Obituary: Sir Ian Denholm, shrewd leader of Scottish shipping giant

Sir Ian Denholm, business leader. Born: May 8, 1927 in Kilmalcolm, Renfrewshire. Died: May 15, 2018, aged 91.
Business leader Sir Ian Denholm has died at the age of 91Business leader Sir Ian Denholm has died at the age of 91
Business leader Sir Ian Denholm has died at the age of 91

Sir Ian Denholm, who has died at the age of 91, was a prominent member of the Denholm ­family, synonymous with ­British shipping and ship management.

John Ferguson Denholm, called Ian from the outset, was born on 8 May 1927 in ­Kilmacolm, the eldest child of William (later Sir William) Denholm and Dorothy ­Denholm (nee Ferguson). He had two younger siblings, Bob and Dorothy, affectionately known as ‘D’.

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Ian was raised in a loving family with childhood ­holidays centred around golf, which unfortunately was not a game he cared for. Educated at St Mary’s and Loretto, he left school at 17 in 1944 to go to sea at the insistence of his father. He served aboard the Ocean Strength under the ­legendary Denholm Master Captain Henderson and completed one Arctic and one Atlantic convoy before the war ended. Ian sailed aboard other ships and qualified as Second Mate before coming ashore in 1948.

This was a critical time for the Denholm family business. Ian’s father William and his uncle John – known as “Jack” Denholm – had taken the ­decision, unlike many British ship owners, to go against the tide and rebuild the Denholm fleet after the losses incurred during the war. This proved a far-sighted move that would underpin the rapid growth of J & J Denholm in the 1950s.

Ian spent a short time in ­London before returning to Glasgow and joining the board of J & J Denholm at the age of 24 in 1951. The following year, he married Elizabeth Murray Stephen, daughter of a Scottish shipbuilding family: theirs was a successful, lifelong partnership. Their first child Jane was born in 1953.

Shortly afterwards Ian developed tuberculosis but was saved by the new treatment that became available

Three more children ­followed: John, in 1956, Katy in 1958 and David in 1962. In these early years, holidays were taken in houses on the West Coast of Scotland with Ian’s great friend Adam ­Bergius and his family. In 1958, Ian and Adam Bergius bought the 1911-built Bristol pilot ­cutter Hirta.

Although a board member, Ian, by his own admission, had to carve out a job for himself within J & J Denholm. ­William and Jack Denholm were ­preoccupied with chartering, buying and selling ships, and were happy to leave Ian and his younger brother Bob to manage the Denholm fleet.

This proved to be a brilliant partnership. As more than one colleague would observe: “If Bob was the accelerator, Ian was the brake.”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Denholm Ship Management raised professional standards with innovations in training, crew facilities and communications. They were soon being asked to manage ships in which J & J Denholm had no ownership interest, and by 1977 it was estimated that by deadweight tonnage Denholm Ship Management ran one per cent of the free world’s fleet. Their success prompted a notable tribute to Sir Ian, made to his son John: “Many of us consider your father to be the father of ship management.”

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In 1972, Ian succeeded his father Sir William as fourth chairman of J & J Denholm. His was a shrewd, conservative leadership style – he once revealed he felt “over-borrowed if there was not at least £1 million in the bank” – but in partnership with Bob, and like his father and uncle, he was not averse to taking a ­calculated risk. It was Ian’s ­philosophy that steered J & J Denholm safely through the choppy waters of the 1980s, when many other British ­shipping firms went under.

In 1972/3 Ian served as president of the UK Chamber of Shipping, for which he was awarded the CBE in 1974. In 1983, due to take over the chairmanship of P&O, with his brother Bob and daughter Katy both undergoing treatment for cancer, he stepped back from the role to spend more time with his family.

Unusually, Ian served a ­second term as president of the UK Chamber of Shipping in 1988/9, and, like his father and uncle before him, was knighted in 1989 for his services to shipping. He also followed his grandfather as president of BIMCO from 1991 to 1993.

Sir Ian retired as chairman of J & J Denholm in 1998 and was appointed life president in recognition of his achievements at the company.

His other interests included serving as governor of Loretto School, a local director of Bank of Scotland and a director and chairman of the four Murray Johnstone Investment Trusts. He was a Justice of the Peace, a Deputy Lieutenant for Renfrewshire, and Honorary Norwegian Consul for Glasgow. A member of The Incorporation of Hammermen of Glasgow, he served as their deacon in 1974/5, he was also a liveryman and member of the Court of The Worshipful Company of Shipwrights. He supported a number of charities and was president of the Royal Alfred Seafarers Society until 1994.

By the time he retired, Sir Ian was suffering from a hereditary condition which restricted his mobility, forcing him to give up his favourite sports of shooting, sailing and skiing.

Undeterred he took up fishing and decided to teach himself differential calculus. Always keen to keep up with technology in his latter years, he played as many as four games of chess simultaneously on the internet.

Sir Ian was predeceased by his wife Elizabeth and his daughter Katy in 2015. He died peacefully surrounded by his family at Royal Alexandra Hospital on the 15th May, 2018. His children Jane, John and David, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren survive him.