Gallery: ‘A truly pivotal figure in our community’ - memorial service celebrates life of Sir Michael Marshall
He was, by any measure, a remarkable individual, popular and respected across Cambridge and beyond.
It was fitting then, that an extraordinary memorial service should be held to celebrate the life and achievements of Sir Michael Marshall.
Ely Cathedral - a place he loved - was the setting for last Thursday’s gathering of family, friends, business figures and community leaders, all of whom had a story to tell of their memories of Sir Michael.
He died, at the age of 87, on July 27 last year while on holiday in Spain with his wife, Lady Sybil, and friends.
Those who saw in the days before his death described him as having his usual boundless energy.
Prof Lord Robert Mair, emeritus professor of civil engineering and director of research at the University of Cambridge, told those gathered: “He was always on the go, whether running the Marshall Group, supporting charities or entertaining. He and Sybil were extremely good at throwing parties. He had a joie de vivre which was exceptional for an 87-year-old.”
And, Lord Mair revealed, this extended into some surprising areas.
“There was never a dull moment with Michael. He had tapes and CDs in his car of his favourite music, the Spice Girls. This sense of fun and enthusiasm for all things was infectious,” he said.
The son of Sir Arthur Marshall and grandson of David Marshall, who founded Marshall of Cambridge on October 1, 1909, Michael was born in Cambridge and spent two years in Canada during the Second World War.
He returned at the age of 10 and attended St Faith’s Prep School, before progressing to Eton.
He learned to fly in a Tiger Moth at the age of 17, sparking a lifelong love of aviation, and did his national service in the RAF.
Lord Mair told the service how his skills was demonstrated when a flight over North Wales went badly wrong: “He couldn't eject because his flying suit had somehow stuck and so, with considerable aplomb, he crash-landed the plane in a field. Quite badly hurt, the intrepid Michael found his way to the door of a very surprised farmer and asked to use his phone. The farmer lent him a bicycle...”
Hewent on to read history at Jesus College - his father’s college - in 1952, where his tutor described him as “charming” and noted: “He would do very well in his studies were it not for him spending most of his time on the river.”
An accomplished oarsman, Michael stroked in the 100th Boat Race against Oxford, held in 1954 and a year later rowed for Britain in the 1955 European Championships.
That year, he also joined the family business.
He became managing director of Marshall (Cambridge) Limited, now Marshall Motor Group, in 1963, before becoming deputy chairman of the Marshall Group of companies in 1965. He became the company’s third group chairman and chief executive in 1989, and remained as chairman until 2016.
“His love of flying never diminished,” noted Lord Mair. “He hugely enjoyed flying his plane and flied it on business from factory to factory all over the UK in the 1970s and 1980s.”
To mark his 60 years of flying, he was planning a flight in Morocco - and did a test flight to 14,000ft with Terry Holloway, the managing director of Cambridge Aero Club and Marshall Group historian.
“Michael ensured that aviation also remained central to the Marshall business, continuing to inspire Marshall’s keen interest in flying. Under his exceptional leadership, the Marshall Group hugely expanded their aerospace and automotive businesses.
“Amongst his many achievements, Michael was pivotal in obtaining a highly successful contract for the maintenance of the UK government's fleet of C-130 Hercules.”
And he oversaw “major contributions” from Marshall in supporting the UK Armed Forces during both Gulf Wars and The Falklands, and in more recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sir Michael also led Marshall Motor Group as it grew from a small local business representing Austin and later British Leyland to one of the country’s largest motor groups.
“He was very proud of how Marshall Motor Group has continued to grow since it was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2015, and is now one of the top dealer groups in the UK, with more than 100 dealerships spread right across the country, representing more than 20 different manufacturers,” said Lord Mair.
Sir Michael was a personable character, who took great interest in others, and was once described as “the best boss you can possibly imagine”.
“Throughout the expansion and development of the Marshall Group, Michael always had an enormous sense of the worth of those who worked for the company,” said Lord Mair. “He had an especially strong personal commitment to apprentices and to their development. His thoughtfulness, kindness and attention to detail made a huge impression on so many Marshall employees.”
When the company turned 100 in 2009, a special dinner was held attended by 27 families who had each given more than 100 years of service to the company - nearly 4,000 working years between them.
“Michael knew them all. He always took the time to show a remarkable level of personal interest in everyone. He ensured that Marshall’s was truly a family business,” said Lord Mair.
His interests extended well beyond the family business, however.
“Michael also cared hugely about Cambridge. He passionately believed the city, the university and the county should work together, and he worked tirelessly to achieve this. He thought and cared a great deal about what was needed to ensure Cambridge's continuing success,” said Lord Mair, adding he shared many such conversations with him.
And his interest in building a better future for Cambridge meant he had a strong interest in helping younger people.
He was a keen supporter of the Air Cadets, of flying scholarships and bursaries.
And he enjoyed the company of students at college dinners.
“He was usually to be seen with a twinkle in his eye looking inquisitively over the top of his glasses, often not entirely convinced by what his learned companion was saying, but he was always pleasant, always interested, invariably displaying an English sense of humour that was one of his hallmarks,” recalled Lord Mair.
His interests were broad. He installed solar panels at his home in Swaffham Prior in pursuit of sustainability. He enjoyed gadgets - perhaps wishing he read engineering instead of history - and bought himself a drone, although his flying skills didn’t help him much here.
“He was a great walker and would often subject unsuspecting guests at Swaffham Prior House to a 12-hour walk through the nearby Fens, sometimes exhausting them, yet he was always full of energy. Being full of energy was another of Michael's hallmarks,” said Lord Mair.
“Above all, Michael was an immensely charming and considerate man, who took an interest in all people, whoever they were, whatever they were doing. Given the huge number of people he knew and came into contact with, it was extraordinary how he was able to take the time to show such a high level of personal interest in everyone. He was a fine, generous and kind man and an outstanding businessman.”
He was the “epitome of the true English gentleman”, suggested Lord Mair, and “a truly pivotal figure in our community”.
No-one gathered at Ely Cathedral to pay tribute to him was going to argue with that.
More by this authorPaul Brackley