John Gardiner, journalist and businessman

Sir Geoffrey Owen, Visiting Professor in Practice in the Department of Management remembers alumnus John Gardiner, 1936-2023

Gardiner had the natural scepticism of the good journalist but a real interest in how business worked.

Sir Geoffrey Owen

John Gardiner in the 1980s wearing a black suit and a red tie

We are sad to record the death of John Gardiner (BSc Econ 1957), an LSE alumnus who had a successful career as a financial journalist and business leader. He died on 18 November 2023 at the age of 87.

Gardiner was educated at Shoreham Grammar School in Sussex and then at Brighton Technical College, where he took a new course in economics supplied by the LSE. After two years this course was shut down, and he transferred to the LSE in London for his final year – an expensive choice which put some strain on his parents’ finances. He graduated in 1957 with a BSc Econ degree. With introductions from the LSE he was interviewed at several City institutions before joining the Prudential as an economist. 

Economics was his starting point, and a source of strength as his career developed, but he was never a professional economist, and he did not put much faith in economists’ predictions. His abiding interest was in business, and above all in why companies rise and fall. 

His analytical skills were honed when he moved from the Prudential to the Financial Times in 1960. He was soon appointed to the Lex column, which, then as now, provided short but well informed and often acerbic comments on company results. Together with his close colleague, James Joll, Gardiner made Lex a hugely influential voice in the financial community. He had the natural scepticism of the good journalist but a real interest in how companies worked. He was fearless in his analysis and in his cross questioning of the captains of British industry. City investors were expected to have read the column by the time they arrived at their desks in the morning. As a strong independent commentator, Lex could also have a decisive impact in a contested takeover bid — another reason for company bosses to treat it with nervous respect. 

In 1968, Gardiner left the FT to join the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC). This agency had been set up by the Labour government to promote mergers in fragmented industries, but it was also used to rescue important companies that were in danger of financial collapse. One such case, in which Gardiner played a leading part, was Cammell Laird, which owned a shipyard in Birkenhead as well as a string of engineering businesses. At the end of 1969, this company was facing a financial crisis as a result of losses on the shipbuilding side, and the government asked the IRC to investigate. Out of the negotiations that followed the non-shipbuilding businesses were put into a new company, the Laird Group, of which Gardiner was made chief executive; he was then 34 and had no direct industrial experience. 

After taking control, Gardiner began to reshape the company, selling or closing activities that had no chance of making adequate profits and investing in areas where the prospects were better. This was a process which continued throughout Gardiner’s long tenure (1970-1997), with Laird moving in and out of a range of different businesses. Gardiner was sometimes criticised for not having a long-term strategy, but the divestments and acquisitions generally worked well; he regarded diversification as a source of strength. His focus on cash generation and profit kept Laird afloat during a difficult period for British industry.   

Gardiner was widely admired in the business community and much in demand as a non-executive director. He served on the board of numerous companies and was chairman of Tesco from 1997 to 2004. He also took on several public appointments, including the chairmanship of the School Teachers’ Pay Review Board, and of a government inquiry into prisons. He was chair of Brunel University Council from 1980 to 1984 and was instrumental in the establishment of the Brunel Science Park; a building at the university was named after him.  

Gardiner was a man of strong opinions, strongly expressed - perhaps a legacy from his time at the LSE – which made discussions with him on whatever subject always challenging and rewarding. Though not widely recognised, his contribution to public life, in industry and in other areas, was outstanding. Sir Graham Day, a Canadian lawyer who had worked closely with Gardiner during the Cammell Laird rescue (Day later became chairman of several British companies), has described him as the great unsung hero of British business. 

John Gardiner’s wife Celia, whom he married in 1961, predeceased him. He is survived by their three daughters. 

An obituary is published in the Financial Times.