William Watson Cockburn Syson, banker, Boys’ Brigade stalwart and philanthropist. Born, 12 September, 1930 in Edinburgh. Died: 27 May, 2019 aged 88
William (‘Bill’) Syson, who has died aged 88, was a man with three great loves: banking and investments, The Boys’ Brigade, and in later life supporting music and the arts in Scotland. He made a significant contribution in each area.
In many ways Bill was the epitome of a twentieth century ‘lad o’ pairts’: self-made, from modest beginnings and one who achieved success in both business and the voluntary sector. Bill’s legacy of helping others continues following his establishment and endowment of a grant-making charity, The William Syson Foundation.
William Watson Cockburn Syson was born in Edinburgh on 12th September 1930, the middle child of William and Mary Jane (née Watson). Bill’s lifelong association with The Boys’ Brigade commenced around 1942 when he joined the 26th Edinburgh company at Greenside Parish Church on Edinburgh’s Royal Terrace. For secondary education Bill attended Broughton High School, leaving in 1947 at the age of 16. On leaving school, Bill joined Bank of Scotland, where he would remain for 43 years until his retirement in 1990, interrupted only by a period of National Service (1949-51).
The British Army, perhaps with some prescience realising it had in its hands a future senior banker, concluded that Bill’s attributes would best be deployed in the Royal Army Pay Corps. Bill must have enjoyed army life reasonably well, since he volunteered to serve an additional year beyond the compulsory two years of National Service and was promoted to Sergeant.
Returning to civilian life in 1951, Bill considered reading Divinity at university and taking up ministry in the Church of Scotland, but ultimately a career in banking prevailed. Bill returned to the Bank of Scotland, passed his chartered banking exams and also lectured in accountancy and taxation at Heriot-Watt University.
It was during the 1950s that Bill really furthered his relationship with the Boys’ Brigade. Having been a member of the company at Greenside as a boy, Bill returned as an officer following National Service. He subsequently joined the staff of the 9th Edinburgh company based at The Tron church, Moredun.
The company’s Captain was considering retirement and decided, that as Bill had the same forenames (William Watson) as the very first Captain of the 9th, Bill was the natural successor. It turned out to be an inspired choice. He was appointed Captain in 1957 and remained so until his retirement in 1985. One of the eulogies at Bill’s memorial service provided a fitting tribute to his contribution to the Boys’ Brigade: “Throughout it was always about the boy. Bill never sought praise for himself . . . boys learned resilience, team work and much more. He shaped so many and probably none realised what he had done for them and the commitment and time he contributed to their development until later in life Bill said that although he had never married, he felt as if he had had 1,000 sons. I am proud to have been one of those sons.”
One would be forgiven for thinking that such extra-curricular commitments must have been the expense of career progression. However, this was not the case and Bill continued to advance in his profession. His first senior managerial appointment occurred in 1969 when he was appointed manager of Bank of Scotland’s George Street branch, which served businesses and individuals in Edinburgh’s New Town. This was considered one of the bank’s most prestigious manager roles.
Bill’s talents for cultivating banking relationships did not go unnoticed and in 1981 he was appointed Chief Manager at The Mound, the Bank’s iconic Edinburgh head office.
With the support of the bank’s executive, at The Mound Bill embarked on the creation of a Corporate Division – possibly the first, specialist corporate banking businesses of any UK listed bank. He had a vision to grow the bank’s share of corporate lending and a clear plan. Bill believed there was a huge opportunity to challenge the dominance of the major English clearing banks. By building a committed and motivated team around him, and, unusually for the time, by undertaking frequent four- or five-day ‘suitcase’ trips to London to work on deals and develop relationships, corporate lending at The Mound grew from around £8 million to £350m over the course of the 1980s. In consequence Bill was promoted to Assistant General Manager in 1987, a position he held until his retirement in 1990, at the comparatively young age of 60.
Almost immediately following retirement Bill accepted a number of Non-Executive appointments and spent most of the subsequent two decades serving on the boards of numerous, mainly public, companies, often as Chairman.
Over the period he had more than a dozen roles, with notable appointments including a US oil company, a UK airport owner, several investment trusts and a number of property companies.
Retirement provided Bill with time to travel for pleasure with his long-time companion Janet (“Netta”) Heriot and to develop his interest in music and the arts. Amongst the numerous and varied causes, Bill became a great supporter of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and a significant donor to the National Galleries of Scotland. This included the loan of paintings from his collection to a number of exhibitions held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The core of Bill’s collection was inherited from a friend, the artist Beatrice Huntington. However, in retirement he added numerous new works by Scottish artists, both established and emerging.
As someone who spent much of his life involved with the work of charitable and voluntary groups, and witnessing the good that can be created by such organisations, it is perhaps not surprising that Bill chose to establish his own charity. The William Syson Foundation makes donations to the arts in all its forms, especially institutions, groups and activities based in and from Scotland. Endowing the charity with the bulk of his estate on his death was an act of considerable generosity.
After a period of ill health Bill passed away in May 2019. Netta predeceased him in 2018. He is survived by his brother, three nephews and a number of great-nieces and great-nephews.