Former chairman of Christian Salvesen and patron of the arts in Scotland

Born: December 23, 1923;

Died: January 28, 2018

SIR Gerald Elliot, who has died aged 94, was a much respected leader of one of the oldest private companies in Scotland. He was chairman and chief executive of the mighty Christian Salvesen, the shipping, trawling and whaling business in Leith which was founded in 1872.

The company later diversified into trawlers and bought a cold store in Grimsby at the start of the refrigeration revolution. Over the years Salvesen became a powerhouse in the Scottish economy with interests in general food freezing, housebuilding and oil before returning to transport by buying Swift Services. Sir Gerald was in the vanguard of many of these pioneering changes and played an important role in modernising the firm’s corporate structure.

Sir Gerald and his wife Lady Margaret were also enthusiastic supporters of the arts throughout Scotland. Their generosity ranged from national companies to Sistema Scotland, which develops children’s orchestras and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

In 2012 Sir Gerald and Lady Elliot were presented with the Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy by Prince Charles. The citation concluded, “What stands out about the Elliots is not just the gratitude they’ve generated, but the affection.” The principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, John Wallace added, “We hold the Elliots dear, as both donors and long-standing friends.”

Gerald Henry Elliot was the son of Surgeon Captain J.S. Elliot RN and Magda Salvesen who was the daughter of Theodore Salvesen the chairman of the company. Sir Gerald attended Cargilfield Prep School and Marlborough College. In 1942 he joined the Indian Army and trained Indian soldiers at the Regimental Centre in Abbottabad. In 1946 he qualified as an interpreter in Urdu and was demobbed that year.

He then read PPE at New College, Oxford and met Margaret Whale, daughter of a prominent theologian. Despite her maiden name her family had no connection with whaling. Sir Gerald once explained, “Margaret comes from a Cornwall family and there aren’t many whales in Cornwall.”

In 1948 he joined Salvesen and became a partner in 1955. He spent four seasons whaling in the forbidding seas of the Antarctic but in 1963 the firm ceased whaling and Sir Gerald was appointed managing director from 1973-81 and chairman from 1981 until his retirement in 1988.

He played an unexpected role in the Falklands conflict of 1982. That year Salvesen sold two disused whaling stations to an Argentinian scrap dealer who arrived on South Georgia to occupy the site in an Argentinian warship. They raised the Argentinian flag and their troops seized the Falklands two weeks later. "We had done the whole thing completely openly with the blessing of the British Government,” Sir Gerald recalled. “There were, of course, sensitivities about the Argentines being anywhere in the area.”

He returned to the business limelight in 1997 when the Salvesen board rejected a bid which sparked off a wave of reorganisation including the demerger of the generator business Aggreko (now run from Glasgow) and the food services division. Sir Gerald was not enthusiastic about the demerger – not least the costs of £20m.

Throughout his years as an executive at Salvesen he was keen to broaden its equity base. His colleague Barry Sealey has recalled, “We introduced staff shareholder schemes. It was one of the first save-as-you-earn share option schemes.”

Sir Gerald was also involved in the highly successful and fast expanding Forth Ports Authority of which he was chairman (1973-79).

Retirement proved active. He set up Archangels with Barry Sealey which advises emerging technological companies in Scotland. With Sir Alan Peacock he founded the the think tank David Hume Institute. Jane-Frances Kelly, its director comments, “It is no exaggeration to say that the Institute would likely not exist without his continued encouragement. Sir Gerald was a champion of allowing the evidence to speak for itself.”

He was also an active member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and served as its vice president.

His retirement allowed him time to fulfil a youthful ambition to learn Persian and Arabic despite a setback in 1982 when he lost an eye while skiing on the 18th hole at Murrayfield Golf Course.

He is fondly remembered by former colleagues at Christian Salvesen. One senior manager was sent to France to oversee the introduction of a cold storage depot in 1984. Unfortunately it was burnt down within days of opening. “Sir Gerald came out to see for himself and encourage the small devoted band trying to maintain the frozen food supply to French supermarkets,” the manager recalled. “We had a most convivial dinner that night. He was a gentleman.”

The admiration for Sir Gerald’s support for the arts in Scotland is widespread. The Edinburgh Festival’s director, Fergus Linehan, told The Herald: “Sir Gerald was passionately enthusiastic about the arts and made a substantial contribution to Scotland’s cultural life.

"He and Lady Elliot supported both established and emerging artists through The Binks Trust and generously opened up their home to welcome visitors to the Festival. On a personal note, Sophie and I are very grateful for the warm welcome we received from Sir Gerald and Lady Elliot on our arrival in Edinburgh.”

Sir Gerald was chairman of Scottish Opera (1987-1992), whose general director Alex Reedijk recalls, “Sir Gerald was a cultured and musically curious businessman who shared a deep love of the performing arts.”

Sir Gerald was knighted in 1986, was a trustee of the Prince’s Trust and served on the Court of Edinburgh University (1984-93). He is survived by Lady Margaret, their three children, nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren.