Obituary: Sir Eric Yarrow, chairman of Yarrows shipbuilders, who steered the company through turbulent times

Sir Eric Yarrow
Sir Eric Yarrow
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Sir Eric Grant Yarrow, Bt, DL, MBE (MIL), FRSE, shipbuilder, banker and philanthropist. Born: 23 April 1920 in Bearsden, Glasgow. Died: 22 September 2018 in Kilmacolm, aged 98.

Sir Eric Yarrow was born in 1920 in Bearsden, Glasgow, son of Sir Harold Yarrow and Eleanor. As the only son, responsibility fell on his shoulders from an early age, and ­following the death of his father, he became chairman of Yarrows at the age of 42.

He is credited with steering the distinguished Glasgow company through some of the most turbulent periods in the British shipbuilding’s history and with preserving the name and status of the family firm when many shipyards were falling into bankruptcy.

Critical was maintaining and developing the relationship with the Royal Navy, where a Yarrow ship was regarded as a fast ship. A charming salesman, Sir Eric went to great efforts to maintain this reputation, leading to orders from the Royal Navy and overseas navies when such orders were thin on the ground. As a result the firm became a prime contractor on the Type 21, Type 22, Type 23 and Type 45 frigate programmes.

Sir Eric joined the Royal Engineers soon after the outbreak of the Second World War and served with the Eighth Army in the Far East.

He took part in the retreat from Burma, where his task was to destroy railway bridges and river craft. On many occasions he destroyed flat bottom paddle steamers that had been built at Yarrows.

After a period in India, Sir Eric took part in the advance back into Burma. He obtained the rank of Major at 23 and was awarded an MBE. On his return to the UK he was tasked with supervising the removal of German landmines around the Hook of Holland.

After the war he started his long career with Yarrow and Co, started by Alfred Yarrow on the Isle of Dogs in 1865. The firm was world-renowned for building fast naval ships, having been responsible for the first warship to exceed first 30 knots and then 40 knots.

By then this was a public company and Sir Eric’s share holding was less than 2 per cent. Soon after he joined, the Irrawaddy ­Flotilla Company ordered ­vessels to replace those destroyed in Burma. Sir Eric jokingly asked his manager for commission but was asked in reply why he had not destroyed more. Appointed managing director at 38, after Sir Harold’s death in 1962, Sir Eric inherited the baronetcy and became chairman as well. He retired in 1985 after 39 years.

The relationship with the Navy was key, and during his career Sir Eric worked with 12 Controllers, the Navy’s head of procurement. Sir Eric also believed in the need to ­travel to win business. ­Countries he visited included Thailand, Malaysia, India, Portugal, Iran, Ghana, Peru, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Chile and South Africa.

Diplomacy was always essential. The Tunku Abdul Rahman (then Prime Minister) travelled from Kuala Lumpur for the launch of the frigate Rahmat and caused a culinary dilemma at Sir Eric’s home when he insisted on cooking a chicken Malaysian-style in a bale of hay.

Precautions had been ­taken to ensure the chicken was already well cooked before it was incinerated in the Tunku’s inferno on the front drive of Cloak, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh house in which the family lived in Scotland.

On another occasion Princess Alexandra stayed prior to the launch of HMS Broadsword, and disappointed Sir Eric’s son Norman when she turned down his offer of a ride on his moped as “she was wearing the wrong shoes”.

Throughout his career at Scotstoun Sir Eric was in favour of modernisation and this led amongst other developments to the building of the covered berth, which ­enabled indoor ship construction during cold, dark Scottish winters.

The berth was enlarged to allow building of two Type 22 frigates inside. Neighbouring yards were acquired to lengthen the waterfront and provide additional facilities, the price of one being negotiated on the golf course with Sir John Hunter. Similar steps led to the establishment of the Yarrow Admiralty Research Department (YARD) as a ­separate subsidiary, an organisation which worked closely on ­engineering and design with the Navy and other navies and shipping firms worldwide.

The long-term investment and manufacturing credentials ensured that when the number of warship yards was reduced by the Navy in the 1970s, Yarrows was chosen as one of mainstream contractors alongside Swan Hunter, Vosper and Cammell Laird.

Sir Eric also took pride in a good relationship with the unions and took time to ensure that employees were informed of successes and failures.

Sir Eric was consistently against amalgamation of the Clyde yards, and turned down the invitation from the Minister of Technology, Tony Benn, to chair Upper Clyde Shipbuilders when it was formed in 1968. Benn described him as a coward when he refused, a decision Sir Eric always regarded as the best of his business life.

UCS acquired a 51 per cent stake in Yarrow Shipbuilders Ltd, (YSL) the shipbuilding subsidiary, when it became clear that the Navy was likely to come under political pressure to exclude Yarrows from orders if the firm was not part of UCS. As UCS lurched from crisis to crisis, Sir Eric negotiated the extraction of YSL in 1970, saving the shipbuilding name and ­commercial viability when UCS went into receivership in 1971.

It was not long before politics intervened again, and the shipbuilding interests of Yarrow and Co were nationalised in 1977 under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Act.

Sir Eric fought with other firms through to the European Court of Human Rights for improved compensation but the court found in the (Conservative) government’s favour. Subsequently Yarrow Shipbuilders was privatised from British Shipbuilders in a sale to GEC Marconi and the original shipbuilding company now forms part of the defence interests of BAE ­systems, continuing to operate from the 1906 site on the Clyde, and currently partly responsible for the building of Type 26 destroyers. The firm also built some of the modules for the new Elizabeth Class ­aircraft carriers.

Yarrow also had a very successful marine and land boiler section, something which stemmed from Alfred Yarrow’s inventive genius.

Yarrow boilers were widely used in power generation installations in the UK and many countries overseas. Sir Eric particularly enjoyed his trips to South Africa, which somehow coincided with the Scottish winter.

One year after nationalisation Sir Eric left the shipyard to focus on the parent company. In the early 1980s he fought off a bid from the Weir Group. After he was 65, he retired from the parent company, which consisted then mainly of YARD, and became a non executive chairman of the Clydesdale Bank, a post he greatly enjoyed.

Sir Eric was also a non-executive director of the Standard Life Assurance Co and had many charitable interests as well as being an active member of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights. For many years he was chairman of the executive committee of Erskine Hospital, with which there had been close family ties since the Yarrow workshops had tooled artificial limbs for disabled ex-servicemen during the First World War.

Sir Eric was very much a family man. He enjoyed a close and happy relationship with his father. He was never happier than when he was with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. His eldest son Richard died of a brain tumour at the age of 34. His twin sons Norman and Peter had successful careers in the investment world, and his youngest son, David is a well-known fine art and wildlife photographer. He also had three stepdaughters who became part of the family when Sir Eric married Joan Botting in 1981. Between Joan and Sir Eric there are 18 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Sir Eric was a keen golfer and a member of five clubs. Albemar, a much-loved home in South Devon was by the 17th tee of Thurlestone Golf Club. The house offered an informal bar service to Sir Eric and his partners when the 19th hole still seemed distant. Subsequently, the house was christened the Albemar Arms.

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