Obituary: Major Ivan Straker, whisky executive, horse–racing enthusiast

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Born: 17 June, 1928, in Edinburgh. Died: 20 May, 2013, in Northumberland, aged 84

MAJOR Ivan Straker was a distinguished and much-respected figure in the Scotch whisky industry acting as managing director of Glenlivet and Glen Grant in the 1960s.

He was involved in a hard-fought battle for the company in 1978, when a hostile bid ­for the company’s shares was made by the Canadian giant Seagram. After Seagram’s takeover, ­Straker was appointed chief executive of Seagram’s UK interests (which also included Sandeman port managed from Leith) from 1983 to 1990 and chairman from 1984 to 1993.

Straker had had a life-long ­interest in National Hunt Racing and when, in the 1970s, Aintree Racecourse – the home of the Grand National – came under threat, Straker persuaded the Seagram board and family to raise the necessary funds to prevent the racecourse becoming a housing estate.

Straker put it to the board in the boldest terms. “Listen, you’ve always wanted to raise the profile of Seagram in the UK and here is the most wonderful, wonderful chance.”

Ivan Charles Straker was educated at Harrow before going on to Sandhurst. In 1948, he was commissioned into the Seaforths and “fell in love with Scotland”. He also served with the 11th Hussars serving in Germany, Northern Ireland and the Middle East and in military intelligence at the War Office.He left the army in 1962 and two years later was appointed managing director of the ­Renfrewshire company D Rintoul & Co and of the Glenlivet and Glen Grant Agencies.

Straker proved an excellent businessman and a forward- looking executive of the whisky industry in Scotland. Sales of Glenlivet increased substantially both throughout the UK and in the US. In the 1976 annual report Straker said that “the benefits of the merger with Glen Grant are now showing through and the order book is full”.

In fact, his stewardship of the company had been so successful that the following year an unsolicited bid was made for Glenlivet by Seagrams. When the bid was at its height, Straker and Glenlivet were in daily contact with their merchant bankers, Hamros, in the City. The ­Canadians already owned 27 per cent of the company and the shares had risen substantially. The situation was complicated as Suntory of Japan held 11 per cent and the Distillers Company of Edinburgh 6.5 per cent. Eventually through Straker’s shrewd conduct of the bid, Glenlivet was sold for £46 million and, such was his reputation, Straker was appointed managing director of Seagram UK.

Straker had owned National Hunt horses for many years and the merging of that passion with the sponsorship of the Grand National proved a highlight of his career. His persuading Seagram to sponsor the race ­undoubtedly saved Aintree but it also brought immense prestige back to the event. Seagram’s investment over the ensuing years, under ­Straker’s informed guidance, helped to transform the facilities at the course, and by 2004, Aintree was attracting a crowd of 150,000 for the three-day Grand National meeting. In 2002, The Scotsman called Straker, “the Scot who saved the National”.

He enjoyed much success with his own horses and was particularly proud when he won the Scottish Grand National in 2000 with Paris Pike, trained by Ferdy Murphy. Another noted horse that he owned was The Tsarevich, which came second in the 1987 Grand National to Maori Warrior. It was an exciting finish and, as he saw his horse beaten into second place, Straker collapsed with a heart attack.

Sadly, in 2000, Paris Pike had run at Aintree and had fallen at the first fence. Straker was crestfallen, but his first thoughts, typically, were for his horse and jockey. He said: “As long as they’re both fine, we’ll come back and try another day.” Then added with a broad grin, “We would have won.”

He and his wife, Tizzy, demonstrated their enthusiasm for the sport when they sponsored a race at Kelso named after Paris Pike. He was a director of the ­Lothians Racing Syndicate – with its headquarters at Musselburgh – and on the boards of Ayr and Kelso racecourses. Straker was a council member of the Scotch Whisky Association and, apart from horse-racing, Straker was a keen angler and shot. When he lived in Edinburgh, his home was filled with paintings of horses and country scenes.

Straker was much-respected throughout both the racing and whisky industries. His gracious and generous personality is warmly remembered and his judgment in promoting and advancing their futures has proved both perceptive and astute.

Straker married Gillian Elizabeth Grant in 1954. That marriage was dissolved in 1971. They had a daughter and two sons, one of whom predeceased him.

He married Sally Jane Hastings in 1976 (dissolved 1986), with whom he had a son. He married thirdly, in 1998, Rosemary Ann (“Tizzy”) ­Whitaker.