John Vickers

JOHN Vickers, who has died at the age of 98, was a businessman who distinguished himself on two counts.

John Vickers

Both a realist and an idealist, in the Yorkshire business community he was associated with his work as chairman and managing director of Benjn R Vickers & Sons Ltd – Vickers Oils – the Leeds-based specialist lubricating oils manufacturer.

But his business life was not to be separated from his tenacious personal commitment to changing the whole of society by transforming each individual.

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The friends he made covered a wide spectrum, among them Johnnie von Herwarth, the first West German Ambassador to London, Solly Pearce, editor of the Leeds Weekly Citizen, and Bishop Gordon Wheeler, Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds. Mr Vickers was by background a Methodist but later worshipped more often in an Anglican church; it was the practise of faith, not its theology, which interested him.

A decades-spanning friendship which he particularly treasured was with Frits Philips, for many years head of the eponymous electrical company based in Eindhoven in the Netherlands. The Dutch industrialist paid his friend the compliment of being his guest of honour at Vickers Oils’ 150th anniversary celebrations in 1978.

Born in Leeds three months after the First World War broke out, his schooling was somewhat unsettled. But as his father built up the reputation of the family oil company in the 1920s, specialising in lubricants for processing wool textiles, the family’s standard of living rose and a move in 1932 to Linton, near Collingham, turned out to be decisive.

A family skiing trip with neighbours, the Appleyards, who owned one of the main car dealerships in Leeds, led Mr Vickers – by then at Cambridge – to encounter the Oxford Group, later known as Moral Re-Armament and, more recently, Initiatives of Change.

Challenged to “give his life to God”, he began a daily regime of reflection, prayer, and the seeking of inspiration which he maintained for the rest of his life.

The effect on his behaviour so intrigued his father, an astute Yorkshire pragmatist, that he soon made the same experiment.

The result was a transformation in the way in which the family company was managed, the well-being of the employees now at its heart.

In the next decades, father and son came to see the business – which prospered and built a strong reputation for quality, service and integrity – as a model for a new type of relationship between employees, managers and shareholders, which could offer a different pattern for industrial relations in a UK still defined by class war.

Mr Vickers spent more than 20 years working as a full-time volunteer with Moral Re-Armament in the UK, America, South Africa, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

He was a naturally gifted administrator and acted, in effect, as the organisation’s travel agent at a time when large numbers of travelling groups, often with theatrical productions, were touring the world.

He met, and in 1947 married, a co-volunteer, Eleanor Bourdillon – the start of a 66-year partnership.

In 1960 he returned to Leeds to run the family business and so began the second phase of his life.

Leading a strong team of both family and non-family directors and managers, he travelled extensively both to support the worldwide expansion of Vickers Oils’ sales – by the time he retired completely in 2000, about two-thirds of the company’s production was exported – and also, through telling the story of his own change and the difference this had made to the company, to express his vision that people in industry could lead the transformation of society.

His dream was that “lubricants act to reduce friction in a hostile environment and between warring surfaces; why can’t those employed in the lubricants industry do the same for society?”

Serving on many industrial and civic bodies, including the Leeds Chamber of Commerce and the British Lubricants Federation, where, as president, he pioneered the first international links with sister organisations in Europe and the USA, he was also a close follower of Yorkshire cricket and was passionately interested in any form of transport, and especially ships.

Mr Vickers enjoyed gadgets and, in his 90s, set about using email and the internet.

Fortunate in his health, he continued to drive until his 97th year and, right up to the end, loved to meet people and, in his words, “encourage them to be the people they’re meant to be”.

Mr Vickers is survived by his wife Ellie, their three children, Virginia, Anne and Peter, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.