When interviewed by The Independent on the announcement of his appointment as CEO of the Courtaulds Group in 1996, Gordon described himself as a “self-confessed lifer” with the chemicals and fibres major. Two years on, in the midst of his IChemE presidential year, the company had been taken over by Akzo. His life took an unexpected twist and he sought opportunities for new roles elsewhere.
Gordon graduated in chemical engineering from Cambridge University in 1969, where, together with his final year supervision partner Rob Margetts, they conspired to keep their supervisor – IChemE past president David Harrison – on his toes! The two students were destined for the most senior industrial careers.
Gordon joined Lord Kearton’s Courtaulds, and was quickly spotted as a high flier by another IChemE president, Dick (JRS) Morris. By 1976, Gordon was a director of British Celanese, then MD of Courtaulds Chemicals; next, in 1985, he headed off to Southern Africa to run SAICCOR; two years later, aged 39, he was on the group’s main board.
The Akzo takeover shook him, but he fought hard for the best terms for shareholders and staff. This did not make subsequent relationships easy with his new Dutch masters, who concluded they had overpaid. It was time for Gordon to move on!
The portfolio career that followed included external directorships at Argos, UKAEA, BNFL (where he became chairman in 2004), Jupiter Asset Management, and several other companies, and then in 2001, back to lead a FTSE 100 company – Babcock International, as chairman, through to 2008.
All this was achieved as his mobility became progressively compromised, owing, he believed, to inoperable spinal damage from a rugby injury at Cambridge. He had in his youth also been an excellent golfer (playing off six as a schoolboy), and an accomplished skier.
His IChemE contribution was extraordinary and unequalled in recent times. He was elected to Council in1988, going on to serve as a vice president, deputy president, president, and finally as hon treasurer, a 20-year span in all, with only a four-year gap. His attendance was exemplary. He felt his presidential year had been marred by the loss of his company’s independence, and so wished to make a further contribution as treasurer and elder statesman. He was resolute in opposition to the successive attempts by the Engineering Council and Engineering Technology Board to centralise power and authority away from the institutions, nor was he prepared to see IChemE’s independence compromised by ill thought through merger initiatives emanating from the larger engineering institutions. He was ever a willing sounding board for the then chief executive in these campaigns and in the strategic direction of IChemE generally.
But IChemE was not the limit of his extra mural activities, he was on the Council of the British Heart Foundation, chaired ITI Scotland, was appointed a visiting professor at Strathclyde University, a vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and a member of the President’s Council of the CBI.
Latterly he was a consultant to Ineos and Rolls Royce. Gordon’s work was recognised with the award of a CBE in 2006.
That such a man of energy and achievement – albeit so severely impacted by his back injury that latterly he was confined to a wheelchair and had became very poorly – is lost at 67 is a shock to those of us who knew him in earlier days.
Gordon leaves two daughters and his wife and constant support, Jennifer.
Written by Trevor Evans, and first published in The Chemical Engineer