Ian Taylor, who died in June of last year, ran Vitol for two decades. He was well-liked in the City not just for his business acumen, but for his philanthropy – which, it was revealed last week, continued after his death.
Bloomberg reported he left £1m to the Royal Opera House and significantly more than that to his family foundation. Ronel Lehmann, who knew Taylor, writes for City A.M. – with the help of two Prime Ministers and a host of City grandees – on Taylor’s life and legacy.
Ian Taylor is a name that may not necessarily be familiar to all, and he would not have minded that.
A giant of business and philanthropy, he was nevertheless, for all his success, a quiet and even shy man.
Born in Croydon, the son of an Imperial Chemical Industries executive, Taylor would grow up in Manchester. He spent some time as a boy in Tehran where his father conducted some business in Iran before the Ayatollah came to power.
This episode of early relocation established one of the leitmotifs of his life: an ease with other cultures that would put him in good stead in the oil industry. Taylor’s educational attainments were impressive. He was educated at King’s School Macclesfield from 1968-74 before going on up to Merton College to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics. The politics aspect of his studies prefigured the interest he would take in The Conservative Party later in life; meanwhile, many would later note his philosophical nature. But it was the economics background which would have an immediate bearing on his life.
In 1978, he joined Shell and prospered immediately, exhibiting traits which would be evident throughout his career: an ability to swim within global companies; a tendency to be quietly popular, infectiously kind and accordingly, loved; and a talent for finding oxygen and commercial manoeuvre within vast organisations.
All this went hand in hand with an interest in other cultures: this was the man who would later display an expertise in Libyan affairs which would be of help to his future friend David Cameron during his premiership. Taylor’s success at Shell – he held successful positions in both the Venezuelan and Singaporean arms of the business – was a precursor to his remarkable achievements at Vitol.
Taylor was one of those who proceeds steadily into the stratosphere, almost unnoticed – and then doesn’t mind it if he stays that way. In moving to Vitol in 1985, Taylor had happened upon his professional home for the next 33 years. What followed was a story of continual achievement.
Taylor spent seven years in London, but when the firm needed a man to be posted to Singapore as managing director of Vitol Asia, Taylor’s previous experience in the region was decisive. But it was just the beginning: he would go onto set up numerous operations within the company. His rise was built on hard work, good manners, and extensive knowledge of the business. By 1995, he had risen to become CEO, a position he would hold until 2018.
Under his tenure, Vitol had become the world’s biggest independent oil trading company with revenues in 2016 alone of some $152 billion.
But as impressive as was his core work for Vitol, the way in which he grew and sustained his outside interests was if anything more so. Taylor became a restauranteur, owning two small restaurants in Wimbledon, and famously shored up Harris Tweed from collapse in 2005. Years later, it is a thriving organisation.
One might have said that this gesture was a sign of the philanthropy to come – except that since 2002 Taylor had already been making notable charitable grants through Vitol. By 2006, the company had established the Vitol Foundation, which ‘looks for initiatives with the potential to generate social returns in a sustainable way.’
The effect of that work has been incalculable, with well over 2,000 projects supported – and counting – the charity supported 113 projects in 2019. These were considerable achievements, but Taylor was only just beginning. In 2007, he established the Taylor Family Foundation, with a specific focus on promoting education and the arts.
It is impossible to list the sheer number of projects the foundation has supported but the Royal Opera House, the Tate Foundation, Maggie’s, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice and tens of others would not be in the position they are today but for Taylor’s generosity. Politics continued to be an interest for him, and he became a valued adviser to leaders in both the political and business spheres.
He famously turned down a knighthood from David Cameron after the press delved into – and misunderstood – Vitol’s operations in Iraq and Iran.
Afterwards, with typical humour, he expressed himself relieved. He had become extraordinary, but the spotlight wasn’t necessary for someone who took meaning from life in proportion to what he could do for others. But not even the kind and the dedicated escape some form of ending up.
Taylor’s battle with cancer was a painful illness which his friends watched unfold with a sadness only mitigated by the fact that Taylor was never seen to complain. Indeed, as the ensuing reminiscences show, he only showed himself a more thoughtful colleague as the disease took hold. It only remains to be said that he is survived by his wife Tina and his four children, and that those we spoke to expressed the same admiration for them as they did for Ian.
Every so often, the suddenness of a person’s departure leaves its mark indelibly on his colleagues, business associates, friends and family. Ian Taylor was such a man. He will be missed as a giant of business and philanthropy. We learned from him and he taught so many, helping to advance the careers of protégés. His wise counsel, encouragement and interest in what Finito was doing to help young people obtain meaningful careers was infectious. We sat together at many events, including those which he hosted. In spite of the obvious difficulties, he never complained about his predicament. In fact, he was in my eyes even more inspirational for the fortitude which he displayed in trying to overcome adversity through funding pioneering medical research and proton beam therapies to help others suffering from the same condition. We all have something to thank him for, his supreme trust, dynamic energy, incredible kindness and humour. Ian Taylor will live forever in our hearts and never be forgotten. — Ronel Lehmann
Theresa May MP, former Prime Minister
To me Ian Taylor was primarily a gentleman and a philanthropist. Of course, he was a successful businessman and a political supporter, but what struck me from the first time I met Ian was his deep desire to help others and to improve their lives. He was a passionate believer in the importance of education. He knew that a good education gave young people the best start in life, and he wanted others to be able to be their best, achieve their goals and fulfil their dreams.
But perhaps the best example of his concern for others was seen when he received ground-breaking cancer treatment in Switzerland. Being Ian he didn’t just say, “Thank you it’s helped me”. He wanted others to benefit from it as well – hence the money he provided and the work he did to bring the treatment to the UK. He was good company, considerate of others and always a gentleman.
David Cameron, former Prime Minister
I first met Ian when I was Conservative Party Leader. He was a brilliant businessman, but also greatly understood politics and political realities. Wise, loyal, discreet; Ian was one of my most valued advisers – and, over the years, we became firm friends. I came to respect Ian’s counsel even more during my time as Prime Minister. Countless times – in particular during the Libyan conflict in 2011 – he acted in a way that helped his country, not his business.
Of course, alongside Ian’s business knowledge, was his philanthropy. Since it was set up in 2007, The Taylor Family Foundation has done truly amazing work – supporting vulnerable children and young people, and going a long way to improve Social Inclusion in this country.
Lord Spencer, Founder, NEX Group
Ian Taylor was one of my best friends – a man of humour and generosity and thoughtfulness. But he was far more than that. He was also an ‘achiever’.
A prodigious ‘doer’ of things – in business, with the spectacular success of Vitol, the oil trading group he built into a global titan, but also in art, culture and politics. He was a man of real presence who gave so much to his family and friends, his business associates and to politics. Of my contemporaries I hold him in a special place; I have had the greatest respect and admiration for him. It may be a cliché but it is totally true about Ian. He leaves the world a better place but with a great hole behind him. He will be much missed.
Dame Mary Richardson, Finito Advisory Board
I came into contact with Ian Taylor about 16 years ago when he was setting up the Vitol Foundation. As I was Chief Executive of HSBC’s new Foundation, I was approached informally for advice and was later invited onto his Foundation’s Advisory Board. I was immediately struck by Ian’s kindness in welcoming me warmly and ensuring that I felt at ease.
Throughout the many meetings I attended, which he chose not to chair, he was quiet, attentive, respectful of the views, which were sometimes conflicting, of the advisory board members. There was no dominance. He wanted to learn from any expert advice and his uncomplicated single aim was to do good and improve lives wherever possible, without recognition.
His approach was flexible even if this meant funding new projects in challenging areas. Possible failure did not deter him if the need was great. He was brave in his approach in this area of his life as he was in his illness. I eventually left the Vitol Foundation Advisory board after some years. Ian was already ill but typically he did not miss Foundation meetings. At my last meeting he was clearly unwell and in pain and I wondered if he would remember that I was leaving. It was typical of Ian that he not only remembered but had spent time considering how to thank me. He had arranged a valedictory charitable grant, a considerable sum of money to be donated to whichever charity I chose. Like all great leaders, Ian enriched lives. He enriched mine.
Jeremy Isaacs CBE, Founding Partner JRJ Group
I got to know Ian over the last six years. He had been unwell to varying degrees over that time which underlines both his physical strength and incredibly positive outlook. I had the privilege to develop what was for me an important relationship. I always learned something new after spending time with Ian.
Although we did quite a lot of business together, we rarely spoke about work, our conversations were about life, politics and philanthropy. The combination of his high intellect, remarkable generosity and of course his many unbelievable experiences always left me feeling amazed, optimistic and genuinely happier. He will be greatly missed by me but very fondly remembered.
A man of many talents, it simply isn’t possible to say it all in a few lines. But if I had to sum Ian up in one word, it would be ‘selfless’. That is how I will remember him.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ian Taylor and subsequently Tina at a Conservative Party function when David Cameron was our Prime Minister and I was Party Treasurer. I knew Vitol, the large and successful trading company that Ian led, from my former career at Man Group and knew how successful and large the company was, having had a few friends work there or do business with them.
I was surprised when I met Ian, by his quiet unassuming manner, the thoughtful way he approached politics and his devotion to his family. Having headed a FTSE 100 company for quite a few years, I knew how hard it was to balance one’s life between business (which could become all-consuming) and family. I had seen so many cases where a CEO chose business over family life or became rather self-obsessed and frankly a little arrogant.
Yet in Ian I saw someone who saw material success as just being part of life that earned him freedoms and one of those freedoms was to support his family and show his intense patriotism for our country through loyal devotion to the Conservative party.
At all the meetings and functions he attended, I never saw any case of him trying to use his really powerful status, role and the wealth that goes with it to try to dominate debate or push any agenda for his company. I just saw this remarkably humble guy talk passionately about his party and family and always ask about others. I saw him deal with the early and ongoing setbacks in his long brave battle.
My wife Barbara and I saw him attend functions usually with Tina, who was his rock. At a time when we all realised how awful it must have been to go through the pain, discomfort and partial disfigurement of his various treatments, he kept on attending and supporting the party. They would never let their lives be dictated by this cruel illness, nor did I ever see selfpity or bitterness that this gilded life he had built for his family and the colleagues that adored him had been undermined in his prime.
He was always optimistic that the disease was being overcome. Then came coronavirus and lockdown. Most of us spent our time following Government instructions limiting our social lives. Our horizons narrowed to our immediate friends, family and neighbours, and so Barbara and I were so sad when we learned of Ian’s passing. We were also saddened by the fact that we had never had the chance to show our respect, liking and affection for this lovely gentleman. Our thoughts are with Tina and the family. The world was a better place as he’d passed through it.
Andrew Law, CEO Caxton-Associates
Ian was a role model to aspire to. Aside from all his documented huge success in business, and his philanthropy, he was very much a citizen of his country and communities. Supporting struggling historic businesses in line with his Scottish heritage, or being active in his London locality, this was all second nature to Ian.
In addition, he had one very special gift above all that, personal generosity. By that I mean generous with his time, the greatest gift one so busy can give. Whether it was supporting Speakers for Schools with his personal appearances at state schools, celebrating friends’ important occasions, or visiting great charitable causes, nothing was ever too much. He had an innate ability to multi-task and see opportunity in even the most basic of interests.
As a lifelong supporter of Manchester City Football Club Ian saw the team’s renaissance a decade ago as an opportunity for good. He founded the Blue Moon Rising group of London-based lifelong long-suffering City fans. Aside from interesting dinners with the club hierarchy and former players, it was designed to support and drive the initiatives of the club’s charitable foundation – City in the Community. The group has had a tremendous impact around Manchester.
Ian’s ability to draw people into his circle and coalesce around common causes was legendary. The diverse group of fans who have participated includes a former World Cup-winning England rugby player, England cricketer, rock star, former head of the FSA and numerous others who all shared a common passion. Everyone aspired to be in his wonderful warm circle. In essence he made helping others fun.
Accommodating the demands of work, hobbies, friends and so forth alongside his family must have been a constant struggle. From the friend’s perspective, he was the one making sure that we would be back home to sleep wherever we had been in Europe following the trials and tribulations of his beloved football team. He was the one offering wise life counsel to those younger than himself. Ian was simply the most rounded accomplished individual I have had the pleasure of knowing.
Dominic Johnson, CEO, Somerset Capita
Ian Taylor was a very special man who cared deeply about his country and was a passionate Conservative. He built a hugely significant business in a very complex area where sheer determination and guts are the defining feature of those who are successful.
He was always unfailingly polite and interested whenever you met him and retained a strong sense of humble optimism right up until the last time I saw him, only a few months before he died – coming out of his office having done another full day’s work. In all seriousness I thought he was a genuinely great man and he will be missed by everyone who knew him, worked with him or who he supported through his incredible and understated generosity
Sir Michael Hintze
Ian Taylor was always a man of huge integrity. He also had a wealth of understanding of how to work in our very nuanced world. His depth of understanding of the politics in the emerging world, especially Cuba, made for fascinating and also entertaining insights. Closer to home he always spent the time to provide good counsel and excellent friendship. He gave selflessly to various charities and endeavours. The Conservative party in times of good and bad were always close to his heart. I will sorely miss his friendship and his insight. The world is poorer for his passing
Peter Cruddas, Founder and CEO, CMC Markets
Ian was a beacon of light, a great businessman and philanthropist. We both shared a similar passion for helping disadvantaged and disengaged youth. Nothing gave us more pleasure than helping young people to be able to get a better start in life. Ian was a magnificent example to the younger generation.