McClelland, William Grigor
Businessman, Academic and Social Activist
Grigor McClelland was a man of exceptional talent who enjoyed a rich and varied career spanning the worlds of business, academia and the charitable sector. He was a compassionate Quaker and a social activist, who strove through his various endeavours and long-standing commitments to make the world a better place. He played a special role in the life of the North East over many decades.
Grigor was the son of Arthur and Jean McClelland. Arthur (1884-1966) had taken over a small chain of North East grocers and built up a successful retail enterprise, Laws, in which Grigor gained first-hand experience from an early age. He was educated at Quaker boarding school, Leighton Park, in Reading, where he was recognized as a brilliant scholar. As a committed pacifist, he served during World War II in various combat zones with the Friends Ambulance Service and afterwards spent time as a relief worker in Germany, helping found the Anglo-German Foundation as a vehicle for reconciliation. He resumed his education at Balliol College, Oxford, taking a first in philosophy, politics and economics.
It was on his return to Newcastle in 1949 that the characteristic interweaving of the various threads of his life's work began. As managing director of Laws, he was the major force behind the modernization of the business, establishing self-service supermarkets supported by advanced warehousing, stock control and distribution systems. At the same time, he remained involved in public affairs, travelling in Russia and China to promote the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. At home, he became a trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust in 1956, advocating causes for social justice based on exacting economic and social research. He served in this capacity until 1993, chairing the Trust board between 1965 and 1978.
Grigor’s academic career began in 1962 when he became a Fellow in Management Studies at Balliol College, Oxford, at a time when theory-informed management education in Britain was still in its infancy. His main academic contributions stem from this time, notably his books Studies in retailing (1963) and Costs and competition in retailing (1966). In 1963 he founded what is now one of the world’s leading management journals, the Journal of Management Studies. Two years later he became the founding director of the Manchester Business School (MBS). Over the next 12 years, he shaped management education for future generations by insisting that effective management involved more than the application of expert knowledge, but also ethical judgement and the exercise of corporate responsibility. He wrote these words of wisdom in 1976:
“Compassion, to be effective, requires detailed knowledge and understanding of how society works. Any social system, in turn, requires men and women in it of imagination and goodwill. What would be fatal would be for those with exceptional human insight and concern to concentrate on ministering to individuals, whilst those accepting responsibility for the design and management of organisations were left to become technocrats. What is important is that institutions and their administration be constantly tested against human values and that those who are concerned about these values be prepared to grapple with the complex realities of modern society as it is.” Quaker Faith and Practice, 5th edition, 23.47.
In 1978, Grigor left MBS, returning to Laws to deal with trading difficulties resulting from intensified competition. He turned the business around but, recognizing the trend towards concentration, he sold to WM Low in 1985. It was during this second stint in charge that he became a major figure in civic society in the North East. Most notably, he chaired the Washington New Town Development Corporation, helping broker the deal that brought Nissan to invest in car manufacturing in the region.
Arguably, Grigor McClelland’s most enduring contribution to the North East will be through his role in philanthropy. He and his wife Diana (née Avery Close, 1919-2000), whom he married in 1946 and with whom he had four children between 1947 and 1953, were heavily involved in the Society of Friends through the Newcastle meeting and nationally. They shared the same active commitment to social justice and betterment as their North East Quaker forebears such as the Pease, Merz and Spence Watson families. In 1976, they set up and endowed the Millfield House Foundation with shares in Laws to “promote policy change by funding projects that inform discussion and influence public policy.” The Foundation, which typically spends £170,000 per annum to this end, is unusual in the North East in seeking to achieve its ultimate goals of empowering communities and reducing social deprivation indirectly through public policy rather than directly through charitable giving. It is a bold stance, reflective of Grigor’s belief in the power of argument and evidence ultimately to triumph over injustice, just as Quakers in the past led the crusade to abolish slavery.
Grigor’s second major philanthropic legacy is the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, which he co-founded in 1988 and chaired until 1993. The Foundation is the largest community foundation in the UK and plays a vital role in sustaining the third sector in the North East, passing the milestone of £100 million in grants awarded in 2016. It was Grigor’s vision, stamina and commitment that breathed life into what at the time was a novel philanthropic venture, seeking to tap into the latent generosity of people of means across the region. As George Hepburn, the Foundation’s first chief executive expressed it: "Grigor put his name and reputation behind an untried, untested project and made it great.” In 1994, he was awarded the CBE for “charitable services in Tyne and Wear”, which he relinquished in 2003 in protest at the invasion of Iraq. It was restored in 2009. The memorial service held in Newcastle in April 2014 to celebrate his life was attended by hundreds of people from across Britain whose lives he had touched personally, remembered by them not only for his intellect and many achievements but also for his wit, charm, compassion and generosity of spirit.
BBC News. (2003). Businessman returns CBE over Iraq war. Available here (Accessed: 21/08/2018).
Editorial Collective. (2014). Professor Grigor McClelland, Journal of Management Studies, 51 (5), pp. 842-843.
Leaders We Deserve. (2013). Grigor McClelland [1922-2013] A Man for our Times, Available here (Accessed: 21/08/2018).
Wainwright, M. (2013). Grigor McClelland obituary, The Guardian. Available here (Accessed: 21/08/2018).
Wikipedia. (2018). Laws Store, Available here (Accessed: 21/08/2018).