Businessman and former Heath and Hampstead Society chairman Peter Gorb dies

Peter Gorb pictured on Hampstead Heath in 1991. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Peter Gorb pictured on Hampstead Heath in 1991. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Peter Gorb, businessman, pioneering design management teacher, and one of Hampstead’s most charismatic champions, has died aged 87.

He loved Hampstead almost as much as he loved his family which includes his wife, Ruth, their sons, Adam and Simon, and his sister, also Ruth, but as with all his passions, he showed his devotion through deeds not words.

He campaigned to save the New End Hospital buildings and led the Burger Off campaign, but, unlike some conservationists, Peter never resented change so long as it was an improvement on the original. McDonald’s, Starbucks and mobile phone shops did not fall into that category.

He and his sister, Ruth Montague, were born in London but moved to Wales as teenagers to escape the London bombing. His father, David Gorb, ran a textile business and spent the war working in Manchester.

After a scattered secondary school education in London, Wales and Leeds, Peter was educated at Manchester Grammar School where, when told he wasn’t bright enough to take the exams which would ensure him a place on the fast track to the sixth form entered his Matriculation exams independently. He then presented his form teacher with the necessary certificates, four distinctions and two passes, the following September.

He won an Exhibition to read History at Peterhouse College Cambridge but was called up before he could take up his place. In the grimness of his army training camp in Kent the Indian Army recruits stood out as a rare beacon for their fitness, cheerfulness and their suntans. Peter signed up to join them and didn’t look back, spending four years in India teaching Indian recruits English during the last days of the Raj.

He was soon immersed in a world of sunshine, silver service dining, and servants. At the age of 18, observed his mother many years later, he had four servants to himself, and, she said: “He never got over it”.

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He returned to an England still struggling in post-war austerity but was able to take up his place at Cambridge, where, as he recalled in a memoir, Educating Peter, he found his bedroom window served as the unofficial college exit for female visitors who had overstayed the 11pm curfew.

He read history, but preferred to save time reading his professors works himself rather than sit through lectures listening to them do it, though he made an exception for Bertrand Russell. Girls were never far away, and as he pointed out, he and his battle-scarred veterans did have the edge over the 18-year-old undergraduates when it came to competing for their attentions.

At Cambridge, where he became art editor of Granta, and continued his lifelong love of painting and poetry, and developed the maverick hands on style which was the signature to his success in later life, and won a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts.

On the way, sailing from Southampton to New York aboard the Queen Mary, he met Ladislas Rice, a fellow Fulbright Scholar and they became lifelong friends, studying together, working together and for the last forty years, living as neighbours in Hampstead.

Peter always said that he never worked harder either in business or academically, as he did during that first year at Harvard, but managed to squeeze in a social life including trips to New York and New Orleans and cemented his friendship with Ladislas Rice.

Mr Rice, who later head-hunted Peter to help run the Burton Retail Group, said: “He was a remarkable man in the sense that he combined executive talent with a deep culture in a number of fields in particular poetry and naval history. His anthology of poetry is still taught at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.

“He was a Hampstead man and he knew everyone, he was a larger than life chap, and he was a great friend.”

After Harvard, Peter returned to London. He soon joined the family textile business supplying clothes to Marks and Spencer, but not until he had completed his education with a City and Guilds apprenticeship at the Tailor and Cutter Academy in Lisle Street.

It was a practical introduction to the business which not only earned him the respect of his father’s workforce but formed his epiphany as both a businessman and a champion of design management and hands on practical vocational education. He described the six months learning the skills of pattern cutting, the design process behind all clothing manufacture, as having “more immediate and practical relevance to the profitability of the business than anything I had learnt at the Harvard Business School”.

It was the start of a love affair with design management which led to his recruiting a theatre designer to become one of his sales directors, and with the help of Charles Handy, to his founding of the Design Management Unit at London Business School. It was also instrumental in the creation of Education for Capability, a manifesto published by the Royal Society of Arts which argued for vocational skills and training to be accorded the status their value to culture and the economy they deserved.

Peter’s love of Hampstead began in the late 1950s when he met, fell in love, and married his journalist wife, Ruth, and they lived in Hampstead for the first time, moving to a basement flat in Oakhill Avenue. They were only there 18 months before Peter was summoned to Wales to help out his father’s textile business, but they promised to move back when they could afford it.

That happened seven years later, wooed back by businessman Phil Jacobs who asked Peter to join him as an executive in his textile company Northgate. Accompanied by their two tiny sons, Peter and Ruth moved into the family house behind Church Row which they shared for fifty years. Peter’s love of design and architecture helped transform the house, and, according to his son Simon, would have transformed many others in Hampstead as he went on to offer his architectural advice to all his friends and neighbours, whether they wanted it or not.

In the seventies he was head-hunted again, this time by his fellow Harvard scholar, Ladislas Rice, then chief executive and later chairman at the menswear firm Burton Retail Group, who recruited Peter as his commercial director.

He was there seven years till academia beckoned and he founded the Design Management Unit at London Business School in Regent’s Park a role which led him to become one of the pioneers of design as an integral part of successful production, not an add on. When Apple founder Steve Jobs was less than pixel in his mother’s eye Peter was teaching his students the value of beauty in business.

Paddy Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School and a friend and colleague at LBS said: “Peter was always good company, he had a great zest for life and was a wonderful conversationalist.”

Another friend and former colleague, Wally Olins, CBE, chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants and co- founder of Wolff Olins, a brand consultancy founded in Camden Town in 1965. Mr Olins described Peter as an inspirational teacher who during a highly successful business career as a leader in the Burton Retail Group pioneered design management in stores before moving to academia “He became the first really serious advocate of design management as a business discipline and he soon became its most articulate. In addition to lecturing at LBS he advised my then company Wolff Olins for some years. He also inspired many young consultants to see design management as a real career opportunity. His work at LBS was seen as one of those which led world thinking in this sphere”

Outside work he devoted his life to his family, his friends and his love of poetry, naval history, architecture and books. He was a frequent visitor to the Ham & High offices in Perrins Court, and later in Avenue Road, where his wife Ruth worked and where he made more lifelong friends including former editor Gerry Isaaman, and resident photographer Nigel Sutton.

Mr Isaaman, who knew Peter during his time as editor of the Ham & High adds: “My introduction to Peter Gorb was with the formation of the now long lost New Hampstead Society, set up in the wake of the victory of a successful campaign led by local architects Michael Floyd and Christopher Gotch to stop a “classical” new town hall being built at Swiss Cottage.

“This was before Hampstead became consumed into Camden in the ‘60s but it resulted, thanks also to the Ham&High, in Sir Basil Spence, the architect of Coventry Cathedral, being chosen to design the new town hall complex.

“Only the swimming baths and library were completed before Camden took over and the skyscraper town hall block bit the dust. Had it been built it would have stood in permanent tribute to Peter, his passion for new design, his abiding love of Hampstead and his truly remarkable life.”

When the then Heath and Old Hampstead Society needed a new champion Peter became chairman and wrestled with threats to demolish the New End Hospital site, the influx of McDonalds and constant environmental and economic threats to the Heath and the town.

Helen Marcus, who succeeded him as chairman, said: “He was the sort of person who lit up a room when he came in. I thought here’s this marvellous chap with a terrific personality, tremendous charisma and a wonderful sense of humour. You just felt something amazing and important was going to happen if he was there.”

He spotted and halted the decline in membership of the society and helped double the membership during his chairmanship.

Fellow former chairman of the society, Martin Humphery, said: “He was a man of great charm and great intellect who became chairman at a difficult time and mastered problems with great skill. He was a great friend of Hampstead.”

He will be remembered for his unbounded generosity, his love of life and his family and friends and for the joy he enjoyed from and gave to others.

The last word goes to Peter who summed up his thoughts on the intrinsic value of creativity when voicing his pride in his two sons’ careers as, respectively composer and painter. “They are both in creative, and by definition, high risk, professions. Concerned that this might worry me, one of them once asked whether I would have rather they had been lawyers or accountants. My answer was of course ‘No’”.

Peter is survived by his sister, Ruth Montague, his wife, Ruth, sons Adam and Simon, and grandchildren, Ben and Juliette.