Obituary: Ronnie Gray, industrialist and hotelier

Born: 12 January, 1937, in Glasgow. Died: 21 March, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 78

Ronnie Gray: Industrialist whose firm set up the Edinburgh Canal Centre and revived the Bridge Inn

Ronnie Gray, the Scottish industrialist and hotelier, has died in Edinburgh aged 78.

Ronnie Gray was the founder and chief executive of Polbeth Packaging, one of the first start-up companies to base itself in Livingston and go on to become a UK-wide business. He also co-founded Lowland Inns Ltd, which was most noted for creating the Edinburgh Canal Centre at the Bridge Inn, Ratho, revitalising the Scottish Lowland Canal system.

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In later life, his interests included being a non-executive director of the Royal College of Surgeons and mentor to numerous small- and medium-sized Scottish businesses through his pro bono work with Business Mentoring Scotland, for Scottish Enterprise.

Born in Glasgow in 1937, Gray attended the Edinburgh Academy. After a gap year as an interpreter in the emerging resort hotels of the Cosa Brava, he trained in the hotel business with the Savoy Hotel Group in London.

After a decade of hotel management he switched track in the early 1960s to packaging, joining Willkie and Paul in Slateford, Edinburgh. Gray rose to be the managing director, having successfully diversified the metal box business into thermo-plastic packaging during the 1970s. Willkie and Paul closed in 1983, when parent company Scotcros famously failed.

Joined by two senior colleagues from sales and manufacturing, in 1983 Gray founded Polbeth Packaging Ltd with support from Livingston Council, which was then promoting Livingston as a trade and industry “new town”. As chief executive, Gray led Polbeth to success as the management team exploited the opportunity created by the Scotcros failure and then moved into new markets, opening plants in England and supplying customers across Europe.

As a major thermoformed container firm, Polbeth Packaging became a significant employer and corporate citizen in central Scotland.

In 1990, Polbeth was acquired by the Packaging Corporation of America (PCA) in a deal that saw Gray shuttling to and from the USA on Concorde. Over the following years he oversaw PCA’s expansion in the UK both through organic growth and two major acquisitions, and the beginning of a presence in Europe.

As a highly respected international leader in the packaging industry, Gray served pro bono as the chairman of the Packaging and Industrial Films Association (PIFA). Alongside promoting the industry, he made significant progress spearheading environmental standards and improvements in the disposal of waste product from packaging. Gray retired from PCA in 1996. He was widely regarded as a thoughtful and forward-looking leader who inspired great loyalty.

Meanwhile, Gray’s interest in the hospitality business saw him and two other investors create Lowland Inns Ltd in 1970. In 1971 Lowland Inns’ first acquisition was the Bridge Inn, then an old, run-down pub on the disused Union Canal in Ratho, Midlothian.

With the appointment of a dynamic general manager, the building was converted into one of the first mid-market destination gastropubs in central Scotland.

Gray and fellow investors then alighted on the idea of building a cruising barge-restaurant on the Union Canal, offering a unique waterfront and cruising dining experience for family parties and weddings. The Bridge Inn would be the hub.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, the subsequent arrival of The Pride of the Union kick-started the regeneration and restoration of the Scottish Lowland Canal system and, indeed, the canal boating-building industry.

The challenges were enormous. The canal was in disrepair but after much effort and with great support The Pride of the Union became a highly successful and profitable venture. The company went on to make other acquisitions, including the Penny Post in Perth; Torwoodlea Hotel in Larbert; and the Sun Inn, Dalkeith.

In 1987 the Bridge Inn was expanded and became the Edinburgh Canal Centre with a new restaurant called The Pop Inn and two new boats – The Pride of Belhaven and The Ratho Princess – were added to the fleet.

To this day, the Bridge Inn complex remains one of Scotland’s most successful and enduring hospitality ventures. Gray relinquished his holding in the company in 1997.

In retirement spent mostly in Spain and Edinburgh, Gray remained an active member of the business community. He mentored many small- and medium-sized Edinburgh businesses on behalf of Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Chamber of Commerce.

He was also a non-executive director of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

Ronnie Gray died peacefully at home in Edinburgh on 21 March. He is survived by his wife, Wendy, and their son and daughter.