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  Garfield Howard Weston (1927–2002), by Jane Bown, 1994 Garfield Howard Weston (1927–2002), by Jane Bown, 1994
Weston, Garfield Howard [Garry] (1927–2002), businessman and philanthropist, was born in Toronto, Canada, on 28 April 1927, second eldest of the three sons and six daughters of , businessman, and his first wife, Reta Lila, née Howard (d. 1967). He came to England aged four when his father, having built up extensive food operations in North America, began to manufacture cheap biscuits in Britain as well as wrapped and sliced bread, under the Sunblest name.

Weston was educated at Sir William Borlase School, Marlow, Buckinghamshire, and at New College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics, and economics, though without taking a degree. He went on to Harvard University, the University of British Columbia, and McGill University, studying economics. He would have chosen an academic career, but in 1949 was recruited into the family company, Allied Bakeries Ltd. He soon became managing director of Ryvita Ltd, the crispbread subsidiary which he made profitable by quadrupling sales. Two years later he invented the immensely popular confection, Wagon Wheels, by enclosing a lump of marshmallow between two chocolate biscuits.

The young Weston was as shy and sensitive as were many sons in family businesses who had to labour under authoritarian fathers. He escaped in 1952 by volunteering to further the company's interests in Australia. There he established a Weston biscuit and bread subsidiary, which became the country's largest food enterprise. Relishing the informal colonial lifestyle that reminded him of his earliest Canadian days, in 1959 he married Mary Ruth Kippenberger, a New Zealander and daughter of . During a most happy marriage she gave him every support and brought up their three sons and three daughters in a frugal regime uncommon among such affluent families. All six children eventually worked in one or other unit of the Weston global empire.

By 1967 Weston's father, about to retire at seventy, appointed him executive chairman of Associated British Foods, as the UK group had been called since 1960. His father, an autocrat prone to making decisions on impulse, had diminished earnings and increased corporate debt by buying up sixty companies in eighteen months, even though demand for bread was declining. Garry Weston had by then developed his individual personality, being self-effacing and courteous but thorough and decisive in his business dealings, personally authorizing all capital projects over £5000. Whereas no fewer than 180 managers had reported directly to his father as chairman, he set up a small but high-powered central headquarters team, thirty in number. He then devolved responsibility down to unit managers; his staff monitored their performance through target-setting and assessing results.

To reduce production costs in a cut-throat market for bread, Weston invested heavily in labour-saving plant and equipment and closed down loss-making factories. This mild and considerate man did not scruple to inflict hardship and distress on employees thrown out of jobs, even in areas of high unemployment. He was able to dominate the group because his family held the majority of voting shares. His consequent resolve to use profits for investment rather than on generous dividends irritated outside shareholders, but he paid them as little consideration as he did financial institutions. When the group's bankers refused to extend its credit limit, he withdrew the account.

From 1967 to 1999, Associated British Foods increased turnover from £300 million to £4.3 billion, and pre-tax profits from £16 million to £300 million. It became one of the UK's top producers of consumables, which ranged from tea and coffee, sugar, bread, and biscuits to frozen foods and edible oil, as well as being the largest customer of Britain's agricultural industry. When in the 1970s a price war erupted with Ranks Hovis McDougall and Spillers over bread, Weston held his nerve until Spillers gave up, whereupon he acquired most of its bakeries. In 1987 he launched his first major outside bid, for S. and W. Berisford, the sugar and produce company, pulling out when that autumn's stock market crisis occurred. Three years later, once business confidence had returned, he bought Berisford's beet refining subsidiary, British Sugar Ltd, for £880 million. That costly purchase nevertheless yielded the profits (no longer earned on bread) which funded the group's expansion into American speciality food firms during the 1990s. In response to a business downturn later that decade, he restructured the group into four operating divisions.

As Weston grew older and filled out, his balding head and bushy moustache made him resemble—it was said—everyone's favourite grandfather. He greatly admired Margaret Thatcher as prime minister and for a time made handsome donations to the Conservative Party. Partly to evade the attention of kidnappers and other undesirables (in 1983 the IRA attempted to kidnap his brother Galen), he and his family lived without ostentation in their London residence and an Oxfordshire farm, where he relaxed by playing tennis, gardening, and tinkering with his power-lawnmower. He chose to drive himself round in a second-hand Mercedes car, walked, or took the bus to work, and enjoyed a modest shopping spree in the January sales.

The Weston family trust, estimated at one point to be worth £1.7 billion, dispensed some £30 million a year to medical research, the arts, and educational projects; high-profile beneficiaries included St Paul's Cathedral, the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and the British Museum to complete the great court which surrounds its circular reading room. In 1998 Weston was offered an honorary CBE (he never gave up his Canadian citizenship) in recognition of his benefactions, but he declined. The following year he handed over the chief executive's post, not to one of his sons but to a long-serving British executive, Peter Jackson.

A few months later Weston had a mild stroke, but was confident of making a full recovery. Those hopes were frustrated by continuing poor health, and in 2000 he retired from the chairmanship. After a series of further strokes and recurrent chest infections, he died at the Cromwell Hospital, Kensington, London, on 15 February 2002. He was survived by his wife, Mary, and their six children. His estate was valued for probate at just over £24 million. Shortly before his death he was estimated to be the fifth richest individual in Britain; much, but by no means all, of that wealth had been created by his rare entrepreneurial skills.

T. A. B. Corley

Sources  

‘Yeast in AB Foods’, Investors Chronicle (14 Aug 1970), 641–3 · Management Today (July 1994), 80 · The Times (7 Sept 1999) · The Guardian (7 Sept 1999) · Evening Standard (8 Sept 1999) · The Times (16 Feb 2002) · Financial Times (16 Feb 2002) · Daily Telegraph (16 Feb 2002) · The Guardian (16 Feb 2002) · The Independent (16 Feb 2002) · The Economist (17 May 2003) · Financial Times (23 Dec 2003) · D. J. Jeremy and G. Tweedale, Dictionary of twentieth century British business leaders (1994), 227–8 · ‘Associated British Foods plc’, International directory of company histories, 41 (2001), 30–33 · WW (2002) · private information (2006) [Associated British Foods] · d. cert.

Likenesses  

P. Lambda, bust, 1977; Sothebys, 13 May 1998, lot 117 · photographs, 1981–97, Universal Pictorial Press and Agency, London · J. Bown, photograph, 1994, Camera Press, London [see illus.] · R. Hutchings, photograph, 1994, Camera Press, London · J. Goto, group portrait, MicroPiezo print, 1999–2000 (The donors), NPG · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£24,303,068: probate, 16 Dec 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales