Sir David Orr – obituary (2008)

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(Sir David & Lady Orr lived at Home Farm, The Street Shackleford.)

Sir David Orr crowned his 33 years in the management of the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever by serving as the company’s chairman from 1974 until 1982.

During his time overseeing the fortunes of such familiar brands as Persil, Surf, Domestos, Jif, Dove, Vaseline, Colman’s, Flora, Lipton, Wall’s, Stork and Oxo, Orr established himself as one of the foremost business leaders. Under his chairmanship Unilever’s turnover and profits almost doubled. He counted it as one of his achievements to have made the company less exclusively Dutch and British and was proud to have appointed local managers and increased its US presence.

David Alexander Orr was born in Dalkey, near Dublin, in 1922 and educated at High School, Dublin, and Trinity College, Dublin, where he took a first-class BA and an LLB. He also made his mark as a boxer — he was twice cruiserweight champion of the British and Irish universities — and a rugby player. He captained an outstanding Trinity team and played centre three-quarter for Leinster province. Later he was captain of London Irish, from 1951 until 1954 (and president in the 1980s).

During the war he enlisted in the Royal Ulster Rifles and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. He served with Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners during the campaign in Burma against the Japanese and was twice decorated with the Military Cross for acts of exceptional gallantry. The first occasion was during the advance of 255 Indian Tank Brigade west of Meiktila in February 1945. Ordered to clear a diversion round a blown bridge blocked by 250lb aerial bombs wired as booby traps, he stormed the foxhole where the enemy firing party had taken cover, shot the soldier at the control switch with his revolver and then led his detachment in clearing the route forward.

Two weeks later, after the enemy had closed on the Meiktila airstrip overnight and could sweep it with automatic fire, he went forward with two men of his troop to recover a soldier of the 6/15th Punjab Regiment who had been wounded. On reaching the casualty he found others near by and crossed the open ground four times to bring the injured men to safety. For this action he received a Bar to the immediate MC awarded for the February action.

When asked about his war experiences, he preferred to tell the story of how he and another Sapper officer liberated the Rangoon Golf Club.

Orr joined Unilever as a management trainee in 1948, gaining experience in Britain and the Netherlands. In 1955 he joined Hindustan Lever in India where he served for five years, becoming vice-chairman of Lever Brothers India in 1957. His leadership skills were soon apparent, and colleagues noted both his attention to detail and his prodigious memory for places and people.

On returning to London he served on the company’s overseas committee from 1960 until 1965 when he was appointed president of Lever Brothers in New York. In 1967 he joined the boards of Unilever as detergents co-ordinator and in 1970 was appointed vice-chairman of Unilever plc and a member of the special committee that makes executive decisions on behalf of the joint boards. Four years later he was appointed chairman.

In retirement Orr continued to be active in business and public life. He was chairman of Inchcape, 1983-86, and its deputy chairman, 1986-91; he was chairman of the British Council, 1985-92, and of the Armed Forces Review Pay Review Body, 1982-92. He also sat on the committee to review functioning of financial institutions; of the top salaries review body and on the advisory committee on business appointments of Crown servants. He was a non-executive director of Rio Tinto Zinc and of Shell.

Cultural and charitable institutions to which Orr gave time included the Leverhulme Trust, chairman 1982-92, and the Shakespeare Globe Theatre Trust, chairman 1985-92 and president, 1991-93— his contribution to the building of the theatre is marked by his bust alongside those of Sam Wanamaker and Shakespeare. He was chairman of the Charles Wallace (India) Trust, 1991-98, joint chairman of the Anglo-Irish Encounter, 1983-87, and director of the Five Arrows Chile Fund, 1990-99. He was at various times president of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the Children’s Medical Charity, a governor of the LSE and a member of the College of Speech Therapists, 1992-96.

Orr was knighted in 1977 and in 1979 was appointed a Commander of the Order of Orange Nassau. As well as his many business and cultural interests, he followed the fortunes of the Irish rugby team — he used to say that the greatest regret in his life was that he had not played rugby for Ireland — and enjoyed golf and travel.

He retained the tenacious Irish patriotism often found in Irish Protestants despite political changes that were not congenial to them. He kept up his Irish connections as a member of the court of the Bank of Ireland, 1983-89, and as Chancellor of the Queen’s University of Belfast. Anglo-Irish Encounter, founded in 1983 with him as the British joint chairman, held (and still holds) conferences to improve understanding between the two countries.

Orr is survived by his wife, Phoebe, and their three daughters.

Sir David Orr, MC and Bar, chairman of Unilever 1974-82, was born on May 10, 1922. He died on February 2, 2008, aged 85