Sir David John obituary

Bullish head of Premier Oil who accompanied three British prime ministers and negotiated with one military junta.

Resident of Eastleach, Gloucestershire.

First published, November 22 2019, 12:01am, The Times

In 1999 David John was appointed KCMG for services to UK interests overseas
In 1999 David John was appointed KCMG for services to UK interests overseas

When David John was effectively ordered to pull his Premier Oil company out of Burma, he negotiated with the generals in the military junta on equal terms, on what was known as a “gunner to gunner” basis. That was quite an achievement, considering that John’s military career amounted to no more than two years’ National Service as a 2nd lieutenant with the Royal Artillery.

Yet John rarely lacked self-confidence in a career that stretched from captaining his 1st XV school rugby team in Wales to chairing the Royal Society for Asian Affairs through one of its most difficult periods.

“David was a passionate Welshman who loved military history,” said Ron Aston, a colleague from those days. “He was very proud of the fact that Rangoon had effectively been built by the Royal Engineers, and that the Royal Welch Fusiliers had contributed to Brigadier Orde Wingate’s Chindits in the relief of what was then Burma in 1944.”

John chaired Premier at a delicate and sensitive time. At first, foreign investment in Burma was encouraged, then it flipped when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair came to power amid reports of human rights abuses, particularly involving Buddhists.

In August 2007 a fuel crisis led to the so-called Saffron Revolution by students and Buddhist monks protesting against the military government removing subsidies that doubled the price of petrol and increased the cost of gas by six times in a week. Although the demonstrations were non-violent, the government beat and arrested protesters, and some monks died.

While Britain and other countries imposed economic sanctions, the violence sparked protests against companies that were believed to support the regime. Demonstrators chained themselves to railings outside Premier’s annual shareholder meeting, and in the hall others waved £5 notes stained with fake blood.

Stocky, with a military bearing and a dry sense of humour, John tried to keep order without being able to say publicly the one thing that might have stilled the protests: that the company was quietly negotiating its exit from Burma. Premier sold its share of the business there to Petronas, the Malaysian state oil group, and John wisely ensured that the departure was performed with full ceremony. On the front lawn in front of Premier’s colonial-style office in Rangoon, he lowered the company flag and raised the Petronas one. “It was important that we exited well,” Aston said. Texaco, Premier’s predecessor, had not done so, and consequently had to pay a steep exit tax. Premier was spared that indignity.

When John stepped down in 2009, that marked the end of 13 years in which he had held directorships at BOC, the gas company, and Balfour Beatty, the construction and civil engineering company, alongside appointments at the Confederation of British Industry, the British Standards Institute (BSI), British Trade International and London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). Those bodies put him into overseas trade delegations with Blair, John Major and Gordon Brown as well as the royal family, and met Nelson Mandela.

“He ran trade associations alongside company directorships,” his son Ceri said, “because he felt they could benefit one another, improve cultural understanding and produce opportunities.”

In 1999 John was appointed KCMG for services to British interests overseas. The journey from his modest beginnings had been long.

David Glyndwr John was born in 1938 in a terraced house in Pontypridd, Mid Glamorgan, the only child of William and Marjorie (née Gaze). William was a businessman, with small enterprises including property and a fish and chip shop that Marjorie ran. They sent their son to board at Llandovery College, where he was head boy and captain of the first XV for three years, playing wing forward. Thanks to an inspirational teacher, his favourite subject at school was military history. However, the heavy industry still prevalent in Wales in the 1950s led him to read natural sciences and metallurgy at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he played lacrosse.

He later took an MBA at Columbia University, New York, and completed the international senior management programme at Harvard.

John had been called up for National Service in 1957 and went to Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot before being transferred to the Royal Artillery. On one of his visits home in full dress uniform he impressed a family friend, Gillian Edwards. They married in 1964, after he graduated, and had two children. Emma became a partner of Cazenove & Co, the stockbroker, while Ceri builds and operates hotels in Europe.

After a graduate trainee job at United Steel, John became a management consultant then marketing director with part of Rio Tinto, the mining company. He got his first taste of the exotic east when he joined the Redland building group and was put in charge of the waste disposal business in Bahrain.

Redland had joint operations in Hong Kong with Inchcape, then a far-flung trading business involved in cars, timber, business machines and insurance. John transferred to Inchcape and ran its part-owned Singapore subsidiary, Inchcape Berhad.

Ceri said: “I think I had one of the most privileged upbringings I could have imagined. Dad was a very big educationist. He would always make sure Emma and I had enough books, buying them for us all the time. We moved around with him, to Hong Kong, Bahrain and Singapore, while we boarded in England. We used to have a boat in the Middle East, and we took it on holidays to the Mediterranean.”

When the parent company decided to concentrate on the motor business, John, by then a main board director, became head of Inchcape Toyota.

“David and his right-hand guy in motors, Alan Tan, worked it as a relationship business,” Aston said. “That was David’s forte. They used to travel to Nagoya and get to know the Toyoda family. It was a juggling act between the Far East operations and the London head office, but David had a knack of developing relationships with people from the boardroom to the shop floor.”

Latterly he fell in love with opera, particularly Verdi and Puccini, and made up for years abroad when he had missed seeing his beloved Wales on the rugby field. His favourite meal out east was fish-head curry, and John liked nothing better than to meet his pals from those days to tuck into the excellent version of that dish at the Oriental Club near Oxford Street, London.

Sir David John, KCMG, businessman, was born on July 20, 1938. He died from complications of motor neurone disease on October 27, 2019, aged 81

steve clarke
Author: steve clarke