Robert Wiseman

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Dairy farmer and milk processor

Born: 18 April, 1916

Died: 7 December, 2004, aged 88

WITH the death of Robert Wiseman snr, founder of the highly successful milk company which bears his name, the Scottish dairy industry has lost one of its legendary characters.

Robert is survived by his wife, Jean - who has been a great support to him over their 55 years of marriage - their four sons, daughter and 16 grandchildren.

Robert Wiseman Dairies, which now is a major supplier throughout Britain, traces its history back to a milk round in East Kilbride with Robert snr delivering milk from a horse-drawn float. Quite literally, he held the reins then. One of the secrets of the success of his company is that he knew when the time had come to hand control to his sons.

It was Robert snr, however, who laid the foundations which allowed the company to take on the major processors at their own game. Now Robert Wiseman Dairies counts itself as one of the most significant players in the British dairy industry, with every intention of winning even more business from its competitors. The company is a major supplier not only in Scotland but has a 22 per cent market share throughout the UK.

Much of the Wiseman success is based on standards set by Robert snr. It was early expansion into Glasgow from East Kilbride that brought the Wisemans into the business of supplying retailers.

Today the scale may have changed, with more emphasis on winning over the big supermarkets, but the basic philosophy remains the same. In 1997 the company celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first acquisition of a licence to retail milk and Robert revealed one of the tenets he instilled into his sons - that the customer’s requirements are always paramount.

It was a lesson that came back to haunt him once. A local newsagent had intimated that he was moving from East Kilbride to Thornliebank and Robert snr indicated that he did not deliver there. Father found himself under a firm instruction from his son Alan (now chairman of the company) to "get back up the road and tell him we can deliver".

In the face of such determination not to lose a customer Robert recognised that there was no need to fear for the future of the family business. He was anxious that the boys should never be able to say that he held them back and he adopted a policy of giving them their head. By the end of the 1970s he was beginning to take a back seat as Alan, Robert jnr and Gavin assumed more control. It is now 22 years since he played an executive role.

Robert Wiseman started life milking Ayrshire cows as a tenant at the Murray Farm in East Kilbride. In those days milking was much more of a hands-on operation than it is now, and he knew his cows as well as he knew his customers. Robert and his late brother John operated as producer-retailers and the family were employed after school to bottle the milk ready for the next day’s early morning doorstep delivery.

Although he ended up as life president of a public limited company, Robert clung to memories of his more humble beginnings. He admitted that at times his assessment of a business situation could be suspect.

One Christmas Day he was delivering milk and collecting cash for the week’s supplies. There was one woman whose bill came to a halfpenny short of five shillings. She sent down five shillings and Robert gave the delivery boy the halfpenny change, assuring him the lady would probably refuse the change and give him a sixpence tip. "She didn’t - she took the halfpenny change," he would say ruefully.

Eventually, one of the delivery boys had enough faith to join Robert on a full-time basis, and he acquired his first lorry while the new employee continued to go out with the horse and float.

In time, the growth of the new town of East Kilbride lost him the Murray Farm tenancy, but it also brought in more customers for new milk rounds. In 1959 he relocated to Nerston, on the outskirts of East Kilbride, where a former piggery was converted into a dairy and the family moved into the old farmhouse.

By now he was concentrating on the delivery side of the business and had given up milking cows.

The Nerston farmhouse, with office accommodation added, is still the headquarters of Robert Wiseman Dairies. Robert, until his death, lived with Jean in a house next door.

It was an ideal location from which to monitor the comings and goings at head office. Even when he had reached the stage where his day-to-day involvement at executive level was minimal he was quick to spot a new face and to ask two questions: "Who is he? What’s his job?"

Robert continued to work well into his seventies, doing daily milk deliveries in a pick-up truck to business customers in the East Kilbride area. A triple heart by-pass operation put an end to that diversion. When he came out of hospital he complained that his round had been split up and shared amongst other drivers.

Into his eighties, however, he continued to take responsibility for maintaining the garden grounds around the company headquarters. His own garden, too, received a great deal of his care and could have featured in any of the television gardening shows. Any casual visitor would find him more than willing to pass the time of day - and they would have gone on their way unaware that they had been talking to the founder and life president of the company whose distinctive black-and-white milk tankers and lorries are now such a prominent feature on the country’s motorways.

Robert never really regarded himself as having retired, but he was also unwilling to concede that his only interest lay in the company and its burgeoning success. He continued to play bowls and well into his eighties would travel twice a week to Hamilton ice rink for curling sessions in the winter. Two years ago he was pleased to don full evening dress and join the Wiseman table at the Glasgow Food Trades dinner so that he could go up and collect a bowling trophy.

When pressed he would admit that he derived great satisfaction watching the business grow under the direction of Alan, Robert jnr and Gavin. He was proud, too, of his fourth son Colin, who chose not to go into the milk business but served the public with other liquids by becoming a publican.

His daughter Jean, who completed the family circle, followed a career in nursing, rising to ward sister and graduated from Caledonian University with a DPNS in nursing studies - a very happy and proud day for Robert.