Obituary: John Speirs, CBE, LVO, MA, businessman

Highly-regarded businessman whose love of Scottish country dancing never waned. Picture: Contributed
Highly-regarded businessman whose love of Scottish country dancing never waned. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 17 June, 1937, in Glasgow. Died: 27 December, 2014, in Surrey, aged 77.

John Speirs was an eminent businessman with Norsk Hydro, the Norwegian aluminium and renewable energy company. He was an acknowledged expert in environmental affairs and published various influential reports on the subject. Speirs was also chairman of the UK faculty of the Prince of Wales’s Business and the Environment Programme for ten years and a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

He also served on the Carbon Trust and was president of the National Society of Clean Air and Environmental Protection. He was adviser to Kleinwort Capital Limited. All these responsibilities he despatched with a commitment and drive that reflected his own dedication to the subject.

John Garrett Speirs was the oldest of three children of a Glasgow businessman. He attended Cargilfield Preparatory School in Edinburgh and then Glenalmond College, where he was a scholar and displayed a talent for music which remained a passion all his life.

As well as being head of the school, Speirs was an excellent athlete – ­winning the steeplechase – and ­performed in various theatrical ­productions. His Josephine in HMS Pinafore is fondly remembered by contemporaries.

In 1956, Speirs read classics at Exeter College, Oxford and then studied business management at Cornell University in New York state. After graduating from the latter in 1962, he returned to the UK to join British Aluminium in Scotland, living with his American wife, Susan, in Edinburgh for three years.

Speirs was then offered a job with the industrial conglomerate Tube Investments and moved to work in their London head office.

It was while with a division of Tube Investments in the Midlands that Speirs faced a major professional challenge. He learnt that the loss-making plant was to be shut and he realised that radical measures had to be implemented to save both the plant and the workforce’s jobs.

Speirs persuaded the trade unions to improve their workers’ efficiency and drastically increase output. The plant’s productivity improved and the decision to close was reversed. It was a considerable personal success and demonstrated Speirs’s determination and resilience.

Other positions included working with the National Enterprise Board and then for the final 20 years of his professional life with Norsk Hydro, where he rose to be the managing ­director of their UK division.

It was while at Norsk Hydro that Speirs set up the first environmental audit of a large company, showing the impact on the environment of the company’s activities. His conclusions proved highly influential not only at Norsk Hydro but also throughout other areas of business.

It was a courageous policy to pursue – Norsk Hydro was the first oil-­associated company to undertake such a challenging enquiry. But Speirs was convinced that industry should demonstrate publicly its environmental responsibilities and embrace a sense of goodwill towards the community at large.

He was the president of the Aluminium Federation and chairman of the UK faculty of the Prince of Wales’s Business and Environment Programme, where he worked closely with the Prince and officials in Whitehall. He also served for six years as a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

Throughout his busy career south of the Border, Speirs remained a fervent Scot. From his youth he had been a great lover of the outdoors and a passionate hill-walker. He and other members of the Speirs family were ardent climbers of Munroes and their outings were all logged enthusiastically. He returned to Edinburgh to attend the International Festival and annual social functions at Christmas.

He preserved a love of Scottish country dancing all his life: the family’s Hogmanay parties were an event wherever they lived. Speirs arranged for a select band of eight experienced country dancers in the most obscure reels to provide lessons prior to New Year’s Eve. He loved the dancing and the atmosphere of a ceilidh in the heart of Surrey.

Speirs was a man of many interests and, apart from his distinguished business career, he was devoted to his family. He was well versed in music and opera, religion, gardening and current affairs. Speirs was a man of high integrity, wit and much charm.

The final few years of his life were hit by the onslaught of Alzheimer’s disease. But he retained the qualities of a courteous and ­generous-minded gentleman to the end.

Speirs was awarded the CBE and made a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order; the personal gift of Prince Charles.

He met his wife Susan while studying in America and they married in 1963. They were married in Dayton, Ohio, with Speirs resplendent in the kilt. That caused quite a sensation in the local church. She and their two sons survive him.