Britain's Tough Tobacco Tycoon
By Wilfred Altman
Smallish, serious, squash-playing, and sixty-four, Lord Sinclair of Cleeve is not one of the most patient peers in the Kingdom. When he is carried away in his anger over industry's phenomenal tax burden, he raps the Government mercilessly. And the Government listens - for three very good reasons.
The first is that Robert John Sinclair - created 1st Baron Sinclair of Cleeve in the last New Year's Honours List - happens to be ruler of a sizeable little empire: Imperial Tobacco Company, Ltd., whose shares are known as "Imps"; and that makes him one of the great voluntary tax collectors of our age.
And finally, when he rebels against the Government policy, he's got an advantage over most of his fellow-critics. He knows Whitehall down to its dimmest recesses.
As a crack administrator, he has filled so many wartime Government jobs, that at one time - in 1947 - he was rumoured to be one of the two candidates - Sir Edwin Plowden being the other - for the post of Britain's Chief Planner.
A Scot with a twinkle and a typically wry sense of humour, he told inquisitive journalists who pressed him as to whether he'd accepted Attlee's offer to brome Chief Planner: "The position is that I cannot say whether or not I have been asked. Even if I could say so, I could not say whether or not I shall accept. Apart from that, I have no comment to make."
For a model of caution, that surely takes some beating!
The rumour was finally squashed a day of two later when he was promoted from deputy-chairman to chairman of Imps. But he did become part-time industrial consultant to Sir Edwin Plowden.
Since Imperial Tobacco make most people's favourite brands of cigarettes, some experts reckon that they sell three-quarters of all that are bought in Britain. They calculate further that as this total is somewhere around £880 million, Imps' cheque to the Treasury in respect of taxes collected is in excess of £500 million a year.
Whenever the smoking cancer controversy is raised, Lord Sinclair and his merry men can console themselves with the thought that they collect almost enough money to pay for the whole of the National Health Service!
The Chairman's views on this controversy are typically simple and succinct:
"Excessive smoking, like excessive eating, can't be good for anyone. Equally obvious, what is excessive to one person may be harmless to another. What is wanted is more research and fewer premature conclusions."
Having said that, he promptly authorised a handsome contribution towards intensifying these fact-finding operations.
The interesting question remains: How has this quiet, unassuming Scot reached the top of a £269 million enterprise - an organisation so enormous that its profits last year came to £27.75 million, and its band overdraft to £30 million?
He joined Imps, or rather one of its earlier component parts, at the age of twenty-six in 1919. After studies at Glasgow Academy and Oriel College, Oxford, and war service in Gallipoli, he had gone to the Ministry of Munitions and was appointed Deputy Director of the Inspectorate.
In the inter-war years at Imperial Tobacco, he reached Board level by sheer administrative ability. In 1939, Neville Chamberlain asked him to join an advisory panel of industrialists to help speed-up rearmament. It was the first of a series of appointments for the then Mr. R.J. Sinclair.
As a member of the staff of the Director-General of Army Requirements at the War Office, he was offered rank and uniform, but declined both because he felt he could be more effective without!
Later, he went to the Board of Trade, and then to the Ministry of Production under Oliver Lyttelton (now Lord Chandos). The two men made an ideal combination. Sinclair became his chief's deputy at the Combined Production and Resources Board in Washington, and was highly respected.
It was a measure of the confidence he evoked, even in the breasts of Socialist Ministers in the Coalition, that when they formed their own Government in 1945, they should have considered him as a possible Chief Planner!
Of course, a series of skirmishes against Governments, both Socialist and Tory, were still to come.
In 1950, as President of the Federation of British Industries, Sir Robert Sinclair's attack on the nationalisation of steel sprang not so much from partisanship as from practical reasons. "It's sheer folly to go on with it at this critical time," he thundered. "The take-over is a process which must detract the time and energy of many whose experience and ability are vital to the efficient execution of the defence programme."
Later, his attacks - always projected from his Bristol office - concentrated on taxation.
"When private capital is being taxed out of existence, when industry's real capital is being whittled away by taxation in time of inflation, and when the accumulation of private finance is made virtually impossible, the whole structure of industry is undermined."
One of our most brilliant industrial heads, according to an associate, Lord Sinclair is today one of a small group of hard-working, highly capable chairman of public companies - Sir Alexander Fleck, Lord Heyworth, and Lord Chandos are among them - who preside over a major part of British industry.
Their value to the enormous concerns they manage lies not only in their administrative ability, which is outstanding, but in being all-rounders rather than specialists. All-rounders in the sense that they can judge the economic and political climate in Britain and abroad, and understand world markets, trading conditions, and international finance.
Equally shrewd in domestic matters, Lord Sinclair guessed some years ago that tighter money was on its way. To save interest on his colossal overdraft - then standing at £28 million - he issued 4% notes to get rid of this encumbrance. He saved Imps interest charges amounting to half-a-million pounds!
Hard-headed without being hard-lipped, Lord Sinclair used to play squash after work nearly every night, and tennis sometimes before, breakfast.
Now his surplus energies are concentrated on fighting excessive taxation - including, one hopes, the taxation on each packet of cigarettes!
- o 0 o -
Last year Britons drank enough gallons of beer to float eighty-nine battleships. British Brewers' Association.
"I never said I wouldn't give you any chewing-gum,
but you'll have to wait until the taste's gone."
"No, I'm not on holiday - I'm with an accident insurance company!"
"I'll take it if you'll take Miss Hart in part exchange."
"I decided to carry a commercial."