Geoffrey Maitland Smith

I had the privilege of working with Geoffrey Maitland Smith, who died aged eighty-one on 6th May.

I have a particular recollection of an event which was to shape the course of my career when Geoffrey was a member of the Asprey board. Here is, in essence, what happened in my role at the time as Joint Managing Director of Asprey, culminating soon after in my becoming Group Chief Executive.

At midnight on Monday 16th July 1990, fourteen hours after a dramatic smash-and-grab robbery at Asprey’s showrooms in Bond Street that resulted in the loss of a diamond necklace worth £750,000, I telephoned John Asprey at home to tell him we should be ready in about half an hour to sign with Sears for the takeover of the Mappin & Webb Group, which included Garrard, the Crown Jewellers.

It was a telephone call John was anxiously awaiting. In the meantime, George Magan now (Lord Magan) and Odile Griffith of Hambro Magan, merchant bankers to Asprey, were putting the final touches to a complex agreement with Geoffrey Maitland Smith, chairman of Sears, and his advisors to seal this important transaction for a consideration of £75 million in shares. No cash was involved.

A long day and night ended only at 3 am, when the agreement was finally signed, and champagne glasses were raised to mark this momentous event before the exhausted parties retired to bed feeling ecstatic at having turned a dream into a reality.

It had all begun long before, in the late 1950s, when Sir Charles Clore, the father of Sears Holdings, acquired the Mappin & Webb Group. The whole of his dream, however, was never fully realised. He had wanted Asprey as well. Looking at it longingly, he was wont to declare it would be ‘the jewel in my crown’.

His successors never totally ruled out the idea, but they were hampered by problems within the Mappin & Webb Group that made it impossible for them to contemplate an expansion of their jewellery interests until they had managed to stabilise what they possessed already.

Nevertheless they continued to be attracted by the prospect of some sort of link-up with Asprey, if not outright acquisition. The wish was fuelled by the success Asprey were having in overtaking their competitors and growing faster than any observer had forecast.

The chance of a link-up arose at last for Sears in 1979 when they bought from Maurice Asprey and his father their twenty per cent holding, so raising Sears’s stake in Asprey to twenty-five-point-four per cent.

The purchase earned Geoffrey Maitland Smith a non-executive seat on the board of Asprey. In 1981 Asprey joined the Unlisted Securities Market, and thereafter, by virtue of the seat they had secured on the board, Sears became privy to the inner workings of Asprey and could see the potential of an enlarged group at first hand. The idea of an even closer link began to make sense, but Sears were biding their time.

The chief architect of that vision was Geoffrey Maitland Smith, who saw clearly the advantages of a marriage between the two companies. It took him ten years to arrive at his objective.

In the spring of 1990 he had requested a meeting with John Asprey and myself in isolation from the board. It was at this time that he suggested a merger between the two companies in which the Asprey family would not only still retain a controlling interest but would also be in charge of the overall management of the enlarged group.

John’s immediate reaction was to dismiss the idea. He was not in the least enthusiastic, and so far as I could see he did not give the proposal a moment’s thought before rejecting it out of hand.

His reaction took me aback. I moved swiftly to try and play down John’s negative response by assuring Geoffrey that the matter would be given the most serious consideration; and made it clear at the same time that it had my unequivocal support.

John was often impulsive, reacting before he had thought things through. On this occasion the enormity of the challenge had taken him by surprise and unsettled him. It had made him admit to himself that he would not be confident enough to cope with such an enlarged group. He feared that we immediately lose our way.

I spelt out my own view, explaining that, while our profit growth was showing a steady rise year-by-year of twenty per cent, we could only maintain this by expanding our customer base. Otherwise we would inevitably become more vulnerable to dips in both profit and turn-over. Our aim should be not only to consolidate our present growth but also ensure that it was not going to come to a sudden standstill.

This, I was adamant, could only be done by targeting a much larger share of the market. To do this we desperately needed to seek as many outlets as possible, and the Mappin & Webb Group would provide us with more than we needed.

Eventually John was won over and he became as enthused by the prospect as I was. After such a long voyage to reach the goal, we could ill-afford to let it slip away and, when the agreement was finally made, we felt truly masters of our destiny. The rest is now history.

However, I will always remember Geoffrey Maitland Smith with great affection. He was a decent, honest man with a sound business vision, whose unstinting support of me personally counted a great deal and made quite a difference in my business career.

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