Obituary: Hamish Maxwell, businessman

Hamish Maxwell: Former Glenalmond pupil who went on to head Philip Morris conglomerate
Hamish Maxwell: Former Glenalmond pupil who went on to head Philip Morris conglomerate
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Born: 24 August, 1926, in Liverpool. Died: 19 April, 2014 in Brooklyn Heights, USA, aged 87.

Hamish Maxwell successfully steered the US conglomerate Philip Morris through many of its mammoth takeover bids. At the same time he modernised the company and made it competitive in world markets. In Philip Morris’ 1985 purchase of General Foods and its 1988 takeover of Kraft, Maxwell displayed a shrewd and determined strategy that ensured the success of the take-overs.

He did much to diversify Philip Morris from its historic base as a US cigarette producer and branch it out into the food and drink industries. His sharp brain and canny business acumen were all qualities Maxwell had honed in his youth during the war in Scotland.

By the time he landed the top job at Philip Morris in 1983 the company had global interests and he expanded it with astute acquisitions. During his stewardship of Philip Morris it briefly became the biggest company in the world by market capitalisation.

His visionary management enabled the company to hold a commanding place in the burgeoning and fiercely competitive service industry. That, alone, is a considerable commercial legacy.

Hamish William Hyslop Maxwell was born into a family with long connections with the tobacco industry. His father spent some years in Aberdeenshire when he was in charge of the UK’s wartime supply of cigarettes. His mother, Doris Galbraith, had strong Scottish connections through her own family.

Maxwell attended Glenalmond College in Perthshire and remained a devoted supporter of the school all his life. He gave handsome gifts on several occasions to the school’s appeals – notably the new science buildings and the refurbishing the chapel organ.

Maxwell read history at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University (1944–47) and then did his national service in the RAF. He remained a strong supporter of Trinity Hall throughout his life.

He went to work for Thomas Cook, the travel company, which sent him to its New York office. Maxwell decided to make his career in America and joined Philip Morris, gaining worldwide experience, firstly of the business principally in the Asia-Pacific region before being appointed to senior executive posts in the US market.

In 37 years with Philip Morris, culminating as a distinguished and respected chairman and chief executive from 1984 to 1991, Maxwell guided the company through judicious expansions and embracing new technology.

For example, in 1981, he played a defining role in helping Philip Morris beat competitor RJ Reynolds to acquire a 25 per cent stake in Rothmans International, the British cigarette maker. Colleagues said Maxwell “snatched the deal out of Reynolds’s briefcase”.

Four years later Maxwell spent $5.8 billion buying General Foods, the owners of Maxwell House and Birds Eye. In 1988 he pulled off another major deal when won a fiercely fought battle worth $13bn for the Kraft Foods empire. Time magazine called it a “coup, with an unusually smooth resolution”.

These many bids made Philip Morris a multi-million dollar conglomerate which owned such famous brand names as Kraft’s Miracle Whip salad dressing, Philip Morris’s Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer.

Maxwell responded to the cut-and-thrust of bids with zest. He controlled his close-knit team of financial advisers with a firm grasp of all the facts. He formed a close connection with Sir Martin Sorrell, whose WPP advertising empire he chaired for five years when he retired in 1991.

As Sir Martin puts it, steely determination ensured Maxwell’s business success but, “Hamish was very much a gentleman . . .  he was the best chairman WPP ever had.”

Maxwell was one of the first international businessmen who recognised the importance of brands and brand loyalty. Even at home the family fridge was only stocked with Kraft cheeses and the company’s beers.

“It was always a running family joke,” recalled one of his daughters. Although he had been a lifelong smoker, Maxwell had given it up over ten years ago.

After Maxwell’s departure Philip Morris went under further big corporate changes. In 2003 it became the Virginia-based Altria Group, having sold off Kraft in 2001. Today, Altria is the largest seller of tobacco in the United States.

Maxwell was a lover of music and a keen patron of the avant-garde Brooklyn Academy of Music. He much enjoyed opera, family life and his homes in New York and Florida’s Palm Beach.

Fortune Magazine named him the 24th “Biggest Boss” in the US and commented: “It’s hard to emphasise how down-to-earth this guy is. He has a humanity that most CEOs lose.’’

His wife, Georgene, died last year. Maxwell is survived by their two daughters.