Businessman who tried to rein in the Sex Pistols at EMI before taking TSB to the high streets
Sir John Read, who has died aged 97, was chairman of EMI and the Trustee Savings Bank.
Read joined EMI (originally Electrical & Musical Industries) from Ford Motor Co in 1965 when it was the world’s largest recording business, with a catalogue that included The Beatles, Cliff Richard and Frank Sinatra. It was also a conglomerate with interests in cinemas, bingo halls and manufactures ranging from military radar to medical equipment — and it was in the latter field that Read made his most significant mark.
As EMI’s chief executive from 1969 and chairman from 1974, he drove worldwide sales of the first X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanners, developed in EMI’s laboratories at Hayes, Middlesex, under Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, who received the 1979 Nobel Prize for his work. It was Read’s bold decision to develop large-scale production of scanners within EMI, rather than licensing the technology to other manufacturers.
An incisive thinker and a persuasive salesman, Read could also be an abrasive boss — on one occasion in 1971 he delivered a fierce dressing-down to the film-maker Bryan Forbes, then head of production at EMI’s Elstree studios, for being absent on location to direct scenes for The Raging Moon.
The financial strain of expanding the scanner business, particularly in the US, eventually took a toll on EMI’s fortunes — and coincided in 1979 with a damaging downturn in record sales. Though other parts of the group continued to flourish, it came to be seen as an ill-matched portfolio and a potential takeover target. When a £146 million bid arrived from the television and lighting manufacturer Thorn Industries, EMI’s board swiftly capitulated.
Read stayed on as deputy chairman of Thorn-EMI until 1981, and as a director until 1987. But he was headhunted by the Treasury in 1980 for a challenging new role as chairman of the central board of Trustee Savings Banks — in the words of one minister involved, Nigel Lawson, “a constellation of somewhat curious organisations” whose origins lay in philanthropic Scottish “thrift banks” founded to help poor labourers during the Industrial Revolution, and which had only been permitted to lend commercially since 1975. Read’s remit was to put the group on a more businesslike footing and mould it into a competitor to the established high-street banks.
The exercise was complicated by legal rulings that the constituent small savings banks were owned neither by their depositors nor by the government, but in effect by themselves. Nevertheless a £1.5 billion flotation was successfully completed in September 1986, attracting 3.5 million shareholders. TSB was by now the UK’s fifth largest bank, and the proceeds of its share sale brought a windfall of which £800 million was swiftly spent on acquiring the merchant bank Hill Samuel, where Read also became a director; he retired from the group chair in 1988.
Sir John Read in 1976 (GETTY)
The son of a grocer and a milliner, John Emms Read was born in Brighton on March 29 1918, and educated at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School, where he showed talent as a pianist and a performer in musical theatre. He took articles with a local firm of chartered accountants, but his training was interrupted when he joined the Royal Navy shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939.
He was posted to Iceland, where his natural administrative skills were put to use managing harbour facilities for the Atlantic supply route. In 1942 he was recalled to become Admiral’s Secretary to the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff — a role which involved processing North Atlantic signals and intelligence from Bletchley and elsewhere, to be passed to Churchill’s war cabinet staff. At 26 Read was the Navy’s youngest commander, and at the end of the war he was posted to Ottawa with the Admiralty Technical Mission to oversee construction of Royal Navy warships in Canadian yards.
On demobilisation he joined Ford at Dagenham and completed his accountancy qualification. Displaying, as a colleague put it, “a masterly grasp of facts and figures and a zestful ability to get things done”, he rose to become director of sales from 1961 to 1964 – the heyday of the American-styled Ford Anglia and the first Cortina.
Frustrated by what he felt was excessive control from Ford’s US parent, Read sought a new opening — and found one at EMI, where he was interviewed by the chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood, who was said to have pursued him into the lift and offered him a job before it reached the ground floor. Read joined as finance director, and became joint managing director in 1967.
He was also at various times a director of Dunlop and other companies, a member of the Post Office board, and deputy chairman of Thames Television, in which EMI was a shareholder. It was on Thames’s early-evening Today show in 1976 that a member of the Sex Pistols — one of EMI’s hottest signings — caused a national furore by addressing the presenter Bill Grundy as “you dirty f****r”.
“The Sex Pistols is a pop group devoted to a new form of music known as ‘punk rock’,” Read felt obliged to explain to shareholders. “I need hardly add that we shall do everything we can to restrain their public behaviour.” But following their notorious Anarchy tour later that year, packers at EMI’s factory refused to handle the band’s records and the company cancelled their recording contract.
Read was knighted in 1976. He was active in numerous electrical and engineering industry bodies, and a member of the CBI president’s committee. His interest in the arts was pursued as a trustee of the Brighton Festival and the London Symphony Orchestra, and a member of the Theatre Development Council. Among many charitable commitments, he was a trustee of Westminster Abbey and president of the Charities Aid Foundation. He was a long-serving governor, and the first honorary fellow, of the Administrative Staff College at Henley (now part of Reading University) where he had studied in the early 1950s.
For relaxation, Read enjoyed watching cricket as a supporter of Sussex, and playing the piano.
He married Dorothy Berry in 1942; she died in 2004, and he is survived by their two sons.
Sir John Read, born March 29 1918, died April 4 2015