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Obituary: Oliver Jessel

City financier who came to prominence as a pioneer of the unit trust movement

    Oliver Jessel (credit Terry Kirk)
    Oliver Jessel (credit Terry Kirk)

     Described by his friend Jim Slater, founder of the Slater Walker Group, as a man of business, a “money man”, Oliver Jessel, who has died aged 87, was ultimately a takeover player with a Midas touch, who came to prominence as a pioneer of the unit trust movement.

    A confident, debonair, pipe-smoking 1960s man about town, Jessel had expensive tastes, eating in the best restaurants and being chauffeur-driven to work.

    His name was often linked with that of Jim Slater,  which undoubtedly established the modus operandi that Jessel followed .By their mid-thirties both men were regarded with some awe for their determination to make British industry more efficient and for their success in making money both for themselves and their investors .

    Following the breakdown of their businesses and personal fortunes  in the aftermath of the stock market and “secondary banking” crisis – resulting from the tripling of crude oil prices in December 1973 – both were seen in a different ligh; as asset-strippers and share dealers who had fuelled the boom that made the bust inevitable. The self-assured Jessel did not always heed advice. As his wife  Gloria Holden , whom he married in 1950 , rather colourfully put it : “He was seemingly living in a world where failure had no consequences.”

    At its zenith in 1972 , the Jessel group of companies was worth over £500 million, but the liquidation of its life assurance company , London Indemnity & General Insurance.  in October 1974 led to its collapse. It was unable to meet policyholder encashments, having been instructed by the Department of Trade to make a £6million capital injection.  Many other assets had to be sold at rock-bottom prices. As there was still a shortfall , the shares of the holding company, Jessel Securities, were suspended. Although Jessel had created a fair amount of goodwill within the City , his long run of luck had run out. Spending more time with his young family in rural Kent  and with limited business interests he virtually disappeared from public life. 

     Oliver Richard Jessel was born in New Zealand, the son of Dick Jessel, a highly decorated destroyer captain in the Royal Navy . They were descended from the London merchant Zadok Aaron Jessel, married in the Great Synagogue to Mary Harris in 1819,  whose youngest son Sir George was the first Jew to be appointed Solicitor General and finally to attain the highest judicial office as Master of the Rolls in 1873 . Sir George’s two sons were conferred a peerage and a baronetcy; his grandson Richard founded the well-known stockbroking firm Jessel Toynbee, and Toby Jessel ( Oliver’s brother ) became the Conservative MP for Twickenham (1970-97) .

    Oliver’s mother Winnie also had an eminent Anglo-Jewish heritage. Her grandfather Marcus Samuel ( the 1st. Viscount Bearsted ) had founded the Shell Transport & Trading Company , which merged in 1907 to form Royal Dutch Shell. On his death in 1927 Samuel had left a £28 million fortune - part of which had been inherited by Oliver Jessel .

    Oliver was educated at Rugby, spending the early war years in Perthshire. .After National Service in the navy , he studied for the Bar, but turned to business , setting up an investment company in 1954 to manage his own substantial inheritance .

    His first foray into business were self-service grocery stores in the West End but  in 1960 he found his metier in the City in sourcing “penny shares” - in companies that were both undervalued and undermanaged . By 1965 , with the flotation of Jessel Securities on the stock exchange, Oliver Jessel could use his investment holding company and small merchant bank to build a stake-holding position in businesses with a view to launching a takeover. The successful parts would then be retained and the unprofitable parts closed down or sold off .

    His earlier acquisitions included France Fenwick , a shipbroking company, followed by Demerara , a West Indies sugar producer and several fast-growing industrial, commodity and real estate companies. His crowning achievement resulted in the merger and subsequent reorganisation of two of the UK’s largest steelmaking conglomerates , Johnson and Firth Brown in 1973; having also acquired a majority holding in Associated Fisheries , Britain’s largest trawler fleet .

    City investors had benefited from Jessel’s market dealings. Jessel took big bets on other people’s bid battles, reaping huge windfalls in some – when he participated in a controversial reverse takeover of the shipping giant P&O , by the house-builder Bovis Holdings – and hefty losses in others .

    Meanwhile , the Jessel Britannia unit trust group had grown into a brand leader in the fund management sector,when the  stock market crash came in 1974. Jessel  himself anticipated the fall and switched a large proportion of unit-holders’ funds out of equities and into gold , commodities and cash .

    After the demise of Jessel Securities, he continued working in corporate finance up until the late 1980’s as chairman of numerous smaller companies.. His lifelong interests were bridge, listening to music, gardening and playing Monopoly .His wife Gloria and their six children , Dinah , Caroline , Serena , Rosamund, Simon and Samantha, and eight grandchildren survive him .