Obituary: Lord Laing of Dunphail

Baker, businessman and soldier who led from the front and reaped the rewards

Born: 12 May, 1923, in Edinburgh.

Died: 21 June, 2010, in Buckinghamshire, aged 87.

HECTOR Laing was the grandson of Sir Alexander Grant, Baronet, and throughout his life he sought to emulate him. Sandy Grant was a Moray Loon who learned to bake in McVitie and Price's Edinburgh shop, eventually buying that business and opening biscuit factories at Robertson Avenue and, in time, in London and Manchester.

He was a friend of Ramsay Macdonald, became a baronet and as a wealthy man was a generous benefactor. He helped to finance the building of the National Gallery of Scotland and made substantial gifts to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

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He purchased the estates of Dunphail, Logie and Relugus in Morayshire and left these to his three grandchildren, Hector, Sandy and Robin Laing.

If Hector Laing sought to emulate his grandfather, it will be seen that he did so. Educated at Loretto, after a spell at Jesus College, Cambridge, he was commissioned, serving with the Armoured 3rd Battalion Scots Guards. He was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the American Bronze Star.

The subalterns in the 3rd Battalion were an interesting group who were all successful in their post-war careers. Bob Runcie became Archbishop of Canterbury, Peter Balfour became chairman of Scottish & Newcastle, Andrew Elgin (the Earl of Elgin & Kincardine) the Lord High Commissioner, and Chips Maclean (Lord Maclean) became the Lord Chamberlain.

All remained friends right through their lives, and Laing maintained a friendship with his tank crew and found employment for many of them after the war.

On demobilisation, he joined McVitie & Price, then a private company, and was appointed a director in 1947. In 1948, the company merged with Macfarlane Lang & Co to form the public company United Biscuits. Laing's special skill was in production, and he was soon recognised as an expert in the automation of biscuit production. He became managing director in 1964 and chairman in 1972.

United Biscuits made many acquisitions: William Crawford & Son, DS Crawford, Macdonalds, Meredith & Drew, Kenyon Sons & Craven and the Keebler Co. Keebler was the second-largest cookie company in the United States. United Biscuits, through these acquisitions and internal growth, became a major producer of biscuits and snack foods.

Laing was early to recognise that the workforce had a stake in the business. He invited representatives to attend every annual general meeting, believing that those who gave their working lives to the company were as important as the shareholders who gave their cash. He was regularly seen in all the company plants.

His vision for business caught the eye of Margaret Thatcher. They became close friends, and she regularly holidayed at Dunphail in Morayshire.

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In 1973, Laing was appointed a director of the Bank of England and served until 1991. Knighted in 1978, he was made a life peer in 1991. Laing held many public offices and served in numerous food-related organisations. In 1984, he was named Businessman of the Year, and from 1988 to 1993 he was treasurer of the Conservative Party.

In 1950, he married Marion, the daughter of General Sir John Laurie, Bt, of Maxwelton. Laing learned to fly in his twenties and retained a pilot's licence for most of his life. At Gerard's Cross, in Buckinghamshire, he built a fine garden, as he did at Dumphail. In both places, he was a regular attendee at church and was generous to his churches, as he was in countless other respects.

As his grandfather had been generous to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, so was Hector Laing, donating specially designed Knights of the Thistle china to the Queen for the Golden Jubilee. As he and his brothers had inherited fine properties in Morayshire, so he acquired estates there in order that his three sons, all of whom have had successful careers, would enjoy the Moray countryside which had meant so much in his life.

Once asked about some complicated aspect of his Christian faith, Laing responded: "I leave that to the theologians." Asked about some aspect of Conservative policy, his answer was the same: "I leave that to the politicians." He did not claim expertise in these and other subjects, but he did claim, and rightly so, that he was a baker.

Laing had dreamed since boyhood of emulating his grandfather's career. In the end he was destined to eclipse it. It has been argued that there are few real leaders today. Laing led from the front in all that he did, and his management and his workforce realised they were working with someone whose decision-making and powers of communication they respected and responded as people will when well led.

He is survived by his wife, Marian, who had been such a support to him during his very busy life, and by his sons, Mark, Robert and Anthony.

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