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Harrison, Sir Ernest Thomas [Ernie] (1926–2009), businessman, was born on 11 May 1926 at the Salvation Army's Mothers' Hospital in Homerton, east London, the son of Ernest Horace Harrison, who then worked in London docks as a checker (his later jobs included cinema commissioner and security guard), and his wife, Gertrude Rebecca, née Gibbons, a seamstress. At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at 27 Crossway, Stoke Newington. A bright boy with a love of sport, he won a place at Trinity County Grammar School in nearby Wood Green, but his schooling was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and he was evacuated with his school to Hatfield Peverel, Essex. In 1944 he joined the Fleet Air Arm in Canada. After completing his national service he trained as an accountant with Harker Holloway & Co., qualifying in 1950. On 17 June the same year he married Beryl Freda Margaret Cole (b. 1926), daughter of Frederick Noel Cole, manager of a boot and shoe shop. They had twin sons but the marriage was dissolved in 1959. On 30 January the following year he married Phyllis Brenda (Janie) Knight (b. 1933), secretary, and daughter of William Knight, a London county council park foreman; they had two daughters and a son.

Harrison had already decided that he would prefer to go into industry than work in the accountancy profession and in 1951, having been turned down for a job at Smiths Industries, he joined the tiny Racal Electronics as secretary and chief accountant, becoming their thirteenth employee. That employment endured for the next fifty years, made Harrison a multi-millionaire, and created one of Britain's most successful companies. Made a director in 1958, he was instrumental in encouraging the company to invest almost more than it could afford in a high frequency radio system developed in South Africa. The gamble paid off, and the radio was adopted by the British army, paving the way for Racal's stock market flotation in 1961. Throughout the next decade Racal prospered from its manufacture of defence electronics, attracting an enthusiastic stock market following. It was later claimed that any investor who put an initial £1000 into the company at flotation, took up subsequent share offers, and retained the shares in the other companies that the group created, would have investments worth over £14 million by the time Harrison finally retired in the year 2000.

In 1966 Harrison became chairman of Racal, succeeding the company's founder, Ray Brown, in addition to holding the position of managing director. He took up residence in a double suite at the Dorchester Hotel on London's Park Lane, which served as the group's London office. There he would both hold meetings and throw parties. Racal executives were expected to stay the course, playing poker and drinking champagne with their chairman into the small hours, and be ready for business meetings at 7.30 the following morning. In 1969 the defence business was further bolstered by a merger with British Communications Corporation, but it was a partnership with a US company, Milgo Electronic Corporation, that provided the crucial stage in the establishment of the group at the forefront of the burgeoning business of commercial data communications. Harrison could foresee that developing technologies that could transmit data through the medium of radio telephony would bring huge rewards. He was always prepared to take the next big step, and in 1980 came head to head with his greatest rival in European defence electronics, Arnold Weinstock of GEC, in a battle to acquire Decca, a group at the forefront of radar. Harrison won.

Entrepreneurs and governments were beginning to see the commercial potential of radio telephony, and in 1982 the British government awarded two cellular radio licences, one of which went to the Racal subsidiary, Vodafone, and the other to Cellnet, a consortium put together by British Telecom. Once again the level of investment required to develop the business could have endangered the company's existence had the technology failed or its markets not developed as expected. In the event, as Harrison had correctly predicted, what was to become known initially as the ‘cellphone’ and then the ‘mobile phone’ achieved rapid popularity and Vodafone was spun off as a separate listed company, although Harrison remained chairman of both companies.

Harrison was also convinced that the security business offered rich pickings, and in 1984 he engineered the takeover of Chubb, a deal that eventually led to a conglomerate, Williams Holdings, making an unsuccessful bid for the whole of Racal, primarily to gain control of Chubb. The latter, too, was spun off in 1992, and again Harrison retained the chairmanship, his third concurrent public company chair.

Despite the heavy workload that these responsibilities involved Harrison's life was much broader than business. He was known for his parties and entertaining both at the Dorchester and at his home in Rushmoor, near Farnham, Surrey, where little distinction was made between private and business life. His executives were expected to attend the parties and join him in his boxes at the races. (He was a member of the Jockey Club and owned a number of racehorses, including Cacoethes, who came third in the Derby in 1989, and Polish Patriot, the winner of the Cork and Orrery Stakes at Ascot in 1991.) One of the grandest of his parties took place at the Dorchester in 1993 following the success of the Camelot consortium, of which Racal was a member, in winning the competition to run the national lottery. Nothing had been organized in advance, but when Harrison learned of the consortium's success he staged an impromptu celebration at the luxury hotel, inviting all involved in the bid and their teams. Hundreds of people turned up.

Known to friends and colleagues as Ernie, Harrison was active in community and charity work. From 1964 to 1976 he was closely involved in the National Savings movement, for which he was appointed OBE in 1972. He also chaired the Royal Free Cancer Research Trust (later the UCL Cancer Institute Research Trust) from 1991 to 2006, for which he was a very effective fund-raiser, as well as giving generously to the trust himself. He was knighted in 1981, the same year he was named businessman of the year, and received honorary doctorates from Cranfield, City, Surrey, and Edinburgh universities. He was a lifelong supporter of Arsenal, and was a shareholder in the football club. At his home in Surrey he enjoyed gardening, specializing in tropical flowers grown in heated greenhouses. He died in Frimley Park Hospital on 16 February 2009 following a heart attack and was survived by his wife, Janie, and his five children.

David Brewerton

Sources  

The Times (18 Feb 2009); (20 Feb 2009); (23 Feb 2009); (25 Feb 2009); (6 March 2009) · Electronics Weekly (19 Feb 2009) · The Guardian (20 Feb 2009) · Daily Telegraph (23 Feb 2009) · Burke, Peerage · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

G. Bruce, photograph, 1981, Getty Images, London · photographs, 1994, Photoshot, London · D. Cheskin, group portrait, photograph, 1997, PA Images, London · photograph, 1998, Rex Features, London · N. Rogers, photograph, 1999, Rex Features, London · Stephens, group portrait, photograph, 1999, PA Images, London · J. Utz, group portrait, photograph, 2000 (with Denis Ranque), Getty Images, London · A. Broomberg and O. Chanarin, C-type colour print, 2005, NPG, London · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£15,379,915: probate, 4 Sept 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales