Norman Lessels, leading Scottish accountant who was chairman of Standard Life and a patron of the arts – obituary

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Norman Lessels: chaired the finance committee at the Royal & Ancient golf club of St Andrews
Norman Lessels: chaired the finance committee at the Royal & Ancient golf club of St Andrews

Norman Lessels, who has died aged 83, was a leader of the Scottish accountancy profession whose boardroom portfolio included the chairmanships of Standard Life and Cairn Energy.

In 1978 Lessels joined the board of Standard Life, the Edinburgh-based assurance and pensions institution, and was its chairman from 1988 to 1998. He was also a director of Bank of Scotland, in which Standard Life held a one-third shareholding.

But he was at the centre of a rare storm among Edinburgh’s financial establishment when in 1996 his Standard board revealed a plan to sell its Bank stake – which represented a disproportionately large slice of Standard’s investment holdings. The sale threatened to put Bank of Scotland into play as a takeover target, and its announcement provoked the resignation from the Standard board of the Bank’s Governor, Sir Bruce Pattullo.

The share sale proceeded and Lessels remained a non-executive director of Bank of Scotland in a personal capacity – until a year later, when Standard announced that its next strategic move would be to launch a competitor bank of its own. Lessels promptly resigned from the bank’s board “to avoid any possible conflict of interest”.

A third-generation chartered accountant, Norman Lessels was born in Edinburgh on September 2 1938 to John Lessels and his wife Gertrude, née Jack, and was educated at Edinburgh Academy.

Apprenticed with Graham, Smart & Annan in Edinburgh, Lessels completed his training with Thomas McLintock & Co in London, qualifying in 1961, and made his early career as a partner of another Edinburgh firm, Wallace & Somerville, which in due course merged with Whinney Murray and in 1979 became part of the larger firm of Ernst & Whinney.

It was in that year that Lessels suffered a life-changing family tragedy. Driving to collect his elder son Alasdair from Rannoch School in Perthshire for the Christmas holiday, he skidded and crashed on black ice on the A9 near Kinross. His wife Gillian, their younger son James and daughter Sarah were killed and Norman suffered severe burn injuries.

After recuperating, he moved to a smaller Edinburgh accounting firm, Chiene & Tait (where he was senior partner from 1993 to 1998), and acquired a variety of non-executive roles. Approachable and well networked, he was in demand both as a source of wise advice – particularly for companies contemplating public listings – and as a mentor to younger professionals.

His directorships ranged from Edinburgh-based investment trusts to Britain’s oldest fireworks manufacturer, Brocks (which had a factory in Dumfriesshire), Robert Wiseman Dairies of East Kilbride, and the Dunfermline Press, a local newspaper publisher.

In 1988 he joined the board of Cairn Energy, the oil and gas exploration venture founded by the former Scottish rugby international Sir Bill Gammell, ahead of its listing on the London Stock Exchange.

Lessels was chairman from 1991 to 2002, a period in which the company (called Capricorn Energy today) switched its focus from the US and the North Sea towards new discoveries in India and Bangladesh.

He was also chairman of Havelock Europa, a commercial furnishings business at Kirkcaldy.

Norman Lessels was a past president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. He was appointed CBE in 1993.

He was a patron of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens. He enjoyed bridge at the New Club in Edinburgh and golf at Muirfield, Gullane and the Royal & Ancient at St Andrews. Chairing the finance committee at the Royal & Ancient, he took pride in having brought the club’s business practices into the modern era.

He married first, in 1960, Gillian Clark; after her death he married secondly, in 1981, Christine Hitchman, who survives him with his son Alasdair from his first marriage.

Norman Lessels, born September 2 1938, died June 15 2022

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