Sir John Laing, CBE, President of the Laing Group of Companies, died yesterday at the age of 98.
John William Laing was born in Carlisle in 1879, the grandson of James Laing, who founded the family building and civil engineering business in the Cumberland village of Sebergham in 1848. He was educated at Carlisle Grammar School and entered his father's business in Carlisle in 1895.
He was a pioneer in the construction industry, developing a successful business over a period of intense competition. From an early age he demonstrated exceptional powers of judgment and leadership largely responsible for the early growth of the company which is today an international undertaking.
A recurring theme in his long and successful career was a keen interest in the application of scientific methods to the problems of construction. His introduction in the early years of the century of a precise system of costing laid a solid foundation for subsequent expansion. "It is surprising how seldom anything goes wrong if you tender correctly", was one of his favourite maxims.
In 1910 he married Beatrice Harland. Four years later he assumed full control of the firm. Under his direction it rapidly expanded into a national concern. In 1920 offices were opened in London, and in 1926 the headquarters was moved from Carlisle to North-West London at Mill Hill.
John Laing had a strong sense of responsibility for the welfare of his employees and it was by his foresight and initiative that many important schemes were pioneered in the construction industry. In 1920 he decided to make it possible for all employees to become shareholders in the Company.
His desire to encourage thrift brought him in close touch with the National Savings Movement in 1928. At that time his company contributed 1/- [one shilling] towards the cost of every National Savings Certificate purchased by its employees. This proved to be an important contribution to National Savings. It gave a clear lead to other companies in an industry traditionally regarded as one of the most difficult fields for the National Savings Movement.
He pioneered a contributory Holidays-with-Pay scheme in 1934, through which the Company issued holiday stamps and contributed an equal amount to that saved by employees. This scheme was a forerunner of the present Joint Scheme for the Building and Civil Engineering Industries.
It was early in life that John Laing made the decision to devote a definite portion of his time and resources to Christian and philanthropic work. He was a member of the Christian Brethren and always remained closely associated with the Church.
In 1922 he formed a trust fund used largely for home and overseas' missionary wsork and general church activities. He was responsible for the construction of many fine church buildings throughout the country and in 1956 signed the formal contract documents for the construction of the new Coventry Cathedral.
His church interests extended over a wide field and included such organizations as the British and Foreign Bible Society, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, the London Bible College, Scripture Gift Mission, and among youth movements the Crusaders' and the Covenanters' Unions.
John Laing first became associated with the idea of establishing the London Bible College in 1939 but owing to the war, work did not begin until 1946. He became President of the college in 1959.
He joined the General Committee of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1948 and became Vice-President in 1954 just before his 80th birthday. He visited India on its behalf and gave help to the society in the establishment of the Salisbury Bible House in Southern Rhodesia. In the celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Authorized Version of the Bible and the New Translation in 1961, he was a member of the Joint Council set up at Lambeth Palace.
During the last war, in which his sons, Sir Maurice Laing and Sir Kirby Laing (now respectively chairman and deputy chairman of the company) were on active service, John Laing played an important part in the vital contribution made to the war effort by the construction industry. He served on a number of wartime committees concerned with the furtherance of research and the development of new techniques.
He became Chairman of the Building Research Committee in 1945 was Vice-Chairman of the National House Builders' Registration Council, and Chairman of the Specifications Committee; he was a member of the Council of the Institute of Building. He was created CBE in 1951 and was knighted in 1959.
His wife died in 1972.
Sir Maurice Laing, who died on February 22 aged 90, was chairman of John Laing plc, the construction group that built the M1 motorway; he was also the first president of the Confederation of British Industry.
The Laing family business traced its origins to 1848, when James Laing, Maurice's great-grandfather, built his first house on a £30 plot of land in Cumberland. It was Maurice's father John, a business autocrat and a devout member of the Christian Brethren, who built the firm into a more substantial enterprise, moving its headquarters from Carlisle to Mill Hill in north London in 1922.
Maurice and his elder brother Kirby took over day-to-day running of the business in the early 1950s, when the firm was playing a major role in the rebuilding of Britain's much-damaged housing stock.
Maurice - a man of high integrity and quietly expressed but passionate, and sometimes unconventional, beliefs - led the domestic side of the business, while Kirby led its international expansion.
Laing was originally invited to bid only for the construction of one short section of the proposed London to Yorkshire motorway that became the M1. Instead the firm bid for, and won, the whole stretch from Slip End near Luton (Junction 10), where the project was inaugurated in March 1958, to Rugby (Junction 18).
It was the most ambitious highway project ever attempted in Britain, but despite bad weather in the early stages the 5,000-strong workforce advanced by an average of a mile every eight days. The road was completed on time at the budgeted cost of £16.5 million, and was officially opened on November 2 1959.
Other notable Laing contracts of Maurice's era ranged from Coventry cathedral to the Regent's Park mosque. Maurice was deputy chairman of the group from 1966, and succeeded Kirby as chairman from 1976 to 1982.
He had begun to develop a public profile as far back as the early 1960s, however, when he served on a number of trade missions and public committees, and became president of the British Employers' Confederation.
In 1965 the BEC merged with the Federation of British Industries and the National Association of British Manufacturers to form the CBI as a single representative voice by which employers (initially there were 13,000 member companies) could respond both to Harold Wilson's Labour government and to the growing power of the TUC.
Chosen as the CBI's first president, Laing struck a sympathetic tone towards shopfloor workers, urging his members to treat them as "human beings and not just resources"; but in his presidential address he condemned the 1966 seamen's strike and other disputes, saying they made Britain seem "hell-bent on industrial suicide".
John Maurice Laing was born at Carlisle on February 1 1918. He was educated with his elder brother Kirby at St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, which he disliked. His father having declared that he could afford to send only his elder son to university, Maurice started work in 1935 as a costing clerk on a building site.
Within two years he was managing small projects, and in 1939 he became a director of the company and was put in charge of building barrage-balloon stations for the RAF.
Fascinated from childhood by aeroplanes, he conceived an ambition to join the RAF; but his father, with whom Maurice had a turbulent relationship, was determined he should stay to take charge of building airfields - of which the firm built 54 in the course of the war.
In 1941 Maurice was accepted into the RAF, but his father immediately demanded that the Air Ministry should eject him. In the ferocious row that followed Maurice declared he would rather go to prison if he was not allowed to join the war effort. He eventually qualified as a pilot and was seconded to the Glider Pilot Regiment for the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945.
As soon as the war ended, Maurice returned to work for his formidable father, who remained president of the company until his death, aged 99, in 1978.
During Maurice's chairmanship of John Laing, its property interests were demerged into a separate company, Laing Properties, which to his great displeasure later fell to a hostile takeover bid from P&O. After Kirby's son Sir Martin Laing took the helm of the construction business in the mid-1980s, Maurice became its life president.
He was also a member of the court of the Bank of England from 1963 to 1980, and a governor of both the Administrative Staff College and the National Institute of Social and Economic Research.
As president of the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors in 1978, at a time when he was much agitated by the potential threat of nationalisation in his industry, he declared that Britain had become a "switched-off, no-reward" society: "We do indeed have what the continentals call the English Sickness."
In middle age Laing took up sailing as a serious hobby and became a well-known offshore racer, notably in his yacht Loujane, which regularly beat Edward Heath's Morning Cloud in the 1970s; he was a frequent competitor in the Fastnet race and sat on the committee of inquiry into the catastrophe of the 1979 race in which 24 yachts and 15 lives were lost.
He was rear-commodore and trustee of the Royal Yacht Squadron, president of the Royal Yachting Association, and admiral of both the Royal Ocean Racing Club and the Island Sailing Club at Cowes.
Maurice Laing inherited from his father a belief in philanthropic duty. He gave £1 million to the Cowes Town Waterfront Trust in 1993 to restore the marina; the events centre there is named after him. Reflecting another of his passions, he also funded a chair of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter. Latterly his family trusts gave extensive support to environmental and medical projects in the Third World.
A devout Christian, he was president of the London Bible College, as his father had been.
Maurice Laing married Hilda Richards in 1940; they had a son.
Sir Maurice Laing rose through the ranks of what is now the Laing Group of Companies and, after his father’s retirement, worked with his brother to continue to expand the business and turn Laing into a household name. The company constructed houses, 53 miles of the M1 and the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park, as well as numerous bridges, balloon barrage stations and RAF bases.
Laing was a determined character, a Conservative who was worried by Labour government but who spoke in favour of employee rights. As well as from the company, he was heavily involved in industry regulation, becoming the first president of the Confederation of British Industry (1965-66).
John Maurice Laing, the younger son of Sir John Laing, was born in 1918 in Carlisle, where his father had taken over the family firm of builders, John Laing & Sons. Like his elder brother, Sir William Kirby Laing, he was marked out for the construction industry, encouraged by his father to visit the firm’s building contracts in school holidays. In 1926 the firm moved to Mill Hill in North London, and Laing attended St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, before joining the business as a trainee in 1935, aged 17.
He was, however, desperate to serve in the RAF for military service. He managed, despite imperfect eyesight, his father’s disapproval and the illness of his wife, Hilda, whom he had married in 1940. Laing returned to the firm in 1945 to devote his attention to the civil engineering work. He interested himself in ventures overseas and developed an understanding of the principles of economics and management, which resulted in him becoming a director of the Bank of England in 1963. Trade missions to the Middle East in 1953 were followed two years later by similar visits to Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia. This work led to his appointment in 1956 to the Board of Trade Advisory Council on Overseas Construction and to the Export Group for the Constructional Industries, of which latter body he was chairman in 1957-59 and later president.
For some years from 1959 he was on the Minister of Works’ national consultative council, and was a member of the National Economic Development Council from 1962 until 1966.
He was chairman of the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors; and he was the last president (1964) of the British Employers’ Federation and the first to hold that office with its successor, the CBI, in 1965. He was an advocate of the value of self-generated effort in national economic welfare. Speaking at a Chartered Institute of Building conference in 1976 in favour of setting initiative and imagination to work again, and against the mooted extension of direct-labour departments, he advised the minister present that if he wished to nationalise anything more, to nationalise crime “because we all want to make sure that that doesn’t pay”.
Within the firm, Laing became second-in-command and in 1976, by arrangement, he changed places with his brother, Kirby, as chairman of the Laing Group, serving until 1982 when he was appointed life president.
He was knighted in 1965 after the completion of the first motorway in Britain, the M1, the construction of which had been organised by his firm.
Shrewd, enterprising and generous, Laing made an exceptional contribution to State and industry. As a past chairman of the civil engineering contractors, he played an important part in the early 1970s, with his brother, as chairman of the National Joint Council for the Building Industry, in bringing together under one hat as the Building and Civil Engineering Joint Board, the rival unions representing the building and the civil engineering operatives, and so ending a history of leapfrogging of wage rates.
He is survived by his wife and son.
Sir Maurice Laing, industrialist, was born on February 1, 1918. He died on February 22, 2008, aged 90.
Peter Harper, chairman, Maurice and Hilda Laing Charitable Trust, writes:
Maurice Laing's generosity was legendary (obituary, Feb 29). He set up and endowed various charitable foundations, including the Rufford Laing Foundation and the Maurice and Hilda Laing Charitable Trust, the latter particularly supporting the relief of poverty and the spread of the Christian religion.
Modesty was Maurice's overriding characteristic. Seldom speaking of his wartime experiences, he should be remembered for his bravery in the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945. Having crash-landed the glider he was piloting he came under heavy fire from German strong points. He and his co-pilot then became infantry soldiers, firing Piat rockets to knock out the machine guns pinning down his crew.
The Duke of Edinburgh was represented by Lord Illiffe and the Princess Royal by Miss Victoria Legge-Bourke at a service of thanksgiving to celebrate the life and work of Sir Maurice Laing, held on May 22 at St Clement Danes Church, Strand, London.
Prince Michael of Kent attended.
The Rev Richard Lee, resident chaplain, officiated and read the bidding prayer, assisted by the Rev Christopher Huitson, vicar of St Andrew’s Parish Church, Totteridge.
Sir Martin Laing, Mr Donald Parr and Dr Peter Cotterell read the lessons.
The Right Rev Lord Carey of Clifton gave the address.
Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, chairman of trustees, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Fund, Mr Peter Harper, chairman of trustees, Maurice and Hilda Laing Charitable Trust, and Mr Stanley Malone paid tribute.
During the service Mr Felix Schmidt, cello, performed Bach’s Prelude in G major.
Among others present were: Lady Laing (widow), Mr John Laing (son), Lady Isobel Laing (sister-in-law), Lady Laing, Mr and Mrs Christopher Laing, Mr and Mrs David Laing, Mr and Mrs Charlie Laing, Mr Tom Laing, Mr Ben Laing, Mr and Mrs James Laing, Mr and Mrs Michael Laing with other members of the family.
Lady Griffiths of Fforestfach, Lord Kingsland, QC, Lord Judd, Lord and Lady Amherst of Hackney, Sir Timothy and Lady Sainsbury, Sir Graham Wilkinson, Sir William and Lady McAlpine, Sir James Watt, Sir Robert Balchin, Sir Timothy Bevan, Sir Ewan and Lady Harper, Sir John James, Mrs Christopher Huitson, Mrs Donald Parr, Mrs Felix Schmidt, Lieutenant Colonel D J Minords, Canon and Mrs Michael Cole, the Rev Michael Shaw, Mr Terry Kenny, Councillor John Marshall, Councillor Brian Coleman, Colonel A. R. E. Singer, Commodore P. C. Wykeham-Martin, Mr Ramsay Shewell-Cooper, Mr Ian E. Wilson, Mr Robert Rae, Mr Leo de Rothschild, Mr David B. B. Cheverton, together with many other friends and former colleagues.
With projects such as the second Severn Bridge and the M40 Motorway under its belt, John Laing specialises in privately financed infrastructure projects, having sold its housebuilding and construction contracting arms early in the decade. Its projects include schools, roads, hospitals and train stations. In December 2006, chief executive Adrian Ewer led a £1.1 billion buyout of the London-based business, bringing it under the ownership of funds managed by Henderson Equity Partners. Sales in 2007 were £639 million, including joint ventures.
Activity: Infrastructure project manager
Location of headquarters: Central London
Financial year end: December 2007
Previous sales: £600m
Main shareholders: Funds managed by Henderson Equity Partners
Kirby Laing took over the running of the Laing Group, the construction and engineering company, from his father, Sir John, in 1957. With his brother Maurice (obituary, February 28, 2008), they continued the family business which was first established in 1848. They expanded its construction of property, power stations, roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects, making it one of Britain’s best-known construction companies. Under his leadership the company built the M1 and the Bullring shopping complex in Birmingham.
Laing stepped aside as chairman to let his brother take over in 1976, becoming deputy-chairman and then chairman of Laing Properties, which was demerged from the group in 1978. Laing’s son, Martin, later took over the running of the group from Sir Maurice Laing.
Laing Properties prospered under Laing, amassing assets of about £1 billion before being taken over by P&O and Elliott Bernerd’s company Chelsfield.
Laing fiercely resisted the takeover but was ultimately unsuccessful. However, the move soon proved to be felicitous as it turned out the company had been bought at the top of the market. The proceeds from that takeover were put into a new company, Eskmuir Properties, which invested in industrial property. The company, which had nearly £300 million in assets, was floated in 1998 but control fell back into the Laing family’s hands after a management buyout in 2000.
A quiet, patient man, Laing continued his father’s efforts in offering generous benefits to staff and devoting much of his time to the Church and to charities. He set up his own charity, the Kirby Laing Foundation, providing funding to charitable causes, and became president of the Albert Hall’s governing council.
Despite being more softly-spoken than his brother, Laing could be outspoken in his criticism of government policy, particularly in his role as president of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers.
Born in 1916 in Carlisle into a Border family which maintained firm religious principles, William Kirby Laing was destined to follow his father into building and construction in London. As small boys in Carlisle, Laing and his younger brother Maurice were encouraged by their father to visit construction sites with him and to get to know as many of the site team as they could, picking up on the way an understanding of the essentials of good building.
After school at St Lawrence College, Ramsgate (where he joined the Crusaders Union and so began an active participation in forms of Christian fellowship), Laing proceeded to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, which he left with an engineering degree in 1937 to enter the family business as a trainee.
He had joined the Territorial Army (RE) and was called up just before the outbreak of war in 1939. Temporarily released to work with his company on barrage balloon stations, aerodromes and temporary military hospitals, he was recalled in 1943 and served out the war with the Royal Engineers in France and Italy.
He subsequently rejoined the company on the property development side, his brother having responsibility for building. In 1946, with his father Sir John, Laing visited southern Africa and that visit resulted in the establishment of a business in what was then the Union of South Africa, in association with the Roberts Construction group. It was this development which in 1949 took Laing (by then managing director of Laing Properties) to Johannesburg as the parent board’s representative. In 1951 he returned to London, engaging in development of commercial buildings, factories and housing. He was appointed chairman of the Laing Group in 1957, in which year his father, then 75, became life president, his brother Maurice becoming deputy-chairman.
Laing was knighted in 1968 for services to the construction industry. He continued to work in the field of technical training and apprenticeship begun by his father, which earned the group its reputation for good craftsmanship — and of which their building of Coventry Cathedral to Sir Basil Spence’s designs is but one example.
Laing also established the annual Laing painting award — open to amateurs as well as professionals — which followed his commissioning of a series of important paintings of building work under construction.
In the field of industrial relations Laing brought his company’s reputation for fair dealing to bear in his chairmanship from 1968 to 74 of the National Joint Council, a vital but frustrating job which involved much mediation between different unions but in which the patience and tenacity, born of a Border upbringing, enabled him to achieve much success.
At that time the Civil Engineering Federation (in which his brother was among the leaders) was in separate negotiation with the same unions, leapfrogging of wage rates being a not unpredictable result. Largely as a result of his work, the present Building and Civil Engineering Joint Board came into being and a closer integration of views was to follow. This was something which Laing regarded as one of his more important achievements.
Laing served his industry in other ways, as president in 1958 of the London Master Builders Association and as president of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers in 1965 and again for a period in 1967-68. For some years he was on the council of the Institution of Civil Engineers whose president he became in 1973. He was a Fellow of the Institute of Building.
No reference to Laing’s life would be complete without mention of the Christian home influence in his early years — an influence that was to set the pattern of his convictions for the rest of his life. He was a steadfast but unostentatious supporter of evangelical Christian causes, educational charities and medical research.
Laing was elected to honorary membership of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1975 and elected to the Fellowship of Engineering in 1977. He was a governor of his former school, St Lawrence College, and of the Polytechnic of Central London, as well as being a council member of the Albert Hall — he was president of the council from 1979 to 1992.
He was JP for the Middlesex area of Greater London. He was appointed Deputy-Lieutenant for Greater London from 1978 to 1991.
Laing’s first wife predeceased him, and he is survived by his second wife, Isobel, and his three sons.
Sir Kirby Laing, industrialist, was born on July 21, 1916. He died on April 12, 2009, aged 92
LAING Hilda Violet, widow of Maurice, died peacefully at her home in Totteridge on 20th May 2010 aged 91 years. Funeral Service took place at St Andrew's Church on Thursday 27th May 2010. Should you wish to make a donation in her memory, please forward your cheques to "Maurice & Hilda Laing Charitable Trust" Donations will be passed to the Bombay Teen Challenge, helping the street children of Mumbai in India - a favourite charity of Hilda's.