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Obituary: veteran retailer and politician Lord David Wolfson

Eric Musgrave
12 March 2021

Veteran retailer and Tory politician David Wolfson, father of Next CEO Simon Wolfson, has died of dementia-related complications. He was 85.

As chairman of Next from 1990-1998 David Wolfson formed a formidable partnership with CEO David Jones (1943-2019). Together they rescued Next from collapse, turning losses of £46m to profits of more than £100m. Jones praised his chairman’s enviable ability to “identify the core problem and address it without being distracted by trivia”.

He certainly was not distracted by accusations of nepotism when his son Simon, then only 33, succeeded David Jones as Next CEO in August 2001 having been fast-tracked through the hierarchy at Enderby.

Described variously as “mercurial”, “visionary” and “untroubled by self-doubt”, David Wolfson held senior positions at several major British retailers as well as being one of being Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisors from 1978 until 1985. He was one of the few people who stood up to Thatcher and persuaded her to change her mind.

Known for his impressive intellect, a keenly-focused business brain and a sometimes acerbic tongue, David was a prominent member of the British-Jewish Wolfson family.

Solomon Wolfson (1868-1941) was a cabinet maker from Poland who settled in Glasgow at the end of the 19thcentury. Solomon’s son Isaac (1897-1991) was one of the most powerful and influential British businessmen of the mid-20th century, building up the Manchester-based mail order business Great Universal Stores (aka GUS or Gussies) into a pre-eminent force in British retailing.

In 1955 Sir Isaac Wolfson established the Wolfson Foundation to distribute most of his fortune to good causes in science, education and the arts.

David Wolfson was the son of Charles Wolfson (1899–1970), Isaac’s brother. David cut his business teeth working for GUS, the “family firm”, where he was a director from 1973-78 and again in 1993-2000. He was chairman of GUS from 1996-2000.

A falling out with his cousin Leonard (1927–2010), Isaac’s son, caused his departure from GUS in 1978 but he kept himself busy during 1982-86 as chairman of Alexon Group. His CV also includes a stint as chairman of one-time Marks & Spencer supplier William Baird in 2002-2003.

Succeeding his cousin Leonard as chairman of GUS in 1996, the-then Lord Wolfson quickly expanded the “family firm”, spending £1bn acquiring consumer credit company Experian, £150m on Direct Market Technologies and £20m on The Burton Group’s Innovations catalogue. In a little over 12 months GUS, which included Burberry in its roster of companies, was making more from information and financial services than from retailing.

In 1998, after a bruising hostile takeover, Wolfson’s GUS added Argos at the cost of £1.9bn.

After Lord Wolfson’s departure in 2000, the traditional Great Universal Stores mail order operation was sold to the Barclay brothers, who merged it with their Littlewoods mail order business. Burberry was demerged from GUS in 2005 and a year later the Great Universal Stores name disappeared when the company was split into Argos (officially Home Retail Group) and Experian.

David Wolfson was born in London on 9 November 1935. He was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, took an economics and law degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, and added an MBA from Stanford University, California.

Knighted in 1984, he was created a life peer with the title Baron Wolfson of Sunningdale, of Trevose in the County of Cornwall in 1991. He had a holiday home in Cornwall.

He was married three times. Simon Wolfson is one of two sons and a daughter from his second marriage, to Susan Davis, which ended in divorce. In 2018 he married his third wife, Alicia Trevor, who survives him with their teenage son, Tom.

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