John Harris, CBE

Business entrepreneur who harnessed medical and scientific power towards ovarian cancer research


It was the death of his wife Helene from ovarian cancer in 1985 at the age of 48 that spurred entrepreneur John Harris, to launch an ovarian cancer trust in her memory. The Helene Harris Memorial Trust (HHMT) led two decades later to the inception of Ovarian Cancer Action, one of the leading research charities in its field. It also generated greater international co-operation on the disease.

John Harris, founder-chair of Alba Group plc, a portfolio of brands including Alba, Goodmans, Grundig, Pulse and Bush, who has died aged 88, started his business career in the chocolate and confectionery industry, but following a visit to the Far East in 1963, launched Harris Overseas Ltd, later renamed Harvard International.

But when Helene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1984 Harris was determined to seek the best treatment and the most experienced specialists for her. He visited the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he discovered the UK and US had very different approaches to treatment and little knowledge sharing. Despite their best efforts, within a few months of that visit, ovarian cancer sadly claimed Helene’s life.

Together with the late renowned gynaecologist, Sir George Pinker, Harris set up the HHMT International Forum on Ovarian Cancer. Its first successful meeting was in 1986 and it became a global collaboration, uniting the world’s leading scientists to pool resources and publish their findings. Its seminars gained international recognition among scientists and clinicians in the field of gynaecological cancer.

Harris’s daughter Allyson Kaye, MBE took over the leadership and in 2003 the trust became the charity Ovarian Cancer Action, of which she is president, formed to raise awareness among GPs and the general public. Within three years OCA, raised enough funding to establish its own research facility, partnered with the Royal Marsden and the Institute of Cancer Research on the Hammersmith campus of Imperial College London.

The group has funded £12.3 million of research projects around the UK, and employs 47 international scientists. Harris was the only non-medical Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, appointed because of his work to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.

Professor Fran Balkwill, OBE, Professor of Cancer Biology at Barts Cancer Institute and Chair of the HHMT Programme Committee, described Harris’s “enormous impact on ovarian cancer research, bringing together clinicians and scientists from across the globe at a time when there was no internet communication.

“Professor Robert C. Bast Jr, Chair of the OCA Scientific Advisory Board, said: “John transformed his grief to change our world for the better.”

John Harris was born in in Seven Kings, Essex, the only child of confectioners Jack and Freda Harris. He was evacuated during the war, at first to a family in Bath and then to Iver Heath. He went to Slough Grammar and later to Plaistow Grammar, winning prizes for public speaking. With a flair for performance, he left school and became an actor at the age of 16, with the Theatre Royal Stratford, in East London, before joining the Royal Air Force two years later.

In 1963 he went to Japan and set up shop at the Imperial Hotel, found a translator and began selling fruit jellies. Orders poured in and the jellies was shipped from England. Unfortunately English jellies were banned! However, he found a loophole permitting their sale if he exported Japanese goods to the equivalent value.

Before long he was importing umbrellas, tools, walkie talkies, silverware – almost anything made in Japan. His import business built on sweets led to the creation of Alba, which operated on the bargain end of the electronics market. From a one-man business Harris grew the company into a substantial entity, absorbing the original Alba Radio business in 1982.

The enterprise developed in Hong Kong, Japan, France, Italy and the USA, described by Harris’s children as a family of 1200 people, in which John knew everyone’s name, partner and often their children. He cared so much about his staff that he put on transport to take them into town from the trading estate to do their weekly shop. With his amicable manner, sharp mind and positive outlook, he formed friendships with customers, suppliers, banks and beyond.

In 1987 he floated the company using the Alba name for this purpose. Subsequent to its flotation, Alba acquired Bush in 1988 and Goodmans in 1993. By this time the Group, of which he remained chairman, had become the largest distributor of major audio equipment in Britain. Harris was succeeded by his son Daniel as CEO in 1992, but remained as chairman until 2007.

While the children were involved in the family business, Harris advised them not to rest on their laurels. He urged them to look at where they could create opportunities. One of his less successful ventures was his purchase of a Winnibago mobile home in the late 70s which he transformed into a travelling showroom for his country-wide salesforce. It was so large that it spent most of the time in the garage recovering from accidents, one family member recalled.

Apart from the electronics business, Harris loved trading currencies. He knew all the margins in his head and had reasons why the market rose or fell. In 1984 he met Jaqueline Leigh, who had also lost her husband to cancer, after she had been impressed with a JC article about the ovarian cancer Trust.

Five years later they married and they lived together in London’s St Johns Wood. Harris received the MBE in 1996 and was made CBE in 2005 for his work in cancer research and his contribution to the electronics industry. He had been a fan of West Ham United since 1942, and keeping to his father’s tradition, Daniel is now on the Board.

He is survived by Jaqueline, his children Daniel and Allyson Kaye, step children Howard and Trevor Leigh, grandchildren Lauren and Alana Harris, Eloise and Charlotte Kaye and great-grandchildren Henry, Callie and Darcie.

Gloria Tessler

John Harris, CBE: born April 29, 1932. Died September 28, 2020

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