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Tribute by Sir Stephen O’Brien at The Lord Sheppard memorial service

The following is a tribute by Sir Stephen O’Brien at The Lord Sheppard memorial service. Lord Allen Sheppard, the founding chair of London First, sadly passed away on March 25th 2015.

We can always remember where and when we first met someone who subsequently played a major part in our lives. So it was for me with Allen.

We were standing together in the doorway of Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane waiting anxiously for the arrival of the Prince of Wales, who was late.

This extraordinary man, who didn’t do much small talk, asked me what I would like to do with the next stage of my life once BITC was behind me.

I replied – not having thought of the question before – “copy the regeneration project we had been working on in Halifax, but in London.” Allen said, if you decide to do this let me know and we could do it together. Four years later this was the beginning of London First.

It was also the beginning of Allen’s relationship with Prince Charles, which drew him into chair, or play a leading role, in virtually all the Princes major charities in the late 80’s and 90’s. These two men could hardly have been more unalike but they instantly recognised the different ways in which they could work, often together, for a more just society.

One of my favourite memories is of Allen and me visiting Highgrove to see HRH one late afternoon.   The Prince was busy and the Princess rescued us, took us into a pantry and asked us if we would like a drink.   She suggested a gin and tonic. Pouring and mixing cocktails was plainly an area for which she had little training or experience. We were confronted with a very large tumbler of gin and an almost non-existent dash of tonic. Allen rose magnificently to the occasion and in consuming this mixture, undertook a very delicate piece of negotiation between the Princess and her husband, which earned him the gratitude of both.

I think Allen saw the world as a unity. He was totally classless, although I do remember him occasionally explaining to a general or an admiral that he had once been a Corporal in the army pay corps. He applied the same business common sense he had learnt, to all the charities he led. He would worry on and on, pacing for hours around a Board table or desk until there was a clear and believable strategy. He would then retain this in his head, shred all the papers and be totally on top of the detail as he asked for progress on implementation.

His passion for London knew no bounds. He brought into London First a fantastic array of business friends, choosing those he admired and knew would deliver. These included Colin Marshall, John Egan, Michael Pickard, Clive Strowger, Ian Henderson and many, many more. All came because they wanted to work with Allen and admired him deeply. Dragooned by Brenda and his personal staff we became a formidable regiment.

But this sense of seeing the world as ONE meant that he was equally at home with the politics of London.   Perhaps most extraordinarily of all, he led the London Pride Partnership, which drew together the business and local government worlds in a totally unique way.   He built warm and deep relationships right across the spectrum so that great leaders of the City, like Michael Cassidy and Judith Mayhew-Jonas could sit around the table with Ken Livingstone, Toby Harris and Nicky Gavron and many, many more.   This was new and unlikely but contributed hugely to London’s pre-eminence as a world class city.   And we haven’t seen the end of his influence yet :  Crossrail was a tangible campaign he led but he argued just as forcefully for the creation of the GLA and a London Mayor.

Allen was a particularly faithful man: he was faithful to the things which would make a difference to ordinary folk – like Higher Education.  He felt he had benefitted from his time as a student at the LSE and thereafter was always engaged offering support and encouragement to its successive leaders. He was a totally dedicated Chancellor of Middlesex University and perhaps his favourite activity here was handing out degrees:  he never failed to make the recipients feel special as they tripped across the stage for their moment in the sun.

He was faithful to all those who worked around, or for him. To Tom Shebbeare, Julia Cleverdon, Robert Davies, Jo Valentine, Robert Gordon Clark, supporting them, encouraging them and letting them know how highly he thought of them. Indeed Robert Gordon Clark remembers receiving Allen’s annual Christmas card with a humorous comment which he says contained a mark awarded for performance in the previous year. This never, Robert says, was less than 9 out of 10, was often 9 out of 10, but never got to 10! The point being Allen sought perfection and we never quite got there.

He was comfortable on the big stage like visiting Thatcher in Scotland for a discussion on economics.   He was equally comfortable on the small stage, supporting with passion animal welfare. Allen had no explicit creed or allegiance to a particular church, group or tribe. He simply wanted to improve things, get things done and would work with anyone who could help with that mission. A wry smile was his only reaction to a Secretary of State who announced a new initiative as entirely his own when we all knew that the strategy and energy had come directly from Allen.

He was a great Londoner and even if he had a bias to East London, where he did so much of his growing, virtually everything in our Capital intrigued him.

At the heart of Allen’s life was Mary. I know this because he used to give me a lift home in the evening.   Before the two of us could speak of the great London events of the day, he would always call Mary from the car. There would follow a period where Allen would gently ask her about the events of her day.   I knew from his tone and the way he listened that this was the anchor point of this whole existence.

Mary, we have all lost a wonderful friend, and in my case, a terrific mentor as well but our loss is as nothing compared with yours. Everyone here this morning joins me in wanting to wrap you around with our love for you and admiration for Allen.

This humorous, completely straight forward and genuine human being was simply the greatest business leader I have known. He understood brands – more or less invented them, the importance of earnings per share and the running of a great international business, but more than that, he knew to the very fibre of his being that business and its leaders amount to nothing unless they spend much of their creativity in raising living standards, caring for those in the greatest need and thus establishing a society into which they can sell more of their products and services.

I imagine this great human being, my hero and friend, is still pacing up and down, but now around St. Peter’s throne where they are working out a fresh and fairer admissions strategy with Allen insisting on the acceptance of those he served so well through BITC, Prince’s Trust, International Business Leaders Forum, Tomorrow’s People and London First.

For those of us here today he will remain our inspiration for the rest of our lives.

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