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Harris, George James (1896–1958), chocolate and confectionery manufacturer, was born at 383 Paisley Road West, Govan, Glasgow, on 8 August 1896, the son of Charles Harris, an engineer's draughtsman, and his wife, Agnes, née Brownlie. He was educated at Ayr Academy, from 1914 served in the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot and, after being shot down, transferred to the King's Liverpool regiment. He fought at most of the western front's bloody battles, was mentioned in dispatches, won an MC and bar, and left the military at the age of twenty-three as a major and acting colonel. After the war he studied mathematics at the London School of Economics, but left before completing his degree in order to qualify as a chartered accountant with Deloitte & Co. In 1923 he married Friede Rowntree, a member of the famous cocoa and chocolate family, and was by custom offered a position at Rowntree & Co., where, as secretary of the quality research groups, he co-ordinated the analysis of products and production issues.

Harris moved to the sales department in 1925, and spent an unsuccessful year in the United States attempting to launch a line of sweet gums; he returned as the company's London sales manager. His appointment to the post of marketing manager for bar chocolate products in January 1931 was one of many concurrent managerial changes throughout Rowntree. The recent recession had exposed the company's weak product range and highlighted rival Cadbury's growing dominance of the British confectionery industry, and Rowntree had to tackle a very real threat to its viability. It was Harris's drive and insight which inspired his firm's renaissance in the 1930s: his marketing concepts and techniques underwrote the introduction of Black Magic in 1933; he directly oversaw the launch of KitKat and Aero in 1935, Dairy Box in 1937, and Smarties in 1938; and, although another nine years passed before it was placed on sale, Polo had been conceived by 1939. Harris's career reflected these successes: he became marketing director in 1936, chairman of Rowntree's executive board in 1938, and company chairman in 1941.

The Second World War, with its consequent shortages and rationing, forestalled the commercial potential of Rowntree's new products. Reluctantly, Harris turned his attentions to the industry as a whole. From 1941 to 1946 he was chairman of the Cocoa, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance and chairman of the Cocoa and Chocolate War-Time Association, which undertook the wartime organization of the industry on behalf of the Ministry of Food. Harris was seriously ill in 1946 and 1947, and medical advice was offered as the explanation for his retirement in January 1952. In fact there was dissension within Rowntree, and the prospect of publicity over Harris's legal defence of a minor traffic offence appeared to some indicative of declining judgement. It was a sad end to a brilliant business career—all the sadder because Rowntree did not fully benefit from its most recent product innovations until confectionery rationing was lifted in 1953.

It was Harris's role as a pioneer of British marketing which makes his career so notable. As a person he was reserved, laconic, and determined, setting the highest standards of effort and achievement for himself and for others. After his unsuccessful year in the United States in 1925–6 he had returned with knowledge of the latest developments in marketing thought, and over the following decade he proved himself an innovator in creative marketing. He was distinguished by his clear perception of how to develop unique products that could command consumer confidence, and during the 1930s he introduced to Rowntree marketing principles which were to become commonplace in British industry. A mixture of branding, intensive advertising, and statistically testable consumer research enabled the company to discover and respond and appeal to consumer wishes; in creating a marketing-orientated business, Harris transformed Rowntree's prevailing corporate culture.

Fascinated by commercial enterprise, suspicious of employees with outside interests, and dismissive of a Rowntree family engrossed by various public works, Harris was determined to professionalize his company. Unlike the previous chairmen, Joseph and Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, he was uninterested in personnel issues, and it was his overriding concern with marketing and product innovation that created a company of high quality and high-profile brands, a fact denied by none of his successors. This single-mindedness, when combined with illness towards the end of his career, may have made Harris more reclusive and subject to mood changes, but he had always been impatient of corporate politics and procedures, preferring to work entrepreneurially with a selected staff. He died at his home, Bossall Hall, near York, on 11 September 1958, survived by his wife and three daughters.

Robert Fitzgerald

Sources  

R. Fitzgerald, Rowntree and the marketing revolution, 1862–1969 (1995) · Confectionery Journal (2 Oct 1958), 485 · Cocoa Works Magazine (Easter 1952) · Cocoa Works Magazine (autumn 1958) · The Times (2 Oct 1958), 14 · private information (2004) · Borth. Inst., Rowntree archives · b. cert.

Archives  

Borth. Inst., Rowntree archives


Likenesses  

portrait, Borth. Inst., Rowntree archives

Wealth at death  

£10,421 0s. 4d.: probate, 16 Dec 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales