One of the most respected and influential figures in the Welsh business community, Keith James, has died after a short illness aged 78.
His impressive career saw him becoming chair of legal firm Eversheds in 1995 (now Eversheds Sutherland) where he oversaw impressive growth both in the UK and internationally. Other prominent roles included chairing the only headquartered commercial bank in Wales, Hodge.
With a first class intellect he was a hugely effective operator around the corporate boardroom, while remaining a self-effacing man at heart noted for his warmth, empathy and supportive nature towards colleagues and friends.
Educated at Cowbridge Grammar School, Cardiff High School for Boys and West Monmouth School, after graduating in law from Queens’ College, Cambridge, he started his legal career in Cardiff in 1967 with Phillips & Buck.
With an acute legal mind and flair for business he quickly progressed and was made a partner two years later, having built up an impressive corporate client base drawn from South Wales and beyond. This included acting for financier Sir Julian Hodge and his family – a professional relationship that would span 50 years. He retired as a partner from Eversheds in 2004.
Against the back of de-industrialisation and the onset of the dismantling of what had been the backbone of the Welsh economy for over a century, in steel and coal, in 1986 he co-authored a seminal paper with Geraint Talfan Davies, then at HTV Wales.
This set out a vision for an independent body that could provide an informed counter to prevailing thinking on all aspects of Welsh life, including critically its economy.
A year later the non-political Institute of Welsh Affairs, now called the IWA, was established with Mr James serving as a board member for more than a decade. Today it remains an important ‘critical friend’ of decision makers, while providing new thinking on economic and societal issues.
Mr Talfan Davies, who first met Mr James when they were third year pupils at Cardiff High School for Boys – striking up a close friendship that endured more than 60 years – said: “Keith’s contribution to his community was immense and bridged not only decades, but also many fields: the legal world, the world of business, education, the universities, arts and heritage. He brought not just expertise, but wisdom and a warm empathy to the table. He was a patient listener and a very wise counsellor.
“He has been the unsung champion of business in South Wales for half a century. He helped create Eversheds and chaired it for nine years. It’s astonishing how many people, businesses and organisations owe him an immense debt of gratitude. He had broad interests, read widely, walked the coast and mountains in Wales and cared deeply about the environment.
“He was also the truest of friends. Back in the 1980s we worked together to establish the IWA. I cobbled suitable words, but it was Keith who made it happen. He always wanted positive change and was passionately against a culture of private complaint and public silence that is always a danger in a relatively small community.
“If you were looking for a role model of an engaged and effective citizen, you would need to look no further. He will be missed by many, but above all his wife Linda, and the children and grandchildren to which he was totally devoted.”
Mr James served on the main board of motor insurance to loans group Admiral between 2002 and 2012 – a period of huge growth for what is now Wales’ only FTSE 100 business which also saw it floating on the London Stock Exchange. He chaired its nomination committee and was a member of its audit committee, while remaining on the board of group company Admiral Insurance until 2020.
Co-founder and former chief executive of Admiral, Henry Engelhardt, said: “Keith was a role model for us all. Thoughtful, energetic, that rare individual who everyone looks up to. Keith had so many positive qualities, but if I forced to sum him up in a single word it would be integrity. He led by example and always showed you the right way to do things. The world is a poorer place without him.”
Admiral Group’s chief finance officer, Geraint Jones, said: “We were all deeply saddened to learn that Keith James had passed away. Keith was a complete gentleman and someone to whom people would regularly turn to for his counsel – and great sense of humour. He made an incredible contribution to Admiral and remained a role model to me over the years.
“He will be very sorely missed and, on behalf of the group, I would like to offer our most sincere condolences to his family.”
Maintaining his long relationship with the Hodge family he spent 15 years on the board of Hodge Bank, including a five year stint at its chair, before standing down in 2017. He also chaired listed gift wrap to stationery business International Greetings, which has its UK manufacturing base at Ystrad Mynach, as well as being a board member of Bank of Wales.
He received an OBE in 2005 for his services to the legal profession and the community.
His numerous other roles included chairing the National Trust’s advisory board in Wales and until recently was a board member of the not-for-profit Moondance Cancer Initiative set up by Mr Engelhardt and his wife.
Chair of Eversheds Sutherland, Kathryn Roberts, said: “Keith will be missed by his many friends at Eversheds Sutherland. His legacy is enormous, as a trailblazer within our firm and as a true pioneer in the legal sector. He started his legal career in 1967 with what was then Phillips & Buck, later to become Eversheds. He was a partner in our Cardiff office for many years before becoming chair of the wider business in 1995 and going on to play a leading role in the creation, development and management of one of the largest law firms in the world.
“Keith maintained close ties with the firm after he retired from the partnership in 2004 and, true to form, was incredibly kind to me when I recently took over the role as chair of the firm.
Keith was wise beyond words, had outstanding business acumen and a special talent for connecting and developing people. As a firm we are indebted to him and as a friend I will miss him a great deal. Our condolences and love go to Linda, Alys, Lizzie and Tom.”
Director of the IWA, Auriol Miller, said:“The IWA is deeply saddened to hear of the death of Keith James. In 1986, Keith and Geraint Talfan Davies had a vision of an independent space for public discussion of key issues that mattered in relation to Wales’ current and future economy.
It became the IWA, spanning political and policy lines, its purpose evolving over the 36 years since it was founded to educate people on the economic, social and environmental impact of the options facing Wales. Keith was stalwart in his support of the IWA, unfailingly supportive in both practical and thoughtful ways. He was also immeasurably kind, generous with his time and wisdom, and a pleasure to work with. We shall miss him greatly and will be marking his significant contribution to public life in Wales in the coming days.”
Chief executive of Hodge, David Landen, said: “Keith was on the Hodge board for 15 years between 2002 to 2017. The last five of those years he was our chair, but even before that he supported the Hodge family and group of businesses for more than 50 years.
“Keith was such a great part of Hodge’s history, and through his time on the board was such a wonderful ambassador for Hodge. He was always accessible and approachable for all colleagues, and always calm and insightful even during difficult times for the financial services industry.
“I, like so many other members of the Hodge team, feel lucky to have known Keith and he will be sadly missed. Our thoughts are with his family.”
Mr James is survived by his wife Linda and their three children Alys, Lizzie and Tom.