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The Guardian: Sir Peter Holmes, Improbable, buccaneering chairman of Shell oil


Anthony Sampson

Friday March 15, 2002


Sir Peter Holmes, who has died aged 69, was an improbable chairman of Shell: an amateur historian and mountaineer, who joined the company as a temporary alternative to exploring. With his erect bearing and clipped talk, he appeared more military than commercial, but his twinkling eyes and mischievous smile suggested his independence of mind.


He had plenty of problems when he was appointed chairman in 1985. He had to cope with an abrupt drop in the oil price from $30 to $10 a barrel, which undermined much Shell exploration. But his strongest expertise was in marketing, and he was able to push up Shell's profits, overtaking the American oil giant Exxon.


He also faced angry protests by anti-apartheid protesters who were targeting Shell, demanding that it disinvest from apartheid South Africa. He confronted them with personal cool. He was determined to stay in there, but also to come to terms with the African National Congress.


Holmes met its London representative privately over dinners, and investigated their complaints that Shell was collaborating with the South African defence forces; he even helped to fund a training scheme to prepare ANC executives for government, something no other British company dared support at a time when Mrs Thatcher was boycotting the ANC. He was vindicated when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and subsequently thanked him for Shell's help.


Holmes had a touch of the buccaneer, and delighted in taking risks. He enjoyed strong opinions and theories about most things, and had a passionate interest in the cultures of countries where he worked, particularly Turkey and Nigeria, about which he wrote books.


He came from outside conventional Britain. He was born in Athens and, as a child, lived in Hungary, where his father had a business: his grandfather and great grandfather had both lived in Turkey, working for the Levant consular service; his mother was American. This internationalism equipped him well to run a global company beset by threats of nationalisation or expropriation, and his detached, analytical mind took him to the peak of the corporate world.


Holmes was educated at Malvern College, where he was inspired to try mountaineering by a master, Wilfred Noyce, who later climbed Mt Everest. He served as a national serviceman in the Royal Leicestershire Regiment during the Korean war, where he won the MC in 1952 for heroic assaults on Chinese troops. He returned to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read history, a subject that absorbed him, and spent vacations climbing mountains. After taking a degree in 1955, he spent two years with his wife Judy - also a mountaineer - on an expedition to the Himalayas, until the funds ran out.


Holmes joined Shell in 1956, to earn some money for four years before going back to the mountains. But he was soon fascinated by his postings in the third world: he was first sent to the Sudan; then learnt Arabic before going to Libya, after which he went to Dubai, where he established a personal relationship with the emir, Sheikh Rashid.


After the 1967 Arab-Israel war, Holmes complained that Shell filling stations were being attacked, despite their friendship. Rashid explained: "But they're attacking twice as many BP stations."


He returned to Libya in 1970 as Shell's chief representative, just as President Gadafy was beginning to jack up the oil price and intimidate the oil companies. But Holmes was a cool bargainer, with his command of Arabic and his sang-froid - and Shell survived. In 1977, he was sent on to Nigeria as managing director of the joint Shell-BP operations; Shell was again facing angry nationalism, but Holmes became fascinated by the Nigerians and their culture.


As chairman - he was only 52 when appointed - Holmes looked thoroughly in command in his corporate suite at the top of the Shell tower, relaxed and immaculate. But he still seemed to have come from an open-air world, detached from his more conventional colleagues, as if he had climbed up the building with crampons.


When he retired in 1993, he avoided taking up orthodox company directorships, but enjoyed becoming president of the Hakluyt Foundation, a discreet new outfit that provided intelligence for big corporations. He returned to exploration and travel; at one point, he was nearly killed in a light plane in Zambia.


Holmes' first marriage, which bore him three daughters, was dissolved in 1999. He then married an old American friend, Mary Snead, who had a daughter by her first marriage. They bought a spacious apartment at New Wardour Castle, in Wiltshire, filled with oriental carpets, old travel books and Peter's photographs. He relished his energetic new country life, fishing and walking in a wide-brimmed hat and making unusual new friendships.


Holmes was exceptionally active before he contracted leukaemia, which he fought courageously, but eventually in vain.


Peter Fenwick Holmes, business executive, born September 27 1932; died March 8 2002


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