January 2019
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Sir Adrian Swire (1932-2018)

Sir Adrian Swire (1932-2018)

Sir Adrian Swire, who died on 24th August at the age of 86, was Chairman of the Swire group from 1987 to 1997, and then again from 2002 to 2005, following the sudden death of his successor, Edward Scott. His stewardship therefore encompassed a period of immense change and growth of the group's businesses, as well as the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. At a time when there was uncertainty about future trading conditions in Hong Kong after that date, Adrian was firmly convinced that Hong Kong would continue to flourish as a trading hub and gateway to the Mainland under Chinese rule. Under his leadership, the Swire group consistently demonstrated its commitment through major investment in its core Hong Kong businesses, especially property and aviation. He also played a crucial role, during numerous visits to Beijing through the 80s and 90s, in establishing strategic alliances with key organisations such as CITIC, so helping to safeguard the future of Swire's interests.

Adrian Christopher Swire was born in London in 1932, the second son of John ("Jock") Swire, who was Chairman of John Swire & Sons 1946-66, and great-great-grandson of John Swire (1793-1847), the merchant who founded the firm in Liverpool in 1816.

Adrian Swire grew up in rural Essex during the lean years of wartime rationing. He was educated at Eton and did National Service as a lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards, for whom he stood guard over the coffin of King George VI as it lay in state, as well as frequently participating in the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. After reading History at Oxford, he joined the family firm in 1956, being posted to Butterfield & Swire in Hong Kong.

Adrian's first management roles were with the China Navigation Company (CNCo) in Hong Kong and Japan, with a brief spell in Western Australia and Sydney. He took overall charge of shipping when he joined the Board of John Swire & Sons in London in 1961.

Adrian was thus closely involved in the development of the Pacific network that replaced CNCo's traditional China coast trades, and – on a wider scale – in the cargo-handling revolution then overtaking the global shipping industry. It was largely thanks to Adrian's initiative that CNCo would safely navigate this traumatic era, while many other shipping lines foundered under the enormous costs involved in containerisation.
In 1966, Jock Swire handed over the reins of John Swire & Sons to his two sons, John and Adrian, as respectively Chairman and Deputy Chairman. Theirs proved to be a harmonious and effective partnership, during a period of comprehensive restructuring that saw the emergence of the publicly quoted Swire Pacific as the holding company for the group's Hong Kong interests, the winding down of its traditional industrial businesses – sugar refining and dockyards – and the birth of its property division. This also included the expansion of its interests in markets and businesses outside the group's traditional base of Greater China, and the diversification of the shipping business into bulk carriers, cruising, tankers, and – in particular – offshore support services. He was therefore well qualified to serve as President of the General Council of British Shipping and subsequently as Chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping in the 1980s; he was knighted for services to shipping in 1982.

Climbing aboard Swire Pacific Offshore's 'Intersub One', 1970s.
Climbing aboard Swire Pacific Offshore's 'Intersub One', 1970s.

Though most of Adrian Swire's 'hands-on' experience was on the marine side, flying was his lifelong passion. He said his fascination with aircraft was inspired by watching the aerial dogfights of the Battle of Britain above the Essex countryside as an eight-year-old boy. He learned to fly at eighteen and held a private pilot's licence for close to 60 years. He flew with the university air squadron while at Oxford and enrolled with the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force soon after joining B&S. Much later, he purchased – and taught himself to fly – one of the few surviving World War II spitfires still in flying condition. The reason he loved flying, he said, was not only the thrill of it, but because the absolute concentration required made it a complete escape from work worries.

Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434, which Sir Adrian taught himself to fly in the late 1960s.

Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434, which Sir Adrian taught himself to fly in the late 1960s.

With the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, late 1950s.

With the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, late 1950s.

Welcoming Cathay Pacific's inaugural flight to London: Gatwick Airport, 17th July 1980.

Welcoming Cathay Pacific's inaugural flight to London: Gatwick Airport, 17th July 1980.
His love for the aviation industry was also evident in his lifelong commitment to Cathay Pacific, which his father Jock had bought in 1948. Adrian was on the Board of Cathay Pacific for 40 years, 1965-2005, and he was closely involved in the 1980s traffic rights battle that eventually won Cathay the London route – a watershed moment for the airline – as well as in the negotiations that secured Cathay's position as Hong Kong's international home-carrier post-1997. He later said that he regretted that he had never flown for Cathay as a pilot, though he helped fly "Betsy" – the original DC3 that founded the airline – back to Hong Kong from Australia in 1983.

Meeting with the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, 1980s.
Meeting with the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, 1980s.

Adrian's Chairmanship saw the re-establishment of the group's interests in Mainland China after an absence of more than 30 years, as the country began to open up in the late 70s and early 80s. This began with Coca-Cola bottling franchises and was followed by very significant investments in aircraft engineering and property development. He also followed the lead set by his brother John in urging an environmentally and socially responsible approach to operations group-wide.

In retirement, Adrian Swire became Honorary President of the group, "not interfering", as he liked to stress – though, like his father before him, he considered that a week without a visit to Swire's London office was a week wasted.

Outside of the business, he was an Elder Brother of Trinity House in London. He was Chairman of the RAF Benevolent Fund, a trustee of the RAF Museum, President of the Spitfire Society, and served as an Honorary Air Commodore in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force from 1987 to 2000. He was a Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford 1981-89 and Pro-Chancellor of Southampton University 1995-2004. He was a Deputy Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, a church warden, and a keen countryman.

The address at Adrian's funeral spoke of Adrian's generosity, his self-deprecation, his sense of fun, and most of all his unerring sense of right and wrong. Adrian's life was "the living embodiment" of the Swire family (and Swire group) motto Esse Quam Videri, which means to be, rather than to seem to be. For Adrian himself, it underlined his personal integrity, his modesty and his strong work ethic.

In 1970 he married Lady Judith Compton, who supported him wholeheartedly throughout his career. They had three children: Martha, who lives in England with her family; Merlin, who is Chairman of Swire Pacific in Hong Kong; and Sam, who is an Executive Director in the London office of John Swire & Sons. He had seven grandchildren to whom he was devoted, and they in turn to him.

He would no doubt have been thrilled that at his funeral on 18th September, the beloved spitfire he had once owned and flown flew overhead in tribute. Meanwhile, all over the world, the 128 vessels in the Swire fleet flew their flags at half-mast.
Swire News 2019 January Issue
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