Obituary: Sir John Read, banker

Chairman of Trustee Savings Bank during the mid-1980s flotation attempt. Picture: Getty
Chairman of Trustee Savings Bank during the mid-1980s flotation attempt. Picture: Getty
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Born: 29 March, 1918, in Brighton. Died: 4 April, 2015, in London, aged 97.

Sir John Read was the London businessman who, when chairman of TSB Group in the mid-1980s, found himself catapulted into a political storm in Scotland during the attempted flotation of the Trustee Savings Bank.

The TSB road to market entry involved stumbles at several unseen political hurdles, principally the question of ownership of the bank.

The SNP scented a cause célèbre around what it perceived as the loss of “Scotland’s bank”. The flotation originally planned for February 1986 was delayed seven months until the following September, a situation which was said to have cost Sir John a hoped-for peerage.

The campaign exploded over Easter 1985. Led by Jim Sillars MP and aided by senior party official Dr Allan Macartney, the SNP centred on control being retained in Scotland. Additionally, the nascent Scottish Depositors Association, of which the writer and nationalist Paul Henderson Scott proved an able office-bearer, caused serious trouble to Sir John’s plans.

TSB Scotland was the acknowledged “jewel in the crown” of TSB Group in assets, profitability, expansion and banking innovation. Under the dynamic leadership of former HSBC international banker Ian Macdonald, TSB Scotland pioneered the UK’s first Sunday bank, established children’s outlets through “Magic Bank” and popularised TSB Scotland into a financial institution whose venturesome pace lent fear to older competitors.

Indeed, at one promotion in Aberdeen, new accounts were being opened at a rate of one every 75 seconds.

Yet TSB remained at heart a curious beast. Founded in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire in 1810 with a Calvinist ethos of saving and thrift, it existed into the early 1980s as a series of local savings banks throughout the UK, but principally in Scotland. By 1983, all but two of the one-time dozens throughout Scotland amalgamated to form TSB. Only Annan and Airdrie Savings Banks opted to remain independent.

The combined assets of TSB Scotland outranked TSB in the rest of the UK, and covetous eyes were cast north by TSB Group in London. The problem for Sir John lay in who owned the bank, though TSB Scotland had taken counsel’s opinion from Professor John Murray QC (later Lord Dervaird).

When the SNP sniffed blood on the road to flotation, Sir John determinedly flew north to hold a press conference in Edinburgh. Unlike Ian Macdonald, however, he was uncomfortable handling the media, nor had he any feel for Scottish perspective or dimension.

In one memorable week, the fast-changing TSB story featured on the front of The Scotsman on six consecutive days, being the lead story on four of those. The late Jim Dow, then financial editor, and his assistant, a young Andrew Marr, were further aided by a TSB mole.

By contrast, TSB Scotland chief general manager Ian Macdonald remained unflappable. “What’s it like to be in your position, Mr Macdonald?” came the question at one media session. “Have you ever felt up to your backside in alligators?” was the typically genial response that made him so liked by the hacks.

But Sir John, nicknamed “Grouty” after a character in the television series Porridge, proved inflexible on flotation. Macdonald tried without success to raise alternative structures, and even a hospitable weekend at the Braemar cottage of TSB Scotland chairman Richard Ellis failed.

For a short time, the combined forces of the SNP and Scottish Depositors Association held the tail of the TSB tiger, and while neither ultimately succeeded, the TSB Group flotation originally planned for February 1986 was disastrously put back seven months until the following September. The irony was that the stock market rose in value during that time and the float actually generated more cash.

John Emms Read joined EMI from Ford in 1965 when EMI was the world’s largest recording business as well as holding a vast portfolio ranging from cinemas and bingo halls to the manufacturing of military radar and medical equipment.

As EMI chief executive and then chairman from 1974, John Read could prove abrasive, and none too patient with anyone unable to adopt his point of view. Headhunted by the Treasury in 1980 as chairman of the central board of Trustee Savings Banks, he recalled the warning of Nigel Lawson that TSBs were “a constellation of somewhat curious organisations”. Read’s remit put the group on a businesslike footing, and some within TSB felt he was none too gentle about the operation.

The £1.5 billion flotation, however, attracted 3.5 million shareholders, and Read had played his part in creating Thatcher’s share-owning democracy.

TSB had become the fifth largest UK bank. Two years later, Sir John, knighted in 1976, retired from TSB, but remained active in the electrical and engineering industries and sat on the president’s committee of the CBI.

Sir John saw service in the Second World War in the Royal Navy in Iceland and the Atlantic, and at 26 was the youngest commander in the Navy.

A keen pianist, his interest in the arts was pursued as through the Brighton Festival and the London Symphony Orchestra, and he was a long-time trustee of Westminster Abbey.

Sir John was predeceased by his wife Dorothy, née Berry, and he is survived by two sons.