Geoffrey Alan Matthews

Doctor of Laws

20 July 2006 - Orator: Mr Mike Phipps

Madame Chancellor: Geoffrey Matthews

Many families in the late 19th century discovered that in order to safeguard their long-term prosperity, it was necessary to be mobile. After at least 350 years of life in the Brixham and River Dart area, the Matthews family decided to uproot, leave behind their maritime past and move to the big city. Bristol was the nearest. Geoff’s grandfather established the family here, and his father, like so many others, established a successful career with WD & HO Wills, eventually becoming Personnel Manager.

I detect that determination is in the genes of this family. Geoff’s father ensured that his son would have a good education and enrolled him at Taunton School – not the obvious choice for someone who started out at Knowle Park Primary School. There was also a clear expectation that he should progress to university, which he duly did. As with many self-made men, he was the first person in his family to go on to higher education at a university.

Sadly, Geoff’s father died while he was away at Taunton. His instinct was to be there for his mother and so he tried to get a job back in Bristol at “Wills`s”, as it still was then, but was told to get himself off to university. This was perhaps the last time that Geoff was guided in any way by anyone, as it is very clear that he is a person of great self-sufficiency and determination.

Happily for Bristol, he decided to take a course in History at this University. I am not sure that he could tell you why he made these choices – his career demonstrates that he is far more interested in predicting the future than in dwelling on the past.

His best marks during his studies were in fact for an open unit on economics, a foretaste of what was to come. During this time he met Jackie and cemented a lasting relationship, despite the fact that she got a better degree than he did.

The tie to Bristol was clearly strong, when he graduated in 1963 he took a job in management at WD & HO Wills and entered their management training programme, which would begin to fashion his future. His progression at Wills was very rapid by any standards. Having served as Project Manager and then Factory Manager by the age of 32 of a new, £26m factory in Hartcliffe, in 1981 he was promoted to Manufacturing Director of all UK operations with over 12,000 people directly responsible to him.

Next came the period that perhaps gave Geoff his greatest opportunity to stretch himself and learn. Making money in the commercial world had been challenging enough, but the mid ’80s saw a massive change in the competitive nature of business in Britain. Imperial, as it was known by then, was bought out by Hanson in a period of intense, huge corporate takeovers which fuelled the rationalisation of much of British industry at that time. He found himself among a different breed of business people, with whom he sharpened the financial skills that probably enabled him to get where he is today. Geoff was asked to be Managing Director of Elizabeth Shaw, the chocolate and confectionery makers – he was still only 45 at this point. Intent on slimming down and refocusing, Hanson were trying to find a buyer for the business. Having thought hard about it, Geoff took the plunge, borrowed £25m and bought the company himself, but wisely brought along a commercial partner to take a 30% stake and give himself much wider international exposure. Within three years he had learned the business inside out – there isn’t much he doesn’t know about chocolate liqueurs – and was able to sell the business in a much healthier state than when he took it over. But it obviously couldn’t survive without him and he was asked to come back and help acquire and develop other companies worldwide, for a period of seven months. Seven years later he had helped it to buy nine other businesses and establish Leaf Group as one of the top ten confectioners in the world.

Despite his travel commitments to Amsterdam, Scandinavia, the Far East and the mid-European area, which was just emerging from the Communist era, Geoff found time to do many other things for Bristol. When anyone is looking for sound financial advice, especially when starting up a new venture, his name is bound to come up. It was so with the Bristol Development Corporation, which he joined in 1992. Bristol as a city was bogged down in those days and seemed unable to get real inward investment going. If it were not for the persistence of the BDC in those days, the development of Temple Quay would probably still be an idea and not a reality. Geoff’s determination within the BDC team had a part to play in making this development happen and Bristol is rightfully proud of the amazing regeneration that is now happening in this part of the city, and beyond.

At about this time, Geoff was asked to become involved with the University, to steer its own pension funds, which he gladly agreed to do. During his ten-year stint at this, he has also been a member of Council and he was Chair of the Estates Committee from 2000 to 2002, where I first met him. Over the last ten years, he has devoted significant amounts of his time to the University and has offered invaluable advice on aspects of its financial operation and commercial development. The University has learned that it needs to take heed of Geoff’s advice in matters of finance, and it does so, if it can.

In 1996 he was invited to join the Bristol & West Building Society as a board member, and after demutualisation and sale to the Bank of Ireland he is now Vice-Chair of the Bank’s UK business. Yet again, Geoff’s financial skills were in high demand, and they still are today.

There is insufficient time to talk about all of his other achievements, most of which centre on Bristol. He works hard for a range of charitable causes, and during his period as President of the Anchor Society he managed personally to raise £78,000 in a two-week period – a record at that time. He has been Master of the Society of Merchant Venturers and is now a Governor of his old School, Taunton. I know he also values greatly his term as President of Young Bristol; during his eight years of office he was instrumental in the fund raising and building of a youth activity centre at Poole’s Wharf, on the harbourside.

Maritime connections are still strong, as one would expect from this family’s long association with the sea. At least one of the five recorded Matthews on board the Victory at Trafalgar was a forbear. Geoff has a great passion for the sea. As a young boy, his father instilled in him a love of boats and sailing. At the closure of the Church service to mark his handover to the next Master of the Merchant Venturers, the hymn chosen was “for those in peril on the sea”. This was no coincidence, because barely had the reverberation died down before Geoff was stripping down to his shorts and deck shoes to repeat the voyage of those early venturers by sailing the Atlantic. He did it along with two other colleagues, of advancing years, it has to be said, but completed it within 20 days; not a bad feat, I am told, and certainly quicker than John Cabot.

Geoff’s strong family loyalties kept him based in Bristol, and we have benefited as a city and a University from that. I know he would wish me to acknowledge the support he has had, through more than 40 years of marriage, from Jackie, who is here today. She shares his love of sailing and golf, at which she has also won the odd trophy. His son, Paul, has followed Geoff’s lead in a way – while he is a lawyer, he advises companies on pensions. Paul and his wife, Amanda, are here today, too. We warmly welcome them here today, as well as Geoff’s two sisters, Pat Rodford and Hilary Owen.

Geoff has given much of his valuable time to the University and to many other great causes in the city. He is not a man to shout his achievements from the rooftops; he is someone who just gets on with it. His father would be justly proud, as we are, of his many and varied achievements.

Madam Chancellor, Geoff Matthews has achieved a huge amount in his life; he has used his considerable experience to guide this great University and to provide important support to the City of Bristol. I present him to you as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


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