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Sir Roger Gibbs obituary

Financier who liked a flutter and transformed the Wellcome Trust

Early in Roger Gibbs’s City career, there was one moment that foreshadowed a much greater one. The first put a small City discount house on a stable footing; the second could reasonably be argued to have saved thousands of lives.
In the early Sixties Gibbs was taken on by Dick Jessel, a director of Jessel Toynbee who owed Gibbs’s father a favour. By his own account, Roger was not an especially bright young man, but he had a flair for mental arithmetic. He also had a taste for gambling, which he developed at Eton betting on the horses via post.
After running the byways of the City as a messenger for Jessel’s little firm — coming to know, he would later say, “every alleyway in the Square Mile intimately”, the characters and the smells of each bank — he was made a director at the age of 26.
At the time, the biggest bank in the country was Midland, and most of his fellow directors wanted to concentrate their time and effort cultivating relations with the bank. Gibbs, however, wanted to “spread the net”, as he put it, and build up a client base with many smaller international banks. He had a gambler’s horror of putting all the money on the same horse.
A quarter of a century later, on the board of the Wellcome Trust, he did something similar. At the time the Trust was the sole shareholder in the Wellcome Foundation pharmaceutical company, bequeathed to the charitable foundation in 1936 by its founder, Sir Henry Wellcome. Gibbs worried that the trust’s eggs were in one basket and, in the words of Sir David Steel, who had persuaded him to become a trustee, it wasn’t a good idea, “notwithstanding the excellent quality of the basket”.
In the face of stiff opposition from the rest of the board and from the foundation itself, Gibbs pushed the Wellcome Foundation into a partial flotation on the stock market, then used the proceeds to diversify its own investment. It was a huge — and perhaps courageous — gamble, but it paid off. When he joined the board in 1983 the trust’s assets were worth £250 million (about £850 million today). By the time he stepped down in 1999 (after being appointed chairman in 1990), the trust was worth £14 billion — and was spending hundreds of millions a year funding research.
Roger Geoffrey Gibbs was born in Hertfordshire in 1934, the son of Geoffrey Gibbs, a banker, and his wife, Helen. The family was influential and wealthy. His father ran Antony Gibbs & Sons, the bank set up in 1808 by Roger’s great-grandfather that helped to finance the Great Western Railway. His uncle Humphrey was the governor of Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe.
The fourth of six children, five of them boys, Roger was educated, as were all his brothers, his father and his grandfather, at Eton and later went on to Millfield in Somerset. The family grew up in grand style, living in large houses outside Hatfield and Oxford. His brothers David and Julian followed their father into banking; Stephen joined a City public relations firm; Elizabeth became a full-time mother; and Christopher was an antiques dealer and one of the most famous dandies of London’s Swinging Sixties. Some said that Christopher (obituary, July 31, 2018) was the first man to wear flared trousers.
Roger never shone at school, or so he said; he had a pronounced tendency to be self-deprecating, but barely scraped through the Eton exam. He was also more interested in games, but he was a small, slight child, so he never excelled at them either, at least until later in life.
On his 17th birthday he was still just 5ft 6in, but by his 19th he had shot up to a gangly 6ft 3in. He weighed just 9st 7lb and this would remain the case for some years. In his mid-twenties, he would carry his top hat under his arm rather than place it on his head when visiting banks. “I looked like a lamppost anyway,” he said. “To have the top hat on top was almost too much to bear.”
After school he went straight into the City, having failed his medical for National Service. At first, he didn’t seem to be much good in the City either. Two years after he was made a director, the Jessel Toynbee board wanted to get rid of him. He understood their attitude to be: “This chap Gibbs, you know, he’s very nice but he’s absolutely hopeless.”
Jessel was adamant that Gibbs would eventually succeed because of his intuitive understanding of numbers and gambling. He was still betting smallish sums on the dogs from the £25 (about £850 today) that he received every month as a salary after tax.
Jessel never really got to find out if he was right. In 1964, after ten years with the firm, Gibbs was offered a job at the stockbroker De Zoete & Gorton and told he could make partner within two years. Against the wishes of his father, who found stockbroking vaguely disreputable, he took on the new role.
It was at this time that Gibbs made what he would later describe as the best deal he ever made — and De Zoete & Gorton did not make a penny out of it. A favourite restaurant, Wolfe’s on Abingdon Road in Kensington, west London, was closing; he had been exceptionally fond of its filet au poivre, but especially of its fine claret. A note had come through his door saying that from 9am the next day they were selling everything in the wine cellar. At 8:50am he dialled the number, let it ring, and at 9am sharp it was answered. “I’m ringing up regarding the claret and the burgundy,” he said. “Which bottles?” asked the restaurateur. “All of them,” came the reply. Gibbs bought £660 of red wine (about £13,500 today) and with Peter Hill-Wood, who was later chairman of Arsenal football club, made two car journeys to take it home. “There were five bottles of Chateau Batailley ’55,” he recalled. “You couldn’t possibly drink anything more delicious.” Gibbs would go on to join Hill-Wood on the Arsenal board.
Among his close friends was the disgraced aristocrat Lord Lucan, a school friend from Eton. Lucan borrowed £1,000 from Gibbs at one point. Gibbs believed that Lucan, who disappeared in 1974 after allegedly killing the family nanny, had jumped off a ferry with weights in his pockets.
After seven years at De Zoete Gibbs was headhunted again, this time by the firm Gerrard & National. He took a 75 per cent pay cut on the understanding that, if things went well, he might be made chairman within two years. As de facto chief executive he steered the company through the choppy waters of the Seventies; it became the largest discount house in Britain. He took over as chairman on January 1, 1975.
Pale and jaded, he had seemed unwell for a while at this point in his life. By March he was in hospital having an operation to remove a tumour after a haemorrhage. The deterioration in his health led him into charity work. He made a full recovery — he was well enough to run the London Marathon in 1982, raising money for Guy’s Hospital. This led to more involvement with Guy’s, the London Clinic and Imperial Cancer Research. He was then dragooned into being a trustee of the Wellcome Trust.
An unfailingly courteous man, Gibbs had an ability to laugh at himself that is rare among City grandees. He pursued a keen interest in sport. He was a solid tennis player and cricketer, but he chose niche sports to excel at them: he became a very good real tennis player, and after being taken to St Moritz by Lord Lucan in 1959 he began tobogganing on the Cresta Run, destroying his knee in an accident there in 1965.
He was a workaholic who lived alone for most of his life and would drive for miles on foreign holidays to get a copy of the Financial Times — but at the age of 70 he finally married. His wife was Jane Lee, an old friend.
Under his stewardship, the Wellcome Trust became the biggest charitable foundation in the world, and remains the second largest; its funding led to breakthroughs in vaccines for ebola, treatments for malaria and research on the human genome. In 2004 its headquarters in London were named the Gibbs Building in his honour.

Sir Roger Gibbs, businessman and philanthropist, was born on October 13, 1934. He died of multiple causes on October 3, 2018, aged 83



Sir Roger Gibbs obituary




Owner/SourceThe Times
Date6 Oct 2018
Linked toRoger Geoffrey Gibbs

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