Gordon Mackie, chairman of the once giant family firm in Belfast that made machines for processing jute and sisal – obituary

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Gordon Mackie (2018): an all-round free spirit, who flew gliders, Tiger Moths and hot-air balloons
Gordon Mackie (2018): an all-round free spirit, who flew gliders, Tiger Moths and hot-air balloons

Gordon Mackie, who has died aged 85, was the last family chairman of James Mackie & Sons, the textile machinery manufacturer which was a pillar of Northern Ireland’s Protestant industrial heritage; as a salesman for the firm, he once singed the moustache of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

The eponymous James Mackie was a native of Dumfries in Scotland who moved to Ireland and established, in 1858, a factory in West Belfast making spinning frames for the fast-growing linen thread industry, and later machines for processing jute and sisal; employing more than 6,000 workers (traditionally from the city’s Protestant community) at its peak, Mackie’s was a major exporter to the Empire and beyond. During both world wars, it converted to manufacturing munitions, including anti-aircraft shells.

It was in the early 1960s that Gordon Mackie was sent to Cuba to pitch for equipping a new sisal mill – Fidel Castro’s regime having already invested in Mackie machinery for a first plant making sugar bags. There he was befriended by the de facto industry minister in sweaty military fatigues: Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose hirsute features would later adorn a million student posters.

Guevara – Argentine-born, but part-Irish by ancestry – was expecting a full-scale delegation from Belfast. Surprised to find the amiable young Gordon Mackie on a solo mission, he drew him into wide-ranging conversation in which, Mackie recalled, Guevara exhibited “the total conviction of a Jesuit missionary”.

Late into the evening, Mackie had placed his cigarette lighter on the table between them, having inadvertently turned up the gas. When Guevara’s cigar went out, he reached for the lighter and directed its jet of flame at his own nostrils – but continued preaching revolutionary socialism as though nothing had happened.

Having learnt that Guevara was an enthusiast for target shooting, Mackie later sent him the gift of a Walther PPK pistol to thank him for the firm’s Cuban orders. “I often wondered,” Mackie said later, “if he had that pistol on him when he was captured and shot in Bolivia [in 1967].”

Gordon Mackie was born at Whiteabbey in Co Antrim on New Year’s Day 1937, the second of three sons of Lavens Mackie – a grandson of the company founder – and his wife Marian (“Mucki”), née Dorndorff, who was the daughter of a German manufacturer of linen thread.

A bright but rebellious pupil at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh and a Scottish schoolboy fencing champion, Gordon could have gone to Cambridge on a scholarship to read Modern Languages had he not been called into the business in 1954.

He was despatched for an apprenticeship in textile machinery at a jute mill in Spain which was a Mackie customer – and where local police dubbed him “the red devil” for his motorcycle antics.

At home in Northern Ireland, he and his brothers were devoted to rural pursuits, including falconry and punt-gun shooting, and to pyrotechnics. One house was burned down when they tried to clear magpie nests from it chimneys, another blown up when they left a biscuit tin of wet punt-gun powder drying in an Aga oven.

Lavens Mackie became chairman of the company in 1966 but died suddenly soon afterwards. Ten years later the family passed ownership of the company to a charitable trust for the benefit of its staff. But its fortunes declined with the advance of man-made fibres and the onset of the Troubles – its Springfield Road factory location being a sectarian flashpoint.

It was with some reluctance that Gordon Mackie took the helm as managing director and chairman in 1982 – and with sadness that he had to preside over a shrinkage of the workforce from 3,000 to less than 1,000 as debts and losses mounted. Refinancing talks with Northern Ireland’s Industrial Development Board, with a view to moving to a new site, led in 1989 to the takeover of Mackie’s by an American rival, Lummus Industries, and the resignation of Gordon Mackie from the chair.

A brief revival of the business as Mackie International followed after further changes of ownership in the mid-1990s – when Bill Clinton chose the plant as the venue for a speech in support of the peace process. But in 1999, with just 300 workers remaining, Mackie’s fell into receivership.

A gifted linguist, lively raconteur and all-round free spirit, Gordon Mackie was a keen glider pilot – despite having broken both legs, several ribs and his jaw in a horrific accident at Magilligan Point in 1957. He also flew Tiger Moths and hot-air balloons.

In retirement he made his home south of the border in Co Meath, worked abroad as a textile industry consultant and took an interest in a variety of local business ventures, including salmon and hemp farming, as well as beekeeping.

He married first, in 1963, Ann Falloon; the marriage was dissolved and he married secondly, in 1985, Ruth Hall, who survives him with their two daughters, and a son and two daughters of the first marriage.

Gordon Mackie, born January 1 1937, died 23 April 2022

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