Friday, 5 December 2014

THE STORY OF AN ADMIRABLE AND MUCH MISSED MAN



There have been few more towering figures in the fishing and maritime industries than the late John Ross who died, aged 74, in May 2011.

In recognition of his illustrious career first with the family-run Ross Group, then with publicly-owned Cosalt, he was appointed High Steward of the Borough of North East Lincolnshire - a prestigious, honorary position, reflecting the esteem in which he had been held by the community for his services over half-a-century.

The ceremony held at Grimsby Town Hall was a proud occasion not just for John Ross but also for members of his family.

What made the occasion more moving was that, for the previous decade, he   had been struggling with  a heart condition, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy, all of which combined to have a seriously immobilising effect. 

Mr Ross enjoyed conversations with members of his family and his many friends, watching TV programmes about politics and listening to Radio 4 - he was an avid fan of The Archers.

But he was unable to walk and found it difficult to read, to write or to use a computer.

He lost his first wife Jennifer to cancer and subsequently married Gill.

Since his death, the John Ross Community Trust Fund, set up in his memory, has raised huge amounts of money for worthy groups and organisations throughout the borough.

In this hitherto unpublished question-answer interview of March 2008, he talked about his life and times.  
 
How do you feel about becoming High Steward of the borough?
It is a great honour. I am especially proud because it is a position previously held by my father J. Carl Ross. Some while back, a current councillor - I will not name him - tentatively inquired if I might be interested. The next thing, I was invited to a meeting with the council's chief executive, George Krawiec. I asked him if he had any reservations about my being in a wheelchair, but he reassured me it was very much the opposite. The council's approach demonstrated its commitment the interests of everyone, including those with a disability. I heard nothing more for a few months until an invitation to the ceremony came out of the blue.

You live in Grimsby now, but you are originally from Cleethorpes?
Yes, when I was a boy, the family home was at 39 Signhills Avenue. I was born around the corner at a nursing home in Bradford Avenue. Some of my earliest memories are of playing on the beach with my brothers and sisters. 

Did you go to school locally?
It was wartime. Although not as badly hit as Hull, the Grimsby area was regularly the target of  enemy bombing raids. To keep me out of harm's way, I was sent away to Ilkley in Yorkshire where I went to a prep school. But it closed when the teachers were called up for service.  When I was 13, I went to Shrewsbury School.

Isn't that he same public school that Michael Hesltine attended?
Yes, he was in same form. We were different types. My contemporaries also included Richard Ingram and Paul Foot who went on to found the satirical magazine, Private Eye.

Were your schooldays happy?
Very much so. I was far from being  a star but I loved every minute of them. My end-of-term reports regularly referred to me as being cheerful and sociable. Sad to say, references to my academic ability are few and far between.

After Shrewsbury, did you go straight into the family fishing firm that your father was building?
Not yet. After I passed the entrance exams, I went on to Clare  College, Cambridge where my degree subject was Economics and Law. I also enjoyed my life at university.

Soon afterwards,  you joined  Ross. it must have been an exhilarating and fulfilling career. Judging by the records, the Ross Group was always eager to innovate, both with its trawling activities and with how the catches were frozen and processed.
There was no shortage of challenges. It was very rewarding to be a part of building up the business and consolidating Grimsby's reputation as a world-famous fishing town. My father's enthusiasm was infectious. I remember how pleased he was when he bought Young's. He said it was the best day's work he had ever done. I had plenty of opportunities for travelling overseas on business - for instance, on buying trips to places such as Peru and Chile.

Over the years, you and the family must have eaten your fair share of fish. Do you have a favourite?
Haddock. It's always said in Grimsby that haddock is for eating, cod is for selling. It's about 10 years since I've eaten cod. Someone once brought in at a family gathering. It was terrible, but I didn't make a fuss. I ate it up like a good boy!

You must still have vivid memories of the golden era of Grimsby as a fishing town?
By 1968, there were some 60 or so trawlers. That was the peak. At Ross, we prided ourselves on having the top skippers. They understood the fish seasons and where the best catches were to be made. 

 But soon after came the introduction of fishing limits and Iceland's decision to exclude our vessels from its waters.
From then on, the writing was on the wall. Our trawlers were scrapped or became supply ships to oil rigs. One was converted to host a pirate radio station, Radio Caroline.

Do you think the politicians botched things? Do you have any sense of bitterness about the decline of Britain's fishing industry?
There was a lot of mix-up. Sometimes things seem right thing at the time - but less so many years later with hindsight. There is a parallel later with how the country has abandoned many of its coal mines. But it's a point of principle with me never to be bitter or resentful? It serves no purpose. You just have to adapt to the changed circumstances and move on with your next project.

In time, you and your father were both ousted from Ross Group. But your own career took a new direction when you took the helm at Cosalt which you ran for the best part of a couple of decades until your retirement. You changed its name from Great Grimsby Coal Salt and Tanning Company, re-energised it and successfully took it to a Stock Market flotation. What was once a seemingly quaint parochial business has flourished ever since.
With the decline of the fishing industry, there was no choice but to adapt and innovate if the company was to survive. New services and products needed to be introduced. Supplying  marine safety equipment became an increasingly significant part of the business as it remains today. For me, there was a lot of personal satisfaction that it was Cosalt-supplied products that saved the lives of passengers when, last year, a cruise ship camed to grief  in the Antarctic. I am no longer connected with the company but it has as its slogan: "Safety at Sea".
  
Your son, David, has also enjoyed a highly successful business career, notably as joint-founder with his school pal Charles Dunston of Carphone Warehouse. But he recently followed in your footsteps by becoming non-executive chairman of Cosalt. Have you been  tempted to renew your involvement?
Not in the slightest. You have to recognise when the time has come to let go. I maintain an interest, but I would certainly never wish to interefere. If David wants me know anything, he tells me. But otherwise we just know what we read in the newpapers.  He is also non-exective chairman of National Express plc and has other business and charitable interests, particularly to do with education.

Do you have any other sons?
My eldest, James, has a chain of 10 bookshops in Malaga and other parts of Spain. He is married to a Belgian and they have four children.

What about daughters?
Emma is married with three children and lives near Malton in Yorkshire. Lucy is no longer married but is bringing up three children at Uppingham. Then there is Sophie who lives in Leicestershire and had recently bcome engaged.  
  
As well as a full business career, you also have some political feahers to your bow?
Yes, I served as a Conservative councillor for six years Although I enjoyed it, I decided against pursuing any sort of political career in local government.
  
Did you ever consider standing as . . .
An MP! No, not unless they brought Parliament to Grimsby! I've always been to much of a homebird. The prospect of spending Monday to Thursday in London would not appeal. It can't do much good for any family life.

What are your thoughts of some of the prime ministers of the past few decades?
Margaret Thatcher was brilliant, I showed her around one of of our factories and had lunch with her. She was good fun. John Major found it difficult to make up his mind. Blair was brillant. Gordon Brown is terrible - not helped by the fact that he's surrounded himself with people who are less than honest.

Did you know Ted Heath?
I didn't greatly care for him. I accompanied him once  from Grantham to Grimsby. I can't remember if, at the time, he was Leader of the Opposition or a minister. His manner was very stiff, and he insisted on bringing some of his aides with him, and I didn't much like the tenor of the conversation. He refused to travel in an old-fashioned Bentley, so we all  piled into an Austin 1800. 

What about the likes of Harold Wilson and Callaghan?
Hold on, you're forgetting I'm a young man - I can' remember either of them!

Let's go back further - to Harold McMillan and Sir Alec Douglas Home
They belonged to another generation. In those days, prime ministers were gentlemen. It's very different now - they're professionals.


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