Obituary: Sir Gordon Hourston, former chairman of Boots the Chemist

Sir Gordon Minto Hourston
Sir Gordon Minto Hourston
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Sir Gordon Minto Hourston, pharmacist and businessman. Born: 24 July 1934 in Edinburgh. Died: 18 September 2018 in Aboyne, aged 84.

Best known as the ebullient chairman of Boots the Chemists, Gordon Hourston possibly enjoyed his subsequent role marginally more – although it was not without its inconveniences. As a member of the Armed Forces’ Pay Review body he found himself expected to get stuck in with the troops, duties that led to some entirely unexpected incidents and a fund of self-deprecating anecdotes.

In Kenya, inadvertently positioned between a dangerously protective mother elephant and her calf, an accompanying Army captain roared out one simple command: “RUN!” Later, as he and the officer nursed a restorative dram, he dryly observed: “That was the most unnecessary order you’ll ever give.”

On a commando expedition to climb the Eiger he was expected to carry a combat pack but managed only ten paces before jettisoning the kit and declaring he was a pensioner. His indignation was compounded by the fact they were too high for him to light up a cigarette.

And after an outing in an RAF Tornado he emerged, green about the gills, to discover his chauffeur had had an even worse experience in a flight simulator. After agreeing that Hourston was the least ill of the pair he ended up getting behind the wheel and chauffeuring the chauffeur and himself home.

It was typical of the man whose good nature and skills as a raconteur and host were legendary, both in the boardroom and at home on Deeside where he settled latterly after it became a favourite holiday destination. His roots were in Edinburgh, where he was born the son of William Hourston, who ran an independent pharmacy in the capital, and his wife Vera.

Raised with a brother and two sisters, he was educated at Daniel Stewart’s College before going on to study dentistry for a year at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, prior to changing to pharmacy.

He became a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in 1957 and joined Boots the following year. During almost four decades with the company he oversaw the introduction of care home dispensing, introduced a service to collect repeat prescriptions from GPs and the roll-out of new electronic till systems across all Boots branches.

He also became an inspirational leader who dramatically changed profitability at the organisation. A director from 1978, he was promoted to deputy managing director in 1984 and was chairman and managing director between 1988 and 1995, during which time he also chaired the Company Chemists’ Association.

A huge, larger-than-life presence at Boots with an irresistibly infectious laugh, he had the ability to stop everything as soon as he entered a room, the assembled company waiting in anticipation for what was to happen next.

Yet he was humbled and astonished by a spontaneous standing ovation received for a closing address at a conference shortly before he retired – something that had never been afforded to his predecessors.

Meanwhile he had also been a member of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body since the late 1980s and, just as his career at Boots was coming to a close, he became more involved with the organisation, serving as chairman from 1993-99.

Although he had been passionate about Boots – a role that never felt like work and where he thrived on challenges – it was his contribution to the Review Body that gave him the most enjoyment. And in 1997 he was knighted for services to industry and the Armed Forces.

Hourston, by now a Fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, also served as a trustee of the Pharmacy Practice Research Trust and as chairman of Homestyle plc and United Biscuits. In 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University.

Early on in his Boots career he had been sent to Aberdeen where he met Sheila, whom he married there in 1962 and with whom he had two sons. The couple, who had enjoyed many holidays in the North-east, made their home in Ballater 15 years ago, where Hourston’s bar became the focal point for parties – and some hangovers of monumental magnitude for unsuspecting guests.

Witty, warm and gregarious, he also enjoyed golf, walking, reading and modern history, and adored his six grandchildren.

He is survived by his wife, sons Steven and Michael, and their families.

ALISON SHAW