Obituary: Sir Peter Burt, banker, ITV chairman and expert amateur golfer
For a man who once declared that “Banking should be boring”, his own career was anything but.
Peter Burt was a man who relished a risk and, as his brilliance as an amateur golfer testified, could also get himself out of the rough without too much difficulty, should the need arise.
His beloved game – he played off a handicap of three and was an amateur record-holder at Muirfield – was an education and taught him a great deal, he said, not least that that life isn’t fair and that unless you’re willing to gamble with failure you won’t succeed, something he achieved more often than not.
Best known for his tenure at the helm of the Bank of Scotland when he oversaw the merger with the Halifax, he survived brushes with controversy, most notoriously when he was forced to scrap a venture with an outspoken American television evangelist, and was knighted for his services to banking just days before stepping down from his role at the new HBOS.
Although inextricably linked with Scotland he was born in Nairobi, Kenya, where his father, Robert Burt, worked for Smith Mackenzie, part of the Inchcape Group in East Africa, and imbued his son with his passion for golf. Moving to Edinburgh for his education at the capital’s Merchiston Castle School, he went on to St Andrews University, graduating with a first in history and political economy.
He then won a Thouron scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School where he gained an MBA. Although unsure what he wanted to do with his life, he loved America and, after travelling the country, decided to stay in California. He walked into Hewlett Packard, where a friend was already working, and simply asked for a job.
His bold move was successful and he stayed working there in Palo Alto from 1968 to 1970, always maintaining he was the first historian the company hired – and probably the last.
Returning to Scotland he took a job with Conversational Software Ltd in Edinburgh before moving into the financial sector with the small merchant bank Edward Bates & Sons in 1974. A year later, after the firm closed its Edinburgh office and he was made redundant, he joined the Bank of Scotland.
Moving up the ladder, through its oil and energy departments, project finance and planning, he became firstly assistant, then divisional general manager in the International Division where he was appointed joint general manager in 1985. Further promotion took him to treasurer and chief general manager and chairman of the management board between 1988 and 1996.
After a five-year spell as chief executive he became governor in 2001 and, following the bank’s £30 billion merger with the Halifax, deputy chairman of Halifax Bank Of Scotland (HBOS). It was a steady, if not meteoric ascent, and “Burt the Banker” was regarded as sound, despite suffering a number of defeats – or “heroic failures”, as he once described them. Among them were a rejected bid for Abbey National and his audacious attempt to take over National Westminster bank in 1999.
The gamble sparked a counter-bid by Bank of Scotland’s greatest rival, the Royal Bank of Scotland, which won. That same year he pulled out of a proposed telephone banking deal with Dr Pat Robertson, the evangelist who outraged Scots with his alleged claim that the country was “a dark land” overrun by homosexuals.
The Bank of Scotland had hoped to tap into his 55 million followers as a customer sales database but hundreds of horrified customers back home closed their accounts and MSPs at the Scottish Parliament, also a client, said they would call for the venture to be closed down.
In the aftermath of the doomed Robertson affair, Burt conceded that “Banking should be boring”. Emerging from the fallout, he acknowledged: “Boring means predictable. Customers want a boring response, They want boring, predictable service.”
After departing HBOS, he became chairman of finance advisory company Gleacher Shacklock Ltd and Promethean plc, the private investment company he founded with sons Michael and Hamish, and in 2004 was appointed head of ITV.
Later, during the financial crisis of 2008, he tried, unsuccessfully, to block the takeover of HBOS by Lloyds TSB, arguing that he and the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland should be appointed to lead the HBOS.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland, he also held a number of other positions including non-executive director of Shell Royal Dutch Shell, Cambria Automobiles and Templeton Emerging Markets Investment Trust.
He served as chairman of Dyslexia Scotland and on the boards of a number of other charities and in 2012 was announced as the chair of a group set up to advise the government on the creation of a business bank, aimed at offering new sources of finance to small and medium-sized businesses.
Burt, regarded by some as the UK’s best CEO golfer, was an amateur record holder at Muirfield and a member of four golf clubs, including the Royal and Ancient. He was also one of the High Constables and Guard of Honour at Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s ceremonial guard at her home in the Scottish capital.
Burt had fought oesophageal cancer for the last three years and is survived by his wife Alison, sons Michael, Hamish and Angus, and eight grandchildren.
His life will be celebrated at a thanksgiving service next year and donations may be made to the Scottish charity Ochre, which promotes awareness and supports families, patients and funding of the disease.