Sir Martin Jacomb, City grandee closely linked to the ‘Big Bang’ revolution – obituary (2024)

Sir Martin Jacomb, who has died aged 94, was a barrister and merchant banker who became founder chairman of BZW, the investment banking arm of Barclays, and a key adviser to the government on the privatisation of British Telecom; he went on to be chairman of Prudential, Canary Wharf and the British Council.

Jacomb was once referred to as “the thinking man’s City grandee”. His early career at the Chancery bar taught him to extemporise on complex subjects with ease and elegance. Elaborate sentences delivered in slow, resonant tones combined with piercing blue eyes and a deceptively frail physique to create a mesmeric effect – especially on foreign bankers, who regarded him as something of a guru.

He disliked confrontation, but was irresistible and indefatigable in gentle persuasion. Though he was closely associated with the “Big Bang” revolution in London’s financial markets, his integrity and gravitas also personified older City values.

In 1985 Jacomb joined Barclays de Zoete Wedd, the nascent investment banking arm of Barclays Bank, from Kleinwort Benson. As with all the “integrated” investment houses formed in the City at that time, the merger of the stockbrokers de Zoete & Bevan and stockjobbers Wedd Durlacher with parts of Barclays was fraught with difficulty, involving new patterns of business risk, untried management structures and fierce in-fighting.

Jacomb brought to the merger a vision of what it might (and almost did) achieve 10 years later, and a personal authority, emolliently exercised, which over-rode internal conflicts. Having also been appointed deputy chairman of Barclays Bank, he was able to persuade the parent board to continue supporting its new venture despite early losses.

His response to the Black Monday stock market crash in October 1987 marked a significant moment in the firm’s development: as share prices plunged, Jacomb ordered his traders to continue offering prices whatever the result. BZW lost £70million on the day, but was recognised as a committed player in the new City.

Jacomb rarely involved himself in public controversy, but his views on topics such as the single European currency (which he believed could not be made to work without political union) or the explosive growth of the “derivatives” markets, were given prominence in the financial press.

On occasion he spoke out against what he regarded as over-zealous calls for additional City regulation. Though he worried that his much-quoted description of insider trading as “a crime without a victim” (by which he meant that share-trading was rarely a zero-sum game) was often taken out of context, he was adamant that the City was not “a spiv’s paradise”.

Martin Wakefield Jacomb was born in Surrey on November 11 1929, the youngest of five children of a City wool broker. He was educated at Eton, where his chief distinction was as a member of the shooting VIII. He saw National Service as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery before going up to Worcester College, Oxford, to read law, and was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1955.

In 13 years of Chancery work, Jacomb built an impressive reputation in tax and trust cases, and sometimes accepted more colourful briefs. He defended the zoo-keeper and gambler John Aspinall against an injunction brought by a neighbouring Kent farmer, restraining Aspinall from keeping bears and tigers. Jacomb also appeared for the widow of Lloyd George’s chauffeur, left penniless in her husband’s will.

Jacomb had all the attributes to become a High Court judge, but in 1968, following a path trodden by other barristers like his friend Philip Shelbourne (then at Rothschild), he chose to move to the City. He joined the corporate finance department of Kleinwort Benson, which had a growing reputation in takeover defence work.

Among the pioneering deals in which he was involved was a large share issue for Commercial Union in 1974, the first capital-raising of any significance since the stock market crash earlier that year. It marked a turn of the tide in City sentiment, and took Kleinwort to the top of the corporate finance league.

Jacomb became a vice-chairman of Kleinworts in 1976. In the early 1980s he moved from corporate finance to become head of the firm’s investment management division where, by his own account, he did not act decisively enough to increase profitability: this counted against him in the race for the chairmanship of Kleinworts, for which he was passed over in 1983.

But Jacomb’s name came to the fore in the following year, both as the leader of the Kleinwort team which advised the government on the privatisation of British Telecom and as a prominent thinker on City regulation and reform.

At £3.9 billion, the first BT share sale was by far the largest ever attempted in London: during one meeting with the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, Jacomb was the only City figure present who thought it could be done.

But the issue was a great success. Jacomb was credited with many of the original ideas which made it work and with an ability to articulate common ground between ministers, civil servants, bankers, brokers, lawyers and BT executives, all working under pressure in unexplored territory.

Meanwhile, he also helped to draft the rules of the post-Big Bang City, which allowed stockbrokers, stockjobbers and merchant banks to join forces (as in the case of BZW) to form American-style trading houses.

He favoured regulation that was efficient without being onerous, and, though in many ways an archetypal Establishment figure, he took every opportunity to downplay the popular image of the City as an old boys’ club.

Having chaired a committee of “wise men” formed to advise the Governor of the Bank of England in 1984 and served as deputy chairman of the Council for the Securities Industry, he was the obvious candidate to be the first full-time chairman of the Securities & Investment Board, the watchdog established in the following year. But he declined the invitation, preferring to take up the challenge of BZW.

Jacomb’s advice was sought in fields both in and out of the City. He sustained an extensive and often-changing portfolio of appointments, habitually dropping a cluster of directorships whenever he took on a new chair. After retiring from BZW in 1991, he became chairman of Postel Investment Management, the City’s largest pension fund management institution, and of the British Council – a job well suited to his diplomatic manner.

On leaving Postel in 1994 he became chairman of the Prudential Corporation until 2000; he was also chairman of Delta, a metals conglomerate, and Share Plc, a retail stockbroking business; his last major chairmanship, from 2003, was of the Canary Wharf property company.

At various times he was a member of the court of the Bank of England, an adviser to the US Federal Reserve, deputy chairman of Commercial Union and a director of Marks & Spencer, British Gas, RTZ, Christian Salvesen and The Telegraph. He served on the boards of the Royal Opera House, the OUP, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and was Chancellor of Buckingham University. He was knighted in 1985.

In later years he occasionally contributed to the business pages of The Spectator – and to Daily Telegraph obituaries. Into his nineties, though notably stooped, he remained active in City and political debate. He voted Remain in the EU referendum, “but only because the EU will collapse unless reformed, and I would like the UK to lead the reformation”.

Jacomb enjoyed “family bridge”, tennis and occasional shooting. He also liked to drive fast in his Jaguar sports car, making phone calls all the while.

He married, in 1960, Evelyn Heathcoat Amory; they had two sons (one of whom predeceased him) and a daughter.

Sir Martin Jacomb, born November 11 1929, died June 8 2024

Sir Martin Jacomb, City grandee closely linked to the ‘Big Bang’ revolution – obituary (2024)
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