May 2017
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Sir John Anthony Swire CBE (1927-2016)

Sir John Swire  (1927-2016)

Sir John Swire, Chairman of John Swire & Sons Limited from 1966 until 1987, died at his home in the UK on 28th November 2016.

A service of thanksgiving for his life was held in Canterbury Cathedral on 20th February 2017; it was attended by over 600 people, among them nearly 200 past and present employees of Swire group companies.

John Anthony Swire, the elder son of Jock Swire, joined Butterfield & Swire (as it was then) in 1950. He was posted to Hong Kong, to Japan, to Australia and back to Hong Kong – a period of his life that was the source of many of his considerable store of affectionate anecdotes. On his return to London (towards the end of the decade), he took over responsibility for the recruitment and training of the House Staff. He dedicated himself to this role and most successfully built on the foundations laid by his father to ensure that the hallmark of his own subsequent Chairmanship was an explicit and credible company commitment to recognition and care for individual managers and their families, to career development and training and to deepening ties with the communities of which Swire operations formed part.


At the Taikoo Dockyard Chinese Welfare Centre in the 1950s.

At the Taikoo Dockyard Chinese Welfare Centre in the 1950s.

At Butterfield & Swire's centenary party in Hong Kong in 1967: John Browne OBE, John Swire and his father John (Jock) Swire.

At Butterfield & Swire's centenary party in Hong Kong in 1967: John Browne OBE, John Swire and his father John (Jock) Swire.

Through his membership of the Oxford University Appointments Board, and the INSEAD Euro-Asia Advisory Board, John Swire was able to ensure that the company had access to best practice; more importantly, he personally interviewed all House Staff candidates for 30 years, and chaired the annual staff conference in Hong Kong. His overseas visits represented a rare exception to the popular conception of dread of the arrival of the Man from Head Office: he was an excellent raconteur, but also a good listener, with an excellent memory for family details and the occasional eccentricities of Swire staff.

John Swire also laid, and then built on, the foundations of an active approach to environmental responsibility well before this became best corporate practice elsewhere. A knowledgeable bird-watcher and expert fly fisherman, he developed a deep personal commitment to species protection; this was most visibly evident in the establishment of the Hong Kong University's Swire Institute of Marine Science and the early use of environmentally sensitive farming practices on Clyde Agriculture's red dirt properties, an Australian investment in which he took particular interest.

John Swire became Chairman of JS&S in 1966 and with his brother Adrian led the firm for two decades. In expressing the division of roles between the two brothers it may be simplistic to suggest that John concentrated on the People and Adrian on the Businesses but, bearing in mind that they worked very closely together and regarded the People and the Businesses as of equal but different importance, this may be the fairest summary of a rare partnership. (Although, as an exception perhaps, John Swire was a long-standing Chairman of the Hong Kong Association in the UK). As the Hong Kong-based businesses expanded exponentially in both size and diversity throughout this period, and with the listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange of Swire Pacific (1959), HAECO (1965) and Cathay Pacific (1986), the brothers engineered a gradual shift in the London role from the traditional all-seeing proprietorial function to one consonant with both contemporary governance and with the practical challenges of managing increased size and variety at great distance. This entailed, inter alia, an enhancement in the role of the Hong Kong Chairman, or Taipan, and his executive office and, naturally, in due course of the public company boards.

At the observation hide donated by Swire to the Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong.

At the observation hide donated by Swire to the Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong.

Proposing a toast to the guests at the opening reception for John Swire & Sons' Beijing office in 1984.

Proposing a toast to the guests at the opening reception for John Swire & Sons' Beijing office in 1984.

At the opening ceremony of the Swire Institute of Marine Science in November 1990.

At the opening ceremony of the Swire Institute of Marine Science in November 1990.

During the two decades of John Swire's Chairmanship, Taikoo went through an era of great change, more or less in parallel with Hong Kong's emergence as a great entrepot and maritime centre and its rapid evolution through the 'Tiger' stage of light industrial prowess. John Swire presided over this with care, great enthusiasm and admirable sang-froid during periods of tougher going. In 1987 he handed over the Chair to his younger brother, Adrian, but remained an active member of the Board until 1997, when, with the prospect of his sons John (known as Jonathan) and Barnaby becoming respectively Non-executive and Executive Directors, he became Life President.

Sir Adrian Swire writes, "Not wanting to expand on the obituary, I should just like to reiterate that throughout John Swire's long working life he dedicated himself unreservedly to the welfare of the Swire group. In his role as Chairman, he set standards of the highest integrity and his consistent concern for all those working in the firm was paramount. In short he was a great and consistent leader over several decades and his very high moral standards imbued the behaviour of the staff giving the firm its distinct ethos. An apt comment about John was made to me that his was 'a life of achievement, service, humility and decency'. As his brother and business partner I cannot better that short description." 

(This account of Sir John Swire's life in and contribution to JS&S was first published in 2016, and is re-printed here in mildly edited form. It was written by former JS&S Chairman, James Hughes-Hallett.)

SwireNews 2017 May Issue
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