Obituary: John Connell, businessman

John Connell: Chairman of Edinburgh-based  Distillers Company Limited when it was taken over by Guinness
John Connell: Chairman of Edinburgh-based Distillers Company Limited when it was taken over by Guinness
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Born: 29 December, 1924, in Surrey. Died: 18 March, 2014, in London, aged 89

John Connell initially had a distinguished career in the spirits industry, particularly in the marketing division of Tanqueray gin. It was one of the subsidiaries of the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) – the giant business run from Edinburgh’s Torphichen Street. Connell was the first non-whisky man to be chairman and had only occupied the post for three years when, in 1985, James Gulliver of Argyll Securities launched a £25 billion take-over for DCL.

That bid was followed by one from Ernest Saunders of Guinness and a ferocious battle raged for some months. Connell, a man of integrity and charm, led the defence against two of the new breed of executives whose sole object was absolute victory. The bid was certainly one of the bloodiest and bitterest in Britain’s corporate history.

In his three years in the chair Connell had put in place radical changes in senior management and had upgraded both the marketing and production divisions.

DCL was a sprawling empire that was still reeling from the Thalidomide scandal (DCL had been responsible for manufacturing the drug in Britain) and in need of a major industrial revamping.

As Scotland’s largest company, it played an integral part in the social and financial structure of the country. Connell was determined to modernise DCL and move it into new markets.

John MacFarlane Connell was the son of Scottish parents born into the gin business – his father was chairman of Tanqueray Gin, operating from London. He spent much of his youth on the family sheep station in Australia.

His mother, Mollie MacFarlane, was Australian and his father worked in Australia to establish Gordon’s Gin.

Connell attended Stowe School leaving, in 1943 to join the Royal Engineers. After the war he read biochemistry at Christ Church, Oxford, and captained the university golf team in the Varsity match.

In 1946 he joined Tanqueray as a trainee and was appointed export director of Tanqueray Gordon Gin in 1954 and managing director from 1962 to 1970. In 1965 he was made a full board member of DCL.

When he was promoted to the board of DCL the company was embroiled in the Thalidomide affair.

The company had explored new commercial avenues to ensure it was not so reliant on the spirit industry.

It already had interests in the biochemical industry and began research into Thalidomide in 1958. The drug, it was hoped, would help pregnant women avoid morning sickness.

Doctors advised it would not affect the foetus but, unfortunately, when taken by pregnant women it had disastrous effects.

Connell lobbied strenuously at board level that a legal and fair settlement should be reached immediately.

The board decided to go through the courts and the months of legal travail did little for the company’s reputation. It also made it virtually impossible for Connell to diversify the business. He chaired a committee that assessed possible acquisitions and the process had started with the purchase of Concannon, a premium California winery.

But Connell realised major acquisitions had to be made and he considered the brewers Scottish & Newcastle and even the Bank of Scotland. Connell also had talks with Allied Lyons, the powerful brewing group in England.

But DCL had lost its go-getting image and many fund managers were unenthusiastic about the company’s prospects. By 1985 institutional investors considered DCL was itself a takeover target.

Argyll made an opening bid and Guinness followed with an aggressive bid. Both approaches were acrimonious and frantic. Connell, eventually, extracted promises from Saunders that the headquarters of the company would remain in Edinburgh and that he, Connell, would be the chairman of the new company.

Saunders reneged on these undertakings and Connell was devastated. As one former colleague has commented: “He was a gentleman to the core. An absolute gentleman but was absolutely stunned by what he saw happening around him.”

Connell was, indeed, a courteous and kindly man – shy and perhaps not up to the bitter cut and thrust of such a major bid.

Many people’s reputations emerged from the DCL bid tarnished but Connell retained his dignity and credibility. He has written: “Maybe I was naive. I didn’t realise people would ever say things like that about their rivals in public.”

Until 1979 Connell was a director of United Glass Holdings and was associated with several trade bodies including the Gin Rectifiers and Distillers Association.

Golf remained a lifelong passion and Connell was a member of the Royal & Ancient where he is rumoured to have kept a special bottle of malt in his locker to celebrate or commiserate with his partner.

He was also a keen shot and an angler and much enjoyed watching cricket.

He married Jean Mackay in 1949. She and their two sons survive him.