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Family history - Norman Gordon Edward Dunlop

Gordon Dunlop c. The Times'Aunt May' occasionally visited when we were children. We did not know it then, but her parents and husband had died, and she had a son named Gordon; later we learnt that another Aunt had thought Gordon a handsome young man.

We knew little about Gordon until coming across his obituary, many years later, which was published in The Times (London, England) on September 5th 1995.

Photo opposite: Gordon Dunlop



Family memorial

John Peter Cowan Dunlop (cousin)

Robert Nish Dunlop (uncle)


Here is a transcription of Gordon's obituary (ref 1):

Gordon Dunlop, CBE, finance director of British Airways, 1983 1989, died from an aneurysm of the aorta on August 31st aged 67. He was born on April 16, 1928.

Gordon Dunlop was appointed chief financial officer at British Airways by Sir John (later Lord) King in 1982 and finance director the following year. His brief was to turn the debt-laden company around during the run up to privatisation, and to see it through its flotation on the stock market.

Dunlop was a straight-talking Scotsman, and he had the courage to take some uncomfortable but, with hindsight, necessary decisions. He transformed the balance sheet, during his six years with the company, from being laden with 1 billion of debt to a much more fiscally respectable version.

On his arrival at British Airways, Dunlop pointed out that, had this been a private company, it would have already gone bust: "I regard my initial job as receiver-manager, working with people there to draw up a credible plan for the shareholders".

While he was expecting BA to announce losses of 200 million in the summer of 1982, he was optimistic, like Lord King, that the airline could eventually be restored to profitability. As he pointed out, BA was a solidly established airline, like Quantas and KLM, and could trade off the respectability of its name.

His appointment was a curiously apt conclusion to a career which had begun at the aircraft manufacturer De Havilland in 1956. Norman Edward Gordon Dunlop was born in Glasgow, the son of a chartered accountant. He was educated at Trinity College, Glenalmond, and trained as a chartered accountant with Thomson McLintock in Glasgow.

His first job was with De Havilland and later the Hawker Siddeley Group, after the merger of the two companies. In 1964 he joined Commercial Union, one of Britain's largest insurance groups, and took over from Francis (later Sir Francis) Sandilands as chief executive in 1972, when Sandilands became chairman.

It was a highly unusual appointment. When Sandilands had first gone headhunting for someone to take his place at Commercial Union, he stipulated that he wanted a man who was ignorant of insurance. Dunlop had not been wildly enthusiastic about the job when first approached he thought insurance was "too damned dull" but he capitulated. It was almost unheard of in those days in the insurance business for a man of 44 who had spent only eight years learning the ropes to be given such a promotion.

His five years there were bumpy ones for Commercial Union. Dunlop favoured an aggressive expansionist policy, particularly in American markets. Initially his ideas were accepted with uncritical enthusiasm but in 1975 there was a downturn in the insurance underwriting cycle, and the Commercial Union announced huge losses. The company staged a good recovery the following year, but Dunlop's star with Commercial Union was waning from that moment and, in June 1975, Dunlop announced that he was resigning after disagreements with the rest of the directors. Sandilands genuinely regretted his chief executive's departure, and it was a cruel blow for Dunlop, who was still comparatively young, and at the height of his career.

In 1979 he left for Singapore, where he became a financial director on the board of Inchape Berhad, but three years later, in 1982, he was recalled to Britain by King, who wanted him as his chief financial officer and his right hand man. Colin (later Sir Colin) Marshall became chief executive a year later in 1983.

King had been instructed by Margaret Thatcher to press ahead with privatisation, and Dunlop developed an imaginative set of strategies to manage BA's debt, and to bring it into line for flotation on the stock market. His success was made all the more remarkable, considering that he received no financial help from the government.

A tough policy of rationalisation with many job losses was adopted and certain assets were sold off for cash, including aircraft to the RAF. The airline's hopes that the Government would write off part of the debt involved Dunlop in lengthy and ultimately frustrating negotiations with the treasury.

He initiated other policies, such as revaluing the airline's fleet, and devising a method of funding the purchase of aircraft by the use of long term leases, a method which effectively kept the costs off the balance sheet, and allowed BA to develop its future fleet plans while keeping within borrowing requirements laid down by the Government. He dealt skilfully with the implications of the acquisition of British Caledonian in 1987.

The mid to late 1980s were a boom period for the airlines all over the world, and by the time privatisation took place in 1987, BA was making a profit. Even though it still had debts on the balance sheet, the privatisation was more successful than anyone could have foreseen, with heavy demand for the shares from the British public.

Dunlop's brief was an unusual one for a finance director. He had been brought in to get the airline sold and, with the job done, he announced his early retirement in 1988. He left in 1989, the same year that he was appointed CBE. Now in his early sixties, Dunlop looked around for some suitably challenging post. However, while he went on to sit on the council of Lloyd's and on several other company boards as a non-executive director, he never found another job commensurate with his abilities.

He was in good health until only last week, despite the fact that he had been a heavy smoker throughout his life. He enjoyed finding ways around the restrictions placed on smokers by an increasingly censorious society. For instance on internal flights in Britain where smoking was banned, he would tell the stewardess that he was going to visit the pilot and would sit on the flightdeck for the remainder of the flight, smoking in peace.

He leaves his wife Jean, whom he married in 1952, a son and a daughter.

Chartered accountant Gordon Dunlop CBE (1928 - 1995) was the son of Ross Munn Dunlop (1886 - 1947) and May Finlay Howell (1902 - 1980).

Family memorial

In Cathcart cemetery, Glasgow, is a small memorial to members of Gordon's family (ref 2). It lists,

Peter Dunlop, died 1894, Gordon's grandfather, who was a baker

Helen MacIntyre, died 1923, Gordon's grandmother

Robert Nish Dunlop, killed in action at Ypres, Gordon's uncle

Louis Benjamin West MC, died 1940, husband of Gordon's aunt Bessie

Ross Munn Dunlop, died 1947, Gordon's father, who was a chartered accountant

May Finlay Howell, died 1980, Gordon's mother, who we knew as 'Aunt May'

John Peter Cowan Dunlop (cousin)

Not recorded on the memorial is Gordon's uncle, farmer, John Brownlee Dunlop who emigrated from Scotland to Canada where he married Jean Barbour Cowan at Winnipeg in 1914. Their son John Peter Cowan Dunlop (1915 - 2006) was another notable member of the family. He is said to have had communist leanings and served with the British Battalion, 15th International Brigade, 1937 - 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, when he was twice wounded. His memories have been recorded by the Imperial War Museum.

Only days before finding this out, we had attended a U3A lecture on General Franco and the Spanish Civil War, given by historian Brian Chesney; we had not previously realised that so many atrocities had been committed over many decades. A black period of Spanish history!

 John later was to confirm the death of his Aunt Bessie, Elizabeth Helen Fraser West, or Dunlop, who died at George Street, Glasgow, in 1963 (ref 3).

John Peter Cowan Dunlop, who had trained as an accountant, returned to Edinburgh where he set up a printing business. He died at Edinburgh in 2006.

Robert Nish Dunlop (uncle)

Gordon would not have known his uncle Robert who was a casualty of the Great War.

The body of Lance Corporal Robert Nish Dunlop 33174 Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) 10th Bn was never found, but his death is recorded as 1st August 1917.

His name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial which lists the missing, and also on the lengthy 'Roll of the Fallen' at The High School Glasgow, the inscription of which begins:


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  1. The Times Digital Archive, obituaries, September 5th 1995
  2. Findagrave website
  3. National Probate Calendar
  4. The High School Glasgow website