Obituary: Gordon Baxter CBE DL LLD DB, entrepreneur

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Born: 8 August, 1918, at Fochabers, Moray. Died: 22 February, 2013, in Aberdeen, aged 95.

Gordon Baxter’s permanent memorial is the personal stamp he put on his company. He was a big man with a big heart and his wife Ena constantly by his side. His jovial and welcoming manner was the warm front for someone to whom quality and excellence mattered first, last and always. For him, quality drove the company.

Baxters today is a worldwide business with operations from Scotland to Poland, North America to Australia. It might have remained the simple Baxters of Fochabers with 11 staff making jams and beetroot, and a turnover of £40,000 – not unlike the grocer’s shop of his Baxter cousins that was such a fixture in Main Street, Fochabers 40 years ago.

Instead, William Gordon Baxter created a global business, fired by the US example.

As with a youthful Tom Farmer whose Kwik-Fit empire was inspired by specialist repair services he saw in California, it was the supermarket sales potential of the US that turned Gordon Baxter’s fortunes.

A first visit to the States in the 1950s, combined with the discovery by Ena of a Louisiana soup recipe for chicken gumbo, provided a launchpad.

Baxter’s grasp of new ideas chimed with the advent of commercial television. Clever marketing resulted in advertising campaigns showing Mrs Baxter preparing soups in her kitchen. The PR proved so successful that the notion persisted for years that Ena herself prepared Baxter’s products at home.

The Baxter homeliness chimed with a North American yen for folksiness, and the huge Baxter promotions which started in the US and then in later years covered the globe were led by Gordon himself, and usually in the kilt.

Years later, he reflected: “We were very ambitious, but we didn’t know it at the time. We always strived for quality, and took on our grandfather’s slogan, ‘Be different, be better’”.

Grandfather George had opened a grocer’s in Fochabers in 1868, and stocked game, among other items. The business went to William and Ethel Baxter, whose sons Gordon and Ian joined after the Second World War.

The real take-off for the company came when Gordon met and married Ena Robertson in 1952, his wife being his business partner, proving as intent as Gordon was on creating a reputation for only the very best.

The same clever PR that featured Ena in her kitchen creating new recipes also turned aggressive takeover attempts into marketing material, and it was perhaps by more than coincidence that an alleged offer from Heinz was promoted by Baxters as the 57th variety of takeover. In all, some 200 offers were received, and all turned down.

While Mr Baxter, made OBE and then CBE, and with honorary degrees from three universities, including his alma mater of Aberdeen, carved out a reputation for quality food that helped to promote Scotland as a whole on the world stage, at home the daily flying of the Saltire outside the ever-growing plant at Fochabers created something of a political reputation in the mid-1960s for the Moray food factory.

With the rise of the SNP both nationally and in Moray, it was said that the production line alone boasted enough support to create a mini-SNP branch.

Much was made of the Royal Warrants held from the Queen, the Queen Mother and Prince Charles, yet Gordon Baxter treated all visitors with the same dignity and enthusiasm.

I was a young reporter for a local weekly paper in 1967, yet he personally conducted me round the plant, presenting me with a case of Baxter products at the end of the hour-long tour.

An iconic figure in Scottish business circles, Mr Baxter remained firmly of the opinion that there was a time to hand over tenure of his world famous family business.

When he did so in 1992, it was to his daughter Audrey, eldest of his three children, and the fourth generation of Baxters, with Gordon becoming life president.

For all his colourful entrepreneurship, Mr Baxter remained a proud native of Moray. When in 2008 at 90, he was given the Freedom of Moray to recognise his 60 years with the company, he called it “my greatest honour”, adding: “This award means a lot because it’s from my ain folk.” He went on: “This award has been given by the people of Moray to a son of Moray, who has stayed in Moray and built a business in Moray.”

Asked what ambitions he still had, he replied that he wanted Baxters to remain “an independent, family-controlled company with its base continuing to be located in Moray”.

Modestly, he said nothing about the Baxter Foundation he chaired, a charitable body dedicated to giving to local good causes.

The Second World War changed the course of Gordon Baxter’s life. A wartime research chemist with ICI Explosives taught him, he recalled years later, “how not to run a business”. Instead he returned to the family firm, and the next six decades demonstrated to the world his very individualistic notions of how to create business success.

He is survived by his wife Ena, three children and seven grandchildren. In keeping with his love of Fochabers, a memorial service will be held in the town later this year to which “all will be welcome”.

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