An appreciation

ROBERT ROBISON, who has died at the age of 86, was known for his strong leadership qualities and great professionalism, and as a managing director who believed in the importance of providing apprentices with the tools and the skills that would stand them in good stead for a successful career in the building industry. He was never afraid to take off his jacket, while keeping his tie on, and he led his company by example.

Bob, as he was known, started his career as a humble apprentice

bricklayer in 1948, aged 14. His first pay packet was £2 and nine shillings a week – two pennies an hour less than others because he was family, and his uncle believed he should not be shown any favours. He went on to become managing director and chairman of Robison and Davidson, the biggest contracting and construction group in Scotland’s south-west, employing more than 700 people.

Based in Dumfries, the family company expanded under his control with depots in Newton Stewart, Dunragit, Ayr, Mauchline and, eventually, Glasgow.

After completing his apprenticeship in 1957 Bob began climbing the promotion ladder. He was promoted to foreman brickie, progressing to foreman of all trades and, aged 25, he was made contracts manager. Buildings such as the Dumfries Court house, the old Academy, St Joseph’s College, the Clydesdale Bank, the Lyceum Theatre, the Cairndale Hotel, large sections of the Crichton Royal and several retail stores all bear the R and D hallmark.

One of the most outstanding pieces of craftsmanship is the stone rope curling across the top of the sheriff court frontage; this job was entrusted to a stonemason, a tramp who walked from town to town picking up whatever work he could get.

One contract in the 1990s that Bob was particularly proud of was the defunct picture house in Newton Stewart, where his company were entrusted by the town’s Save The Cinema Committee to rebuild the art deco building as a cinema and theatre. The Cinema, as it is now known, was the first entertainment project of its kind in Scotland to attract National Lottery funding. Today it is hugely successful and provides much pleasure to residents of Wigtownshire, the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright and visitors.

Robison and Davidson won many awards and accolades, including Scottish Builder Of The Year, but in his home town he will long be remembered for the R and D Apprenticeship Scheme. To mark the firm’s 75th anniversary 27 apprentices built a private house under his guidance, with only an independent clerk of works being employed, to ensure the quality.

When Bob retired in 2000 the company had 173 apprentices, placing it first in Scotland and sixth in the UK for the number employed.

In 1979, when the company was still on the acquisition trail, the directors decided to sell R and D

to JC Lilley, the Glasgow-based contracting and construction group. It was a decision that almost led to disaster but turned out to be one of the high points of his career.

Bob had continued to manage

R and D as a autonomous company and was Lilley’s best earner, being extremely profitable, so it came as a shock when the parent company’s profits plummeted and administrators were called in. It was feared

R and D would sink in receivership but talks had already started about a possible buyout and the administrators agreed these could continue. After a month of strenuous late-night and early morning negotiations Bob and his team took R and D back under their control and saved 700 jobs.

Local companies he had dealt with never closed their books to him and hundreds of thousands of pounds were paid back to suppliers. Their faith in him was well placed. Leading the buy-out was another huge milestone for him, and his old family company never looked back. The turnover jumped from £6 million in 1980 to £45m in 2000. The buy-out complete, Bob felt it was time to expand and in 1995 acquired the Glasgow architectural joinery business, John Cochrane, giving them a base in Central Scotland.

At his retirement luncheon he was presented with a copy of one of the first bricks he laid as an apprentice. He said: “You name it, we will build it: everything from churches to crematoria, from houses to theatres to bridges and much more. I have never been frightened to clinch a deal on the back of a fag packet. They worked out more times than they were wrong”.

He was a boss of great integrity and strong work ethic, with exacting standards for himself and expected of others; he was honest to a fault and a straight talker. With him you knew exactly where you stood and he was giving his men the hairdryer treatment before Sir Alex Ferguson even thought of it.

Bob is survived by wife Yvonne, son Colin, daughter Muriel and two grandchildren.