Bolton, John Eveleigh (19202003), industrialist and promoter of management education, was born on 17 October 1920 at 108 Dartmouth Street, West Bromwich, the second of three children of Ernest Bolton (18831933), a railway district goods manager's clerk, later a railway manager, and his wife, Edith Mary, née Duckhouse (18821968). He was educated at Ilkley and Wolverhampton grammar schools and at the age of seventeen became an articled clerk to a chartered accountant. In 1940 he was called up and he served for the remainder of the Second World War as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, operating in destroyers and being awarded the DSC.
Bolton was demobilized in 1946 and, rather than returning to accountancy, went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study economics; he graduated in 1948 and won a Cassel travelling scholarship to Harvard business school. This was an unusual move in those days, and even the scholarship was won only because he persuaded the assessors that management was a foreign language in Britain. At Harvard he became a Baker scholar in 1949 and graduated MBA with distinction in 1950, finishing top of his class. After graduating he carried out research for Harvard on British industry and indeed retained strong links with Harvard for most of his life. Meanwhile, on 21 August 1948, at the parish church of Penn, Staffordshire, he married Gabrielle Healey (Gay) Hall (19261989), with whom he had a son and a daughter, and a devoted marriage.
In 1951 Bolton became finance director of Solartron Laboratory Instruments in Kingston upon Thames, moving on to become chairman and managing director of the Solartron Electronic Group in 1954, a post he retained until 1963, when he became deputy chairman for a further two years. The growth of the group during his stewardship was explosive: when he arrived there were only fifteen employees but six years later there were 1500, and it became one of the most dynamic electronic companies of its era. Eventually, however, the business needed more new capital than could be generated internally and so was sold at a very considerable profit, enabling Bolton to start a new career based on public duties and part-time directorships.
Long before Solartron was sold Bolton was exercised by the relatively low national standard of management education, and pressed for a system similar to that of the United States. He wrote a paper in 1956 proposing a British Commonwealth college of administration that would provide a wide range of courses for 1000 students and would, he hoped, be affiliated to Cambridge University. Moreover he offered £250,000 in Solartron shares to start a fund to finance the idea. The timing for this was not quite right, but the following year he was approached by the Conservative MP Sir Keith Joseph, who had been to the USA and had been told at Harvard that Bolton was an enthusiast for management education. Thus the two came together to initiate the Foundation for Management Education (FME), which Bolton pump-primed with his own money and which played a key role in the development and funding of the first British business schools.
Bolton saw the value of working with the grain of the establishment and the FME's approach was based on bringing the University Grants Committee and especially its chairman, Sir Keith Murray, on board. At the same time he was the main procurer of support from industry for the FME and management education more generally. He soon became a pillar of the management education committee world, sitting on the sub-committee on business management studies of the University Grants Committee, the advisory committee on industry of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Business Education Forum, the Council of Industry for Management Education, and not least, from 1962 to 1975, the visiting committee for the Harvard business school. This latter role gave him a unique perspective from which to appreciate evolving trends in the American system. He was also a key figure in the formation of the Business Graduates Association in 1968, becoming chairman of its advisory council.
Bolton began a two-year term as chairman of the council of the British Institute of Management in 1964 at the exceptionally young age of forty-four; unusually he had not been a member of the council until he became vice-chairman, and three months later he was made chairman. He presided over a period of considerable growth of both individual and organizational membership of the institute and a general improvement in its fortunes after the divisive problems of the 1950s. He also played a considerable part in replacing a loss-making internal journal with the much more commercially and publicly oriented Management Today, taking on a young and progressive editor, Robert Heller. The outcome was very satisfactory in both circulation and advertising revenues. Among the many other posts Bolton held were vice-chairman of the royal commission on local government in England (19669), chairman of the Economic Development Committee for the Rubber Industry (19658), chairman of council and then honorary treasurer of the University of Surrey, a member of the queen's award for industry panel, a general commissioner of income tax, and high sheriff of Surrey, to name only a few.
The issue for which Bolton became best known was the role of small firms in the British economy, through his chairmanship of the committee of inquiry on small firms (196971), set up by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. Bolton may indeed have had something to do with the committee's creation, since it was recommended by the British Institute of Management soon after Bolton had given up the chair of the institute's council. The committee carried out considerable research to show the hitherto unrecognized significance of the small firms sector. The report, published in November 1971 (as Cmnd 4811), was one of the most important and influential of its kind; almost all of its more than sixty recommendations were quickly implemented by the new Conservative government, and had repercussions many years later. Indeed the name of Bolton and small business policy were for a considerable time virtually synonymous as he pursued the cause of small business well into the 1980s, both on the policy front and by spearheading funding. For his work on the committee of inquiry he was appointed CBE in 1972.
Bolton was chairman and managing director of Growth Capital Ltd from 1968, and was chairman of Hall Bolton Estates Ltd and Riverview Investments Ltd. He was also a non-executive director of numerous public companies, including Black and Decker, Hoskyns, Johnson Wax, Dawson International, NCR, and Redland. In his non-executive role he was known for his straight talking and his little black book, which contained a wealth of stories from which he drew a moral from his own experience. He was also supportive of charities, schools, churches, and hospitals, mainly in his adopted county of Surrey. Inevitably, too, he became known to a wide range of people, many of whom turned to him for help and advice, which he was almost invariably only too pleased to provide. He was also associated with and a benefactor of many other management-related activities besides the Foundation for Management Education, including the Advanced Management Programmes International Trust, which brought Harvard business school courses to Britain, the Small Business Research Trust, and the Management History Research Group. He was a gentle, generous, and courteous man who was greatly respected by all who knew him. He never entirely recovered from the relatively early death of his wife, Gay, in 1989. He lived for many years at Brook Place, Chobham, and latterly at Sunnymead, Tite Hill, Englefield Green, Surrey, where he died on 15 February 2003, of prostate cancer. He was survived by his two children.
P. F. Nind, A firm foundation: the story of the FME (1985) · E. F. L. Brech, The evolution of modern management (2002), vols. 1 and 5 · The Times (12 March 2003) · S. Heavens and others, Advanced Management Programmes International: a contribution to management education in the United Kingdom (2006) · Bolton archives, priv. coll. · WW (2003) · private information (2011) [Athalie Haylor, daughter; Nicholas Bolton, son; G. Bannock] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
photograph, repro. in The Times (12 March 2003)
Wealth at death
£808,446: probate, 16 Oct 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales