Sir Ian Fraser

Merchant banker

Born: 7 August, 1923, in Inverness-shire

Died: 8 May, 2003, in Somerset, aged 79

IAN Fraser was a distinguished figure in the City for three decades, and his quick brain and prodigious capacity for work ensured that he rose to two senior posts in the Square Mile’s most respected merchant banks.

In 1968, he was asked by the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, to head the Takeover Panel, which needed a man of strength and vision to run it and give it some teeth. In Fraser, he got just that - and a memorable financial tussle between Fraser and Robert Maxwell followed.

Fraser was a man of much insight and charm: invariably courteous, but his razor-sharp mind did not take kindly to those who couldn’t master a document at his lightning pace.

Ian James Fraser was born into a long established Scottish family. He was born at Beaufort, the impressive house his father had built on the Beauly river. The family traced its origins back to Hugh Fraser who had been one of the hostages for the ransom of James l in 1424. Many of his family had had heroic army careers: an uncle killed at Ypres, his father wounded at Gallipoli and his famous uncle Lord Lovat, or Uncle "Shimi", who led the commandos at Arnheim with his personal piper playing Hielan’ Laddie.

So it was no surprise that, after Ampleforth College and a few terms at Magdalen College, Oxford, Fraser joined the Scots Guards in 1942.

He saw immediate active service in Italy and was mentioned in dispatches, captured and escaped. Then he was wounded, but as his battalion advanced north he rejoined them for the final, severe fighting around the River Po.

Fraser won the Military Cross for his courage in capturing a strategically important German gun position there. Modestly, he attributed his ability to creep up on the position as "something I had learnt on the moors when I was stalking as a lad".

He returned to Oxford but found the post-war life somewhat tame so he joined the news agency Reuters. Fraser was a good linguist: he spoke French and German fluently and was more than useful in Italian. Reuters sent him to Paris to cover the second United Nations Assembly meeting, and he was working in Bonn in the early 1950s and experienced at first hand the rebuilding of West Germany’s shattered economy - he greatly admired the organised approach of Chancellor Erhard.

It was during this time that Fraser had his first sight of Robert Maxwell. There was much smuggling being done between East and West, and many black-market fortunes were being made. Fraser often spotted Maxwell (in a pink Chrysler and using the badge of an occupation officer) sitting at one of the checkpoints waiting for a pick-up.

Reuters tried to print the story but Maxwell threatened to sue, so it was forgotten; but not by Fraser.

At this time, Warburgs was a rather select City bank run with paternalistic zeal by Sigmund Warburg. Fraser joined as his assistant and slowly worked his way to the top.

In 1969, Harold Wilson needed someone he could trust and that the City would trust. The Takeover Panel had proved an ineffective policing body and Fraser was sent in to modernise the entire structure of bids, mergers and (the latest idea) asset striping. Worse, insider dealing prior to a bid was rife.

Fraser wrote many years later that "takeovers had become an arena of complete lawlessness inhabited by cowboys."

He realised that the old days of "My Word is My Bond" were fast disappearing in a City now populated by a far less easily controlled membership. More stringent rules had to be introduced and enforced.

One of the first takeovers that Fraser had to police was from Maxwell’s Pergamon Press for the American publishing house Leasco. He had grave doubts about the forecasts made by Maxwell, and raised a series of questions about Pergamon’s accounting practices.

Edward Heath labelled Maxwell the "unacceptable face of capitalism" and Fraser (as ever) didn’t mince his words either. In his autobiography, he described Maxwell as "the most evil person".

At the last of the panel’s hearings, Maxwell, in typically rumbustious manner, presented his case by talking for nearly three days. Fraser listened with gentle patience, then succinctly advised that the bid should not go ahead for sound business reasons. The panel upheld that opinion and Maxwell retired, battered and bruised.

Fraser returned to banking in 1972 with Lazards, which was at the time a traditional City bank in need of a dash of Fraser initiative. His connections in Europe proved invaluable and he made it the leader of a fast-growing, new and lucrative business - the Eurobond. Fraser also expanded the group’s activities in Japan and forged useful financial connections within that country’s industry.

With no little cunning, he avoided the temptation of major mergers at the time of the Big Bang, and Lazards proudly maintained its independence. The bank, however, was not devoid of controversy: throughout Fraser’s time as chairman, it advised the controversial entrepreneur Tiny Rowland.

Fraser retired from the City in 1986 and gave up his various directorships (Rolls-Royce, EMI, BOC, TSB and Vickers). He concentrated much of his energies in his later years trying to get restitution for those (such as himself) who had lost much of their savings as members of Lloyds. He was knighted in 1986 and was a Knight of Devotion and Honour and held other appointments in the Catholic church.

Combined with fishing and gardening, Fraser’s passion was Scottish history. He had become an authority not only on his own family’s lineage but also on many other Highland families. So the collapse of the Lovat family fortune a decade ago after a series of deaths and some unfortunate investments came as a profound blow. When the family home had to be sold, it struck him badly and his health suffered.

Fraser married Ann Grant in 1958. She died in 1984 and in 1993 he married Fiona Martin a niece of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. She and two sons and two daughters of the first marriage survive him.