidly expanded their business but decided to leave the group in 1972.
Highland Flies soon built up an international business and Stevenson opened factories in Malaysia in 1980 and Sri Lanka in 1993 and 2003, making more than half a million fishing flies a month. He pioneered a very special service at Highland. All the flies are custom tied and their reputation for attention to detail, quality of work and their personalised service is recognised worldwide. He remained active with the company to the end of his life.
Stevenson had always enjoyed life, sport and being with friends – not for nothing did he call his autobiography A Kick Out of Life. He had played rugby for the Academicals and was a touch miffed when not allowed to take his golf clubs on D-Day.
Stevenson became a passionate water-skier and, when working in Edinburgh, annually organised a group to go to the south of France for two weeks of intensive water- skiing. He drove south, towing his aptly named speed boat Rocket all the way. A friend called the holidays “memorable”.
Stevenson was charismatic – always affable and kindly. His business brain remained sharp and acute. He could spot a flaw in a presentation or a business plan in an instant but made his observations without flamboyance or impatience. His flair for developing a business opportunity was remarkable and he responded to new challenges with a very special relish.
Stevenson remained a devoted Scot – wearing the kilt often in Singapore and at official functions. He supported many Scottish charities but was particularly generous to Edinburgh Academy. He provided, for example, among other gifts, financial support for its sports centre – named the Stevenson Centre in his honour – which is a large hall built at the junior school. It was opened by Princess Anne in February 1999.
Brigadier Richard Rothery was bursar at the academy when the sports centre was being built. “Eric was such a joy to deal with,” he told The Scotsman yesterday. “Nothing was too much trouble for him throughout the building. It all went like clockwork. I remember with particular pleasure Eric’s annual visits in July when he would sit in the centre and watch what was going on and come back with fresh ideas or what needed to be changed.
“Eric was wonderfully hospitable and generous, always gracious and considerate.”
Eric Stevenson is survived by his sister.
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