Smallpeice, Sir Basil
- John Richard Edwards
Smallpeice, Sir Basil (1906–1992), accountant and businessman, was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 18 September 1906, the son of Herbert Charles Smallpeice, a senior clerk in the London and River Plate Bank, and his wife, Georgina Ruth, née Rust. He suffered a serious bout of malaria at an early age and was brought back to England to be educated, seeing very little of his parents over the next eleven years. He went to Hurstpierpoint preparatory school and then to Mydnehe House, near Eastbourne, before attending Shrewsbury School, from 1920 to 1925. He was then articled to the Norwich and London accountants, Bullimore & Co., qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1930. He also took the external London University BCom degree while working as an articled clerk.
On qualification, Smallpeice moved out of public practice to become assistant secretary at £300 per annum to Hoover Ltd, the vacuum cleaner company, where he learned American cost accounting principles and procedures. On 29 July 1931 he married Kathleen Ivey Singleton (Kay), the daughter of Edwin Singleton Brame, of Surbiton, Surrey; there were no children. Smallpeice remained with Hoover until 1937, when he joined Doulton & Co. Ltd, the china and porcelain company, as secretary and chief accountant responsible for costing and accountancy at the factories, and for financial administration and the company's secretarial work at headquarters. During the war he remained with Doulton, but also performed various minor war-related administrative tasks. It was at this time that he joined the Christian frontier council of the Church of England. In 1948, he moved as director of costs and statistics to the newly formed British Transport Commission, which was then responsible for the nationalized inland transport system. In 1950 he was recruited by Sir Miles Thomas, chairman of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), to deal with, as Thomas put it, 'too much delay in presentation of figures and too much confusion in the way they were put forward' (The Independent, 17 July 1992). Quickly, he introduced up-to-date management accounting techniques including budgetary control, thereby imposing order on the accounts of this nationalized and troubled concern. These changes helped revive BOAC, and in 1953—the year the company first reported a profit—he joined the board.
Smallpeice was appointed managing director of BOAC in 1956 and succeeded in assembling an extremely strong new top management team to tackle the company's difficulties. BOAC was during this period immersed in a series of catastrophic disasters affecting its Comet aircraft—at one point a Comet broke up in mid-air—but his loyalty to the de Havilland concept and design was rewarded with the successful re-introduction of the Comet (IV) in 1958. Smallpeice's other notable triumph was the introduction of transatlantic jet travel, BOAC's Comets beating Pan American's Boeing 707s to it by three weeks with a same-day return trip to New York. Financial success remained elusive in the fast-developing civil airline business, and differences arose between the board of BOAC and the Ministry of Aviation, then under Julian Amery. The minister called in John Corbett, the senior partner in the leading firm of chartered accountants, Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co., to prepare a secret but presumably highly critical report, since Smallpeice and a number of other board members were forced to resign, in November 1963. Ironically, the new management was to benefit from the return to profitability which the work of Smallpeice and his colleagues had ensured.
Smallpeice joined the board of the Cunard Steamship Company the following year, and served as chairman from 1965 to 1971. The company was in dire straits at the time of his appointment because of a fondness for tradition and a neglect of modern management methods. Smallpeice possessed precisely the right management experience and skills to deal with this situation, not shirking the radical decisions required to bring back the company into profit by mid-1968. While there, Smallpeice saw the QE2 into operation and played a key role in the introduction of cargo containerization. Cunard was taken over by Trafalgar House in 1971 and Smallpeice went on to the main board, before taking over shortly afterwards as non-executive deputy chairman of Lonrho. There, he was increasingly at odds with the major shareholder and chief executive, Tiny Rowland. The outcome of a power struggle was that Smallpeice and seven of his fellow directors resigned in 1973. He continued as non-executive chairman of Associated Container Transportation (Australia) and of its partnership with the Australian National Line until 1979, when he completely retired from business. Meanwhile, Smallpeice's first wife, Kay, died in February 1973, and in November that year he married Rita Burns, who had been his secretary since 1967. Again there were no children.
Smallpeice was appointed KCVO in the 1961 queen's birthday honours list in recognition of his work in connection with her majesty's flights. He was therefore well-known to the queen when he received the prestigious appointment as part-time administrative adviser to her majesty's household in 1964, introducing modern budgetary control methods during an appointment which lasted until 1980.
Despite leaving public practice in 1930, Smallpeice maintained a keen interest in the affairs of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, working hard to raise awareness of responsibilities towards its industrial members. He assembled a ginger group which published critical comment in The Accountant, the profession's journal, which did not go unnoticed at the institute's head office in Moorgate Place. The appointment of an industrial member to the council of the institute remained unthinkable at that time, but in 1942 the taxation and financial relations committee was established, and this played an important part in raising the standard of financial reporting in the years that followed. Smallpeice was appointed to the committee but this did not deflect him from continuing to press for industrial representation on the institute's council. When this step was finally taken in 1948, Smallpeice filled one of the industrial appointments until 1957. He also played a prominent role in the affairs of the British Institute of Management, serving as a council member from 1959 to 1964 and again from 1965 to 1975, and as chairman from 1970 to 1972.
Some of Smallpeice's contemporaries believed that his upbringing away from his family accounted for a degree of sensitive diffidence and intellectual arrogance. He was at the same time earnest, sincere, anxious to achieve good personal relations, and always, often justly, suspicious of political motivation. Although not the most robust of individuals, he showed considerable fortitude and possessed undoubted integrity. This latter quality, and his lack of political acumen, sometimes put him at a disadvantage in the boardroom, particularly in a highly visible nationalized industry in the early 1960s and when confronted by the likes of Tiny Rowland. Quiet, unassuming, always impeccably dressed, his manner in business was cautious and precise. His relaxation included chairing the Leatherhead New Theatre Trust and the Air League, while he also enjoyed membership of his London clubs. In retirement he lived at Bridge House, 45 Leigh Hill Road, Cobham. He died in Epsom, Surrey, on 12 July 1992.
- NL Scot., letters and memoranda to Lady Tweedsmuir
- photograph, 1973, Hult. Arch.
- photograph, repro. in The Times
- photograph, repro. in The Independent
Wealth at Death
£20,854: probate, 29 Oct 1992, CGPLA Eng. & Wales