Richard Courage

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Richard Courage (extract from Daily Telegraph 15/9/94)

Richard Courage, who has died aged 79, was the fourth-generation head of his family's brewery business.

A quiet but commanding figure, he was instrumental in expanding Courage's in the 1950s and 1960s into one of the largest beer groups in Britain while perpetuating the gentlemanly management style of an earlier era. Eventually, though, the need to modernise and consolidate created pressures which led in 1972 to the sale of the company to Imperial Tobacco for £320 million.

Richard Hubert Courage was born on January 23 1915, the younger son of Raymond Courage, a life director of the brewery. Raymond was in turn a great-grandson of John Courage, an Aberdonian shipping agent of Huguenot descent who had bought a brewhouse at Horsleydown, Southwark, in 1787 for £615 13s 11d.

Young Richard was educated at Eton. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was immediately commissioned into the Second Northamptonshire Yeomanry. He took part in the Normandy landings and went on to command a tank squadron in Holland in the assault across the Rhine. He was mentioned in despatches.

The Courage family has ceased to be majority owners of the brewery business in the 1920s but retained firm control of its management. After the war Richard became manager of the Windsor branch and joined the board in 1948. Although enlarged by pre-war acquisitions in the Home Counties, Courage's strongest base was still in the London docklands: the decline of the docks in the mid-1950s led to a merger with a rival Southwark brewer, Barclay and Perkins.

Richard Courage's emollient, even-handed approach made him a popular choice to head the new group, Courage and Barclay, from 1959 - at the time he was one of the youngest public company chairmen in the country. It was a tribute to his skill that he was able to carry the combined board in a decision to close the Barclay brewery (on the Anchor site at Southwark) and build a substantial new bottling and packing plant instead.

In an era of take-overs and mergers throughout the beer industry, Courage offered smaller breweries a degree of independence within a congenial group structure. Expansion was concentrated in the south and west of England, but was crowned in 1970 by the purchase of John Smith's Tadcaster brewery. Courage's was by then the fifth largest beer group in Britain, controlling 6,000 pubs.

Richard Courage was also instrumental in developing the Harp Lager joint venture with Guinness and Scottish & Newcastle. But lager sales grew, threatening bitter, and production throughout the industry became increasingly troubled by strikes. Courage's decided to consolidate much of its activity with a giant new brewery at Reading. As the costs of this project soared from £28 million to £63 million, the company's finances became stretched and property speculators began to eye the London brewery sites.

Seeking a white knight, Richard Courage turned to Imperial Tobacco, which welcomed the opportunity to diversify its interests. The take-over was duly negotiated, to the regret of some traditionalists within the Courage camp. He became a director of Imperial and remained chairman of Courage's until 1975. He was also a director of Norwich Union. In 1986 Imperial became part of the Hanson Group, which in turn sold Courage's to Elders IXL, an Australian brewer. Richard Courage played an important part in a campaign to ensure that Courage's pension fund was undiminished by the transfer.

Richard Courage was a deputy lieutenant of Essex and chairman of the governors of Brentwood School. He was a keen Mediterranean sailor. He married first, in 1941, Jean, daughter of Sir Charles Cunningham Watson. She died in 1977. He married, secondly, in 1978 Phyllida Derouet. There were three sons by the first marriage, of whom the eldest, the racing driver Piers Courage, was killed in the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix.