As chairman of Lloyds Bank for 15 years from 1977, Sir Jeremy Morse, who has died aged 87, was the most successful senior banker of his generation.
While he benefited enormously from good luck, his period in charge saw Lloyds rise from the bottom of the Big Four league table of UK clearing banks to become the most profitable of the group. And the strong foundations laid under his chairmanship enabled it to leapfrog its rivals with the takeover of TSB in 1995.
In fact, the Lloyds job was effectively a consolation prize for a man who was almost a governor of the Bank of England and came close to the top job at the International Monetary Fund on several occasions.
The son of Kinbarra (nee Armfield-Barrow)and Francis Morse, he came from an East Anglian brewing family and was in line to follow previous generations into the boardroom of Steward & Patteson. But after Winchester and New College, Oxford, he went into the City to get a view from the other side of the business world. In the meantime the brewer was taken over by Watneys, sealing his fate in the world of finance.
Morse started with the tiny Scottish bank Glyn, Mills (later part of Royal Bank of Scotland), where his intellectual ability shot him to the boardroom. The Bank of England recruited him in 1965, making him its second youngest executive director ever, at the age of 36. It was a time of turmoil in the monetary world, with a devaluation of the pound soon following and the collapse of the postwar international currency system coming in the early 1970s.
As the bank’s director for international affairs, Morse was plunged into the centre of this turmoil. He chaired the IMF’s Committee of 20 which was charged in 1972 with developing a new global currency system. Two years later the attempt at a new world financial order collapsed. The failure was attributed mainly to the oil crisis, which further destabilised the global economy, but Morse’s tendency to intellectual pedantry and his lack of interest in massaging egos was also said to have made him unsuited to a role that required careful diplomacy and powers of persuasion rather than logic.
Back in Britain, he moved out of the central bank into the boardroom of Lloyds – at 45 its youngest director by far. He was knighted in 1975, the year he became deputy chairman, and was in line to become chairman, which duly happened in 1977. But there was also a clear potential career path back into the Bank of England when the governor’s position next became vacant.
When the vacancy arose, in the early 80s, however, the job was in the gift of Margaret Thatcher, who did not take to Morse’s intellectualism and essentially anti-political stance. An old-fashioned Tory, he could not stand political bickering and his politics were nowhere near as strong as his religion, which instilled in him a serious ethical streak concerned with doing the right thing and treating people properly.
As it happened, his international experience was crucial in saving Lloyds when the Latin American debt crisis hit in 1982. Lloyds had lent to south American governments no less wisely than its peers, but it had a much larger presence in the continent, and therefore suffered hugely.
In some respects the South American crisis was a blessing in disguise. It made Lloyds concentrate on its profitable British business, preventing the bank joining UK rivals such as Barclays and NatWest on misguided adventures in the US and in investment banking. As a result Lloyds ended the 90s under Morse as one of the strongest of the Big Four. Much of the credit for that must go to his chief executive and successor as chairman, Sir Brian Pitman, for Morse was always a non-executive, though full-time, chairman. Morse was the one for managing relationships with the Bank of England and the government, and for strategic thinking rather than hands-on management.
Thinking was his strong point, and his cerebral style was said to have been a model for the television detective Inspector Morse, whose creator, Colin Dexter, was a friend. His powerful intellect was evident at an early stage – he remembered helping his parents with the Times crossword when still in short trousers. This ability bred a certain intellectual arrogance, although he was pleasant on a personal level and almost diffident about his own abilities.
It also left him happy with his own company. While he was a dedicated family man – he married Belinda Mills in 1955 and had five children – he was not the kind of businessman to seek out the company of his fellows. Morse did the necessary round of City lunches and dinners, and enjoyed speaking at them, but he did not take on the usual batch of outside directorships. He also enjoyed commuting via the London Underground, but the pleasure seemed to come from observing rather than being part of the crowd.
Despite his long spell at the top of the financial world, Morse’s ethical beliefs left him troubled about the nature of banking in the 90s. He worried about poor service for customers, the move into financial services such as insurance and pensions, and the effect on staff of branch closures and automation. He also got into trouble with his fellow bankers when he declared that he had never borrowed in his life.
One of his daughters predeceased him. He is survived by his wife and by three sons and a daughter.
• Christopher Jeremy Morse, banker, born 10 December 1928; died 4 February 2016
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