Obituary: Sir Michael Angus

Unilever chairman who helped to pilot BA through storm and transformed Whitbread

Born: 5 May, 1930, in Kent.

Died: 13 March, 2010, in North Cerny, Cirencester, aged 79.

SIR Michael Angus was often referred to as a difficult man to work for during his tenure as chairman of Unilever, which may go some way to explaining the roaring success of the company under his leadership. In a career that saw him undertake numerous positions on boards across the broad spectrum of industry, he was often sought after in times of difficulty, a troubleshooter of the highest calibre and a ferociously intelligent thinker.

Born in Kent in 1930, he was brought up near Cirencester, Gloucestershire after a brief period in what was then Rhodesia. His father was an optician and Angus was educated at Marling School in Stroud. His grades bought him a place at Bristol University where he earned his BSc in Mathematics and performed the role of chairman of the Conservative Association. The RAF followed, where he spent his three years national service as a flying officer.

His experiences with the RAF taught Angus that he enjoyed managing staff and that he was good at it. This prompted him to apply for a management trainee position with Unilever. He was accepted and in 1954 began work for the company with which he would later become synonymous. In between National Service and embarking on a career, Angus in 1952 married Isabel Elliot, with whom he remained until his death.

His first assignment for Unilever was with D&W Gibbs, a toiletries subsidiary, and from there his star rose. In just three years he was promoted to product manager, and the following year he was installed as brand manager for Sunsilk shampoos.

After a stint as brand manager for SR toothpaste he found himself in Paris as a promotions manager for Thibaud Gibbs. In the seven years he spent in Paris, Angus rose to become marketing director for the French subsidiary. By now Angus's reputation preceded him and Unilever's top brass began to move him up the ranks. His next stop was two years at Research Bureau, Unilever's market research department, where he was managing director.

After a time as sales director of Lever Brothers Associates, and then a period at the Unilever Toilet Preparations Co-ordination Unit, he was elected to the boards of Unilever plc and Unilever NV.

At this point the company's operations in North America were floundering against its most direct competitor, Proctor and Gamble.

Angus was parachuted in to rejuvenate trade and shake up the existing management in order for the firm to compete. When asked about what he would bring to the battle he responded with typical self assurance: "60 million of equity, and me."

Angus set about a mass overhaul, bringing in specialists in marketing and production from Europe. He introduced a balanced attack of cost cutting, sound production investment and product launches. It worked, and within five years Lever Brothers were back on terms with P&G.

In 1984 he was placed on the company's special committee and In 1986 Angus, the self-proclaimed "toothpaste salesman", succeeded Sir Kenneth Durham to become UK chairman of the multi-billion pound global empire.

His relationship with his Dutch counterpart worked so well that the traditional image of Unilever as a slow moving machine dissipated. The first example of this was a crushing bid for US firm Chesebrough-Pond's. The speed at which Angus moved to secure the deal caught the competition napping and it saw his company snatch victory from American Brands, a success Angus found "most enjoyable".

Further purchases saw Elizabeth Arden and Calvin Klein brought in to the fold as well and Unilever was bucking all market trends. In the 1990s the company was still making 2bn profit. Indeed, at the peak of his stewardship in 1990 Unilever sold 23bn worth of products, ranging from recognisable consumer brand names such as Lipton tea to Vaseline. The company's biggest global year coincided with a personal reward for Angus in the form of a knighthood for his services to industry.

Angus's lifelong association with Unilever ended in 1992 and he became chairman of Whitbread, deputy chairman of Boots and BA and a non-executive director of the Natwest Bank, simultaneously.

From 1992 to 1994 he was the president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). During this period Britain removed itself from the exchange rate mechanism, which led to recession and a crash on the pound. In his position as the head of British industry, Angus was highly critical of the government's handling of the situation.

While at BA he displayed more of his ability to manoeuvre a stumbling giant through a PR nightmare. The problem started when Sir Richard Branson took BA to court, citing a "dirty tricks" campaign. It was exacerbated when BA was found guilty and forced to issue a embarrassing apology to Branson's Virgin Group and ordered to pay 3.5m in damages.

A 62-year-old Angus dealt with the expulsion of BA chairman – Lord King of Wartnaby, a man he has described as "a rascal, but a very loveable rascal" – and kept the shareholders happy.

He was criticised for his handling of King's ousting in some quarters, accused of making the chairman's position indefensible, an accusation which King himself quashed.

His presence at Whitbread breathed new life in to a dying 250-year-old brewery, inspiring its transformation from beer maker to hotel and leisure group.

While friends may remember him as a generous and engaging individual, colleagues and employees speak of a stern man with a fearsome temper.

A keen brain and an astute business mind blended with a brash confidence and a very deliberate attitude towards making things happen. Whether or not he was liked by all his staff, he was respected for his commitment, energy and ability to identify the big issues and address them effectively.

Outside business, Angus's greatest passion was the countryside, alongside a keen interest in politics, and he described himself as a "frustrated politician". He spent much of his life in Gloucestershire and his love for the county led to his appointment as deputy lieutenant for Gloucestershire in 1997.

He also served as vice-president of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester.

The family home at North Cerny is a working organic farm where he produced and marketed his own goats' cheese with his wife, Isabel, and their daughter, Barbara. His love of food and wine (his wine cellar holds more than 3,000 bottles) led to many contributions to the Good Food Guide.

Sir Michael Angus, one of Britain's most successful and influential industrial players, died at his home, aged 79.

He is survived by his wife and their three children

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