John Kidston Swire

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John Kidston Swire
Born 19th February 1893
London
Died February 22, 1983(1983-02-22) (aged 90)
Spouse(s) Juliet Richenda Barclay
Parents John 'Jack' Swire and Emily Hamilton Campbell Kidston

Biography

John Kidston Swire, known to his family and friends as Jock, was the elder son of Jack Swire (1861-1933) and grandson of John Samuel Swire. He joined the family business in 1913 and arrived in Hong Kong just before the outbreak of World War I. As a commissioned officer with the Essex Yeomanry, from August 1914 he was attached to the Hong Kong Volunteer Corps as 2nd Lieutenant, patrolling nightly between Deep Water Bay and Aberdeen on his horse, Shanghai, to keep a lookout for German raiders. In so doing, he earned himself the nickname ‘Deep Water Bay Hussar’.

Like his father and grandfather, an accomplished and passionate horseman, Jock Swire also spent his leisure hours in the saddle, competing regularly in amateur race meetings and gymkhana events at Happy Valley Racecourse. After frantically seeking to be released for active duty, he rejoined the Essex Yeomanry in France in 1915. During the war, he was twice wounded, remaining partially deaf as a result, before being appointed as an instructor at the Cavalry Corps Equitation School. His younger brother Glen was killed in action at Ypres in 1915, aged 18 years.

After his release from the armed forces at the end of 1919, Jock Swire was made a Director of John Swire & Sons and put in charge of the company’s overseas staff. Throughout his career, he retained a strong sense of obligation to Swire staff and went to great lengths to try to improve conditions for them. He was ahead of his time in realising the importance of communicating with staff at all levels and ensuring that employees felt valued and were adequately rewarded and motivated to reach their full potential. His — for the time — revolutionary innovations included giving female staff the same employment conditions as men; recruiting graduates from the best universities to train for management positions in Swire’s China offices, and insisting they learn to speak Chinese and assimilate Chinese customs and culture. He also set about replacing the out-dated comprador system with Chinese university graduate management trainees.

During World War II, Jock Swire was made Chairman of the London Shipowners Dock Labour Committee (1941-5) involving tortuous negotiations with the unions to ensure the smooth operation of requisitioned merchant shipping carrying troops, fuel and stores to back up the Allied advance. When German bombing became intense, Swire, with typical generosity, evacuated his staff to his mother’s house in Essex and they commuted to London together daily.

By the end of the war, the firm faced critical losses in its shipping business; its established Hong Kong industries lay in ruins, other properties looted. In 1946, now Chairman of JS&S, Jock Swire toured the firm’s interests around the region, consulting with and encouraging staff and planning the resurrection of his shattered businesses; it was largely thanks to his courage, fortitude, optimism and foresight that Swire’s operations were rebuilt. There was no war damage insurance to turn to and it took a very great idealist to borrow money to start again at a time when few would have predicted Hong Kong’s future success. If Hong Kong were to survive, it would be critical that its status as a free port be restored and made credible. It was established firms like Swire and Jardines, together with the banks, which had faith in Hong Kong and were willing to take the risks that laid the foundations for its future prosperity. Typically, Jock Swire said afterwards he did it from a sense of duty to his staff past and present.

Jock Swire was also instrumental in creating one of the world’s best-known airlines. Despite an unpromising introduction to air travel in 1930, when he bucketed across China piloted by a drunken American pilot who sat his girlfriend on his knee and let her fly the plane, Jock Swire became fascinated by the world of aviation. Early on he realised the future of transport lay in the sky. In spite of the misgivings of his more conservative directors — and particularly his uncle, Warren Swire — he persuaded the board to acquire a majority stake in Cathay Pacific Airways and to take on its management. It took resolution to nurse Cathay through the early battles for traffic rights — battles that echoed the rate wars his grandfather had fought to establish his shipping business on the Yangtze. Jock Swire lived to see his shoe-string airline grow into a respected international carrier.

Jock Swire was tall and good looking, with an immense zest for life. He enjoyed meeting people, made friends easily and had a ready wit and sense of the absurd. A man of great integrity, he was certainly no mincer of words if he believed something was wrong or unjust. Critically, he listened to others, absorbed their opinions and was willing to change his own.

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