A home-spun yarn from the castle

A home-spun yarn from the castle

Sir Jack Stewart-Clark is the owner of Dundas Castle, one of the most perfect places for a wedding or corporate leisure day in Scotland. However, Sir Jack had a distinguished career in business and politics before restoring his historic home into an intimate hospitality venue with five-star service. He talks to BQ Scotland editor Kenny Kemp about his life and times

Here’s a bit of history. The siege and bombardment of Edinburgh Castle by Oliver Cromwell ended on 24 December 1650 when its governor Walter Dundas eventually surrendered. Dundas, who had been a  Covenanter, decided to join Cromwell’s Commonwealth side.

Today, many Scottish couples who celebrate their wedding vows in the ancient Old Keep of Dundas Castle have cause to be grateful for Walter’s submission. For Walter Dundas’s own home was spared the wrath of Cromwell and today the 15th century Keep is now one of the most atmospheric places to tie the marital knot. It’s a restored tower with a vaulted medieval great hall, steeped in Caledonian history.

It’s where Cromwell once stayed during his period of religious warfare in Scotland which saw similar strongholds razed to the ground.

The Auld Keep, built in 1416, and the more comfortable adjoining country house built in 1818 by architect William Burn – with its manicured acres – is the home of Sir Jack Stewart-Clark and his Dutch-born wife, Lady Lydia. Dundas Castle is one of the great success stories of up-market tourism and leisure in Scotland and a credit to the vision of Sir Jack.

Sir Jack had several remarkable careers even before undertaking the rebuilding of Dundas Castle as this five-star venue, with its glorious backdrop overlooking the Firth OF Forth. After many years working abroad with thread maker J&P Coats in Uruguay, Canada, Spain, Holland, Portugal and Pakistan, the fluent Dutch and Spanish speaker rose to the top of the Philips electrical conglomerate in the UK. Firstly, he became managing director of Philips Electical, the consumer goods arm of Philips in the UK and then managing director of Pye of Cambridge, a public company but majority owned by Philips.

He stepped out of business in 1979 to become one of the UK’s first elected European parliamentarians and rose to become vice president of the European Parliament. He’s an active octogenarian with a sharp-as-tack memory and remains a strong pro-European. He returned to Dundas in 1997 armed with 27 years of business and 20 years of political experience.

While he has built Dundas Castle’s corporate, leisure and wedding business from scratch, it is Sir Jack’s personal touch which chimes so well with guests. He puts much of the success down to his staff, working to ensure that demanding high-value events go off seamlessly. But the Stewart-Clark family presence is an essential aspect of Dundas’s intimate charm and this is due in no small measure to Sir Jack’s wife Lady Lydia, who has done all the interior decorating in Dundas and has turned it into “the cosiest castle in Scotland”.

“The leisure business has a reputation for quick turnover of staff, bigger than almost any other industry. I wanted to be absolutely certain that I looked after our people and ensure that they would stay with us for many years. Not only are they paid reasonably well in comparison to the rest of the sector, but they have jobs they enjoy doing and become part of our extended family,” he says.

It has worked. Lucy Scillitoe, the general manager, has been with Sir Jack for more than 10 years, while the rest of the team, including marketing manager Siobhan Leith, has been together for a long time.

“It’s so important: you’ve got to look after the people who are looking after the customers,” he says. “In that way we can expect to provide a first class attentive and caring service”.
Dundas Castle employs 20 full-time and another ten regular contract people, including the gardeners who keep the grounds looking in tip-top condition for over 130 events a year.
“My principle is that the moment that you come through the gates of the Castle and head up the driveway, you’ve got to feel that this is a special place that is cared for and looked after.”

He’s right. The rhododendron bushes are neatly clipped and the tarmac without a pothole – a rather rare occurrence in the environs of Edinburgh. The drive ends as you crunch onto specially imported gravel at the castle’s elegant and imposing front door. “It has all got to be kept to the highest standard. Even the brass on the front door has to be buffed and polished.”

With its grand wood-panelled entrance hall, its comfy sitting rooms and grand dining room, Dundas is a magical place for a wedding and a secluded venue for corporate customers. It has 17 luxurious bedrooms and bathrooms for overnight guests. There’s a fixed pavilion marquee beside the lawns for bigger events of up to 250 and a site for a grand marquee, which will then house up to 1,000 people.

It wasn’t always like this at Dundas. When Sir Jack and his wife started on the restoration work, the house was riddled with dry rot and required a fortune being spent to bring it into watertight condition. Also the boat house on the loch, which is now used for honeymoon night, had been vandalised.

“I feel sorry for my parents in some way. My grandmother lived here until 1938 with her unmarried children. My parents moved into Dundas after she died. However shortly, thereafter, the RAF requisitioned the Castle and my parents moved to Ravelston in Edinburgh for the duration of the war.

Sir Jack’s father, Sir Stewart, died when he was 68. He had been a great sportsman who played squash for Scotland and tennis for the East of Scotland but, according to Sir Jack, had little business acumen. His brother, Dudley had joined J&P Coats a few years before the outbreak of war. He loved flying and joined the RAF as an early member of the famous 603 Squadron in Edinburgh. He flew Spitfires, shot down several Luftwaffe planes but was eventually shot down and killed over France.

Sir Jack’s parents moved back to the estate in 1947 but it was an enormous place to run and the main house was sub-let into individual flats. Sir Jack’s mother, Jane, lived on her own in one of the wings for 23 years and she passed away in 1993, aged 89. It was only then that the refurbishment began.

“The place had become down-at-heel, the roofs were leaking and the gutters were not being attended to. The courtyard roof was falling in. It cost me £27,000 just to restore the rafters above our main bedroom corridor because of dry rot. It was a mega-operation and we had to do it bit by bit. Something new every year to bring it to its current level. I borrowed money to help me do it up. But we got there and we got it right. It was an enormous risk but I was comforted by the maxim that whatever you do in life, you’ve got to have an exit strategy. I knew if I restored Dundas Castle, we would always get our money back if we sold it.”

Sir Jack was born in 1929. He had his early education in Edinburgh and then at Loch Rannoch. He was then packed off to Eton. In early 1948, aged 18, he was called up to the Coldstream Guards and headed to the Guards Depot in Caterham where he had four months of square-bashing. After officer cadet training he was due to be sent with 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards to Malaya, but he broke his ankle during late-night manoeuvres and missed his posting. Instead, he went to Aldershot and then, as an Ensign (Second Lieutenant), took a platoon of Guardsmen on the SS Empire Trooper ending up in Tripolitania, now Libya. He spent a year in the deserts of North Africa before going to Bailliol College – the Scottish college – at Oxford, where his room-mate, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who was a later Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

“Patrick was deeply into politics, the Oxford Union and the speeches of Winston Churchill. But I was enjoying myself too much. I was interested in the company of pretty girls and going to Ascot and that sort of stuff. The extraordinary thing was many years later during the time I was a member of the European Parliament my boundaries were changed, and the Westminster constituency of Tunbridge Wells became part of my Euro constituency. The MP was none other than my friend Patrick Mayhew! We came together as MP and MEP after all these years.”

Sir Jack spent three years studying PPE and  then History at Oxford with tutors such as Marcus Dick, Sammy Finer and Bill Williams, who as Brigadier Edgar Williams had been the chief intelligence officer with General Montgomery at El Alamein. [“I might not have been the brightest undergraduate to enter Balliol but I had a solid connection with Bill because I had been a young soldier in North Africa.”]

Sir Jack’s family fortunes are tied to the great Scottish sewing thread business of J&P Coats, which amalgamated with Clark & Sons at the beginning of the last century. During the Napoleonic War, Sir Jack’s great great-grandfather and brother set up a thread-making business in Paisley. With a blockade on exported German silk thread, the brothers spun and twisted long staple American cotton into sewing thread. By good fortune this new product became much more popular with seamstresses, who found the thread kinder on their fingers than silk. The next generation of Clark brothers moved from the Seedhill mills in Paisley to the newly built and now famous red-brick Anchor Mills. They also were great entrepreneurs, putting thread onto a bobbin rather than skeins and then they devised the wooden reel of cotton, which ws sold as Clark’s Penny Reel.

The progress of the Clark family continued and the next generation, of five brothers, which included Sir Jack’s great grandfather Stewart moved to the Mile End mill and then went on to build the Atlantic and Pacific mills. The Clark sewing thread operation had now grown into a world wide concern. However, there was another thread business successfully operating at the other end of Paisley.

This was owned and directed by James and Peter Coats. It took a brilliant German called Otto Ernst Philippi to persuade the two rival firms to join forces. In 1889 he set up a single worldwide operation, which sold both the products of Coats and Clark. It was called the Central Agency and was based in Glasgow. This was, perhaps inevitably followed by a merger of Coats and Clarks, together with two English sewing thread manufacturers called Brook and Chadwick in 1896.

The company was called J&P Coats in Britain and Coats and Clark in the United States where the Clark brothers had established a dominant position in the thread industry. The combined Coats’ market capital rose from £2 million in 1889 to £5.5m in 1896 and to £10m in the years before the First World War. It was a highly profitable Scottish business becoming the largest manufacturing business in the UK by 1919. Against this weight of family history, Sir Jack joined J&P Coats in 1953. During training, he was sent to the company’s sales depot in Manchester and Leicester prior to his first postings abroad in Uruguay, Canada and Spain. At the conclusion of his Spanish assignment he returned to Head Office in Glasgow.

He was sent for by the Chairman Robin Laidlaw who said to him. ‘Would you be prepared to serve for 20 years in one country for this firm?’ Young Jack’s answer after a minute or two’s thought was a definite ‘No, chairman.’ The chairman replied frostily: ‘In that case, that will be all’. In a paternal conglomerate such as Coats, this was the wrong answer.

However it seems that Sir Jack had friends at court and six months later he was sent to Holland as the district sales manager of the Coats Dutch subsidiary Carp Garen Fabrieken. This proved to be fortuitous because he met his Dutch wife Lydia, who was then studying pianoforte in the Amsterdam Conservatoire. She was the fourth of eight children in a family forced out of their home by the Nazis and rehoused in Eindhoven, after a Jewish family had been sent to the concentration camps.

Sir Jack’s first job after his marriage was European Sales Manager for a new product which was to be manufactured in Holland by ICI’s Lightening Zip Fastener division whose products were sold worldwide. This was the Nylozip, a forerunner of the modern synthetic zip fastening. It was to be made in Holland on the premises of JA Carp Garen Fabrieken but it proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

“I was responsible for marketing across Europe. But the product was faulty and not tested properly. We had ghastly situations such as where a bride would go to the altar and kneel down and then ping! The back of her dress would rip open in front of the guests. The product bombed and ICI closed the factory. My own job had ceased to exist.”

Sir Jack’s great grandfather had been a Member of Parliament for Paisley and he toyed with the idea of becoming an MP himself. He applied, was selected and then stood for North Aberdeen as a Conservative & Unionist in 1959. It was a Labour stronghold and he was soundly beaten, even though Harold Macmillan was returned as Conservative Prime Minister, with 31 Tory MPs north of the Border.

“I fought the seat because I couldn’t win and I did not want to jepardise my business prospects with J&P Coates. But I also knew that it was an opportunity to earn my political spurs which would stand me in good stead one day in the future. Then Sir Malcolm MacDougall, who had become the new chairman of Coats, spoke to me and said: ‘You’ve got to make up your mind, you either have a political career or a business career. You can’t have both. He was right.”

Politics, for the time being, were out of the way. Jack was then sent to Coats & Clark at Oporto in Portugal with his wife and baby daughter. Sales started increasing dramatically [‘It wasn’t too hard, my predecessor had been very rather laid-back.’] so that nine months after having arrived in Portugal he was called back to Head Office in Glasgow and told he was going to become the youngest country managing director in the group, with a posting to Pakistan in 1961. He was just 32 year old.

“When I got back to Oporto Lydia and I got out the atlas and identified where Karachi was. We were there for six years and it was the best thing that ever happened to me in business. It was a hardship post and it opened our eyes.

Every time I come out of Dundas Castle I count my blessing that I am one of the luckiest people alive. I say that because I lived for six years in a country in which millions of people are living in deep levels of poverty. During the period from 1961 to 1967, when we were living in Karachi, the country was split into East and West Pakistan, now Bangladesh; I had to visit our customers all over both parts of the country. In addition we had a factory with 200 workers.  It was fascinating. I learned more about human nature and business than anywhere else,” he says.

His reward for his Asian service was being sent back to Holland as the £4,000-a-year managing director of J.A Carp’s Garen Fabrieken. He found that his previous boss,  Wim Daub, the general sales manager was now reporting to him. Fortunately they had a good respect for one another and all was well.

However, recession in the textile industry brought about consolidation within Coats and Sir Jack was involved in a closure programme, while still keeping people motivated. He learned the importance of open communication, keeping the Dutch textile union chief up to speed with plans and speaking regularly to the Ondernemingsraad, the works council.

When he announced the closure of the plant, he was able to obtain the understanding of the unions who agreed to the redundancy terms for his 300 employes. When the factory closed, he was presented with a silver-plated cigarette box.

“I was close to tears. They were losing their jobs yet they gave me this engraved present,” he recalls.

Coats had recently acquired Jaeger the fashion company. Sir Jack was told that it was the intention of the directors to send him to work alongside the extrovert boss of the company Geoffrey Gilbert in London on £5,000 a year.

However, destiny played its role once again when Sir Jack received a telephone call asking him to meet the Chairman of Philips, Frits Philips at the group’s head office in Eindhoven. Mr Philips offered him the position of managing director of Philips Electrical Ltd, the group’s consumer arm in the UK at a salary of £9,000, with nine months training including a three-month spell at the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Programme.

On his course was the NASA astronaut Frank Borman, who was later chief executive of Eastern Air Lines. Sir Jack would be a senior manager in an organisation with 600,000 employees around the globe. He consulted his wife’s uncle, John Loudon, at that time the senior managing director with Royal Dutch Shell in Holland, who said that it was a once in a lifetime offer, which he could not refuse. It would prove to be a fantastic career move.

So Sir Jack took the plunge and accepted the Philips offer much to the chagrin of Coats. Philips Industries in the UK employed 60,000 people of which Philips Electrical had 6,000 staff and workers making and selling lighting products, television sets, radios, car radios, Philishave and other small domestic appliances and white goods with factories in Dunfermline, Hamilton, Durham and Croydon.

Sir Jack and his family moved to Sussex and he took up his new responsibility in London. He chaired and worked with a UK committee of three: the managing director (himself) who was in effect the commercial director, the technical director and the financial director. Each of these  reported separately up to their equivalents on the UK holding board who in turn reported up  to their equivalents on the main Philips board in Eindhoven. It was a structure unique only to Philips.

On his first day at the office, the technical director Hans Goozezijl marched into Sir Jack’s office and said “Jack, I’m in charge of manufacturing. If you want to visit my factories, you will have to ask my permission.” Sir Jack smiled disarmingly and replied that he thought it important that the technical director ought also to know the commercial side.

“I hope you will share with me some of our commercial opportunities over the forthcoming years. My office is open at all times and you will always be welcome.”

The two become very firm friends working closely together and seeing each other regularly with their wives outside the business.

Sir Jack even took Hans as his passenger in his 1904 Peugeot on the London to Brighton veteran rally.

“Life is full of surprises. My boss in the UK was a  Mr Engels. He was chairman and managing director of the holdings board for Philips in the UK. He was solid and dour. He retired soon after I took over the reins at Philips Electrical and his place was taken by a very ambitious Dutchman called Wisse Dekker. Prior to coming to London he had been head of the operations in Japan.”

Sir Jack and Dekker, who later became CEO of Philips worldwide from 1982-1986, hit it off. Philips was the first manufacturer to bring the video cassette recorder to the market, with its N1500.

“I launched it onto the UK market. It was a flop because it was brought out too quickly. Three years later we brought out a much better model, but it was too late. There was the Betamax, of Sony, and the VCR system of Matsushita, with Philips an also-ran. Nevertheless, I had launched the first video recorder onto the British market. I always remember the razzamatazz at the time of its introduction.”

Sir Jack’s career gives a remarkable insight into the machinations of European conglomerates. Philips had been struggling to sell enough television sets to meet the mushrooming demand but Sir Jack and his team managed to carve out a major market share, despite the tide of Japanese imports. As a result the sales and profits of Philips Electrical soared and Sir Jack was seen as a sort of golden boy. After four and a half years, Dekker asked him to help revive Pye of Cambridge, now 68% owned by Philips and a listed UK public company.

He was given a nod and a wink that all would be well, this would lead to him being given the top Philips job in the UK. Pye of Cambridge was a great British engineering brand with 26 companies and employing 20,000 around the country. Five of these were ‘A’ companies, including Pye Ltd, which made colour television sets in Lowestoft, Pye Telecom, which made police and the armed forces radio sets, and Pye TVT making and selling outside broadcasting vans for the likes of the BBC and overseas broadcasting companies; and Pye Unicam manufacturing professional instruments. The rest were smaller entrepreneurial enterprises in electronics, printed circuits, radio and telemetry.

Lord Thorneycroft, the short-lived former Chancellor of the Exchequeur and then  chairman of the Conservative Party, was the outside chairman of Pye of Cambridge, along with chairing TrusthouseForte and Pirelli Tyres. He was a strong supporter of Britain having stronger links with Europe.

“I was sent up to Cambridge and an undertaking had been given to Tony Benn by Philips in Holland that Pye would remain a public British company. I was told this was a big opportunity but I smelled a very big rat. I was taking over as a Philips man, after a Pye man had been sacked.”

He explained his reservation to Dekker, and was assured that if he did the Pye job well, he would be given the top spot in the UK, when Dekker was elevated, as expected, to the main board in Eindhoven. Sir Jack agreed to take it on, and ensured all Pye employees of the intention to keep the firm independent, but within 10 months Dekker joined the Dutch board.

In 1977, the new chairman of Philips in Eindhoven, Henk Van Riemsdijk, told Sir Jack it was too premature for him to be given the top spot in the UK. Instead Gerrit Jeelof was appointed. Unfortunately he had one objective and that was to buy out the minority shareholding and to bring Pye totally under his control to be managed the Philips way.

“He and the British group financial director, a bulldozing Dutchman if ever there was one,  insisted that Philips’ financial systems apply to all of the Pye companies, including the B companies. It meant all the companies paid the same percentage towards head office in the UK and Philips in Eindhoven. I was fundamentally opposed to this strategy as the success of these companies was one of entrepreneurial leadership with low overheads.

Saddling them with heavy extra costs would seriously affect their profitability and the flair would soon disappear. So it turned out to be after I had left Pye and Philips ended up selling the majority of the B companies.“

Philips then decided they would take over the minority stake and asked Sir Jack to help to arrange the sale. Barings bank worked for Philips, while Sir Jack found George Magan, then a whizz-kid at Morgan Grenfell, who later set up Hambros Magan to act on behalf of the minority shareholders.

“George Magan did a brilliant job and ensured that the minority shareholders really got a good deal. My position was very unpleasant. My instincts were right. The people in Pye thought I had sold them down the river and I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Also I had no allies on the Philips board in the UK.”

He shared his frustration with Lord Thorneycroft. Sir Jack said he was heartily fed-up with what had happened. “It was perhaps again the hand of fate playing its role but the first direct elections for the European Parliament were due to take place in June of 1979 and I felt this was my long lost opportunity to enter politics coming about.”

“My great-grandfather had been a Liberal member of parliament in Paisley. I had stood for parliament in 1959 and was told to choose business or politics. I was very pro-Europe. I spoke several languages and my wife was Dutch. I’d lived in Spain, Portugal and Holland. I felt totally European. This had to be a new golden opportunity and fitted in perfectly with my desire to one day become more involved in politics.”

Lord Thorneycroft gave his behind-the-scenes support and Sir Jack was elected MEP for East Sussex and Kent South. It meant a large drop in salary. He was earning £30,000 a year with Philips, while an MEP’s salary was £9,000. As a gesture of goodwill, Philips offered the difference for three years, which gave him time to find some non-executive directorships, including Low & Bonar in Dundee, TSB Scotland, AT Kearney, and Oppenheimer & Co.

Sir Jack went on to have an illustrious career in the European Parliament. He became vice president from 1992 until 1997. He sat on the external trade committe and had responsibility for trade with Japan, then the economic and monetary committee where he was responsible for competition and wrote a book on European competition law. He also took a very close interest in drug and alcohol prevention across Europe. By the time he retired from Parliament in 1999, he was well underway with the refurbishment of Dundas.

Sir Jack’s non-stop life has also been deeply spiritual [“God made us all; you go to heaven if you’ve led a good life. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian,’ he says] and he is well-known for a play which he instigated at Dundas on ‘The Life of Jesus Christ’. This was subsequently taken to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Uganda and, also, Louisiana State Penitentiary, where the inmates produced, directed and acted the play. The Auld Keep now houses a small chapel for contemplation. For more worldly pursuits, there is a games room with its full-size billiard table. Among the collection of photos on the wall is a sepia picture of the Clark brothers with the Coats in 1901 in Paisley. Sir Jack remains proud of this family lineage but he must also be fiercely proud of his own achievements.