Ian Taylor, titan of oil trading who also invested millions reviving Harris Tweed – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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Ian Taylor in 2018 - Jason Alden/Bloomberg
Ian Taylor in 2018 - Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Ian Taylor, who has died of cancer aged 64, was an international oil trading tycoon who also rescued Harris Tweed and chaired the trustees of the Royal Opera House, of which he was a generous benefactor.

Taylor was chief executive from 1995 to 2018 of Vitol, which he helped build from a small Dutch fuel merchant into the world’s leading independent oil trading business, buying and selling up to eight million barrels of oil per day (equivalent to the consumption of much of western Europe) through operations in London, Houston and Singapore, and generating annual profits of more than $2 billion to be shared among its employee-owners.

Though its name is little known, Vitol is one of three intermediary firms – the others being Glencore and Trafigura, both offshoots of the pioneering operations of Marc Rich, the so-called “godfather of global commodity trading” – that transformed the modern oil market (previously tightly controlled by major producers).

As they did so, controversy was never far away. Vitol was fined by the US Department of Justice in 2007, and again in 2016 by a French court, for paying alleged kickbacks to officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq under the UN’s oil-for-food programme, though Taylor later described the practice as “totally above board”.

Princess Anne visits the Harris Tweed mill at Shawbost on the Isle of Lewis  - PA
Princess Anne visits the Harris Tweed mill at Shawbost on the Isle of Lewis - PA

Likewise he defended earlier Vitol dealings in Serbia – said to have involved a notorious warlord, Zeljko Raznatovic (aka Arkan) – on the grounds that “our client was the Serbian electricity authority”, and no oil was delivered until sanctions had been lifted.

Strife-torn Libya was another source of business: in 2011, during the uprising against Gaddafi, Taylor flew by private jet to Benghazi (at the        request of Qatari connections) to strike a deal to supply fuel to opposition forces that was eventually paid for from unfrozen Gaddafi assets.

A driving force in a very tough business arena, in private Taylor was a        man of good humour and humility who deployed a personal fortune recently estimated at £700 million for a variety of causes close to his heart.

In 2007 he contemplated leading a consortium bid for Manchester City, the football club he had supported since boyhood – until he was firmly dissuaded by his wife. In the same year he gave an enthusiastic affirmative to an approach to help save Harris Tweed, which appealed to his Scottish ancestry.

The request came from a Scottish Labour politician, Brian Wilson – a friend whom Taylor had first met on a trade mission to Cuba, when the pair “sat up with Fidel Castro until 4am, drinking the last bottles of 1956 Bordeaux donated by François Mitterand”.

Rolls of Harris Tweed cloth in a warehouse - Alun John/Alamy
Rolls of Harris Tweed cloth in a warehouse - Alun John/Alamy

Wilson – whose wife was a native of Lewis – had been asked to find rescuers for the weaving industry of the Outer Hebrides at a low moment in its fortunes, and turned to Taylor because “when I first got to know him, he said if there was ever anything useful he could do in Scotland, to let him know”.

Taylor proceeded to buy the derelict Shawbost Mill on Lewis and invest more than £3 million in bringing it back to life, creating 80 jobs and work for 130 self-employed, croft-based weavers. As the traditional fabric returned to high fashion, the Harris Tweed Hebrides company was named Scottish exporter of the Year in 2015.

Meanwhile, the charitable foundation established by Taylor and his wife Tina became a major supporter of Royal Opera and Royal Ballet productions, including six schools’ matinees staged in every season.

In 2013 he became chairman of the Opera House’s development board, and from 2016 – until failing health intervened – he chaired its board of trustees. The chief executive Alex Beard called him “a close friend to so many in the ROH family” who “brought a remarkable energy and enthusiasm to all he did”.

Ian Roper Taylor was born in Croydon on February 7 1956, the son of John Taylor, an ICI executive from Ayrshire, and his wife Margaret, née Robertson. Though he considered himself Scottish, for the most part Ian grew up in Manchester, with an interlude in Tehran when his father was posted there. He was educated at King’s School, Macclesfield, and Merton College, Oxford, where he read PPE.

After a period spent hitchhiking across Central Asia, Taylor joined the Shell oil company as a graduate trainee in 1978 and was posted first to Venezuela.

Specialising in the trading side of the business, he moved to Singapore in 1982 before leaving in 1985 to team up in London with another ambitious young trader, Bob Finch, who had embarked on developing Vitol as a potent new player in the oil market.

Taylor returned to Singapore in 1992 as managing director of Vitol Asia, at a time when the break-up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as an energy-hungry economic force were creating new opportunities in the market. He stood down as chief executive in 2018 after a bout of throat cancer, but continued as chairman until his death.

A donor to the Conservative Party, to the Better Together campaign against a vote for Scottish independence in 2014 (to which he gave £500,000), and to the Remain side in the EU referendum, he was reported to have been in line for a knighthood in David Cameron’s resignation honours list.

But he issued a statement asking for his name to be withdrawn (“if indeed I was being considered”), at the same time seeking to rebut allegations against Vitol that had been given new legs by opponents of the political causes he had supported.

Besides support for the arts, the Taylor Family Foundation gave donations of some £2 million a year to causes for underprivileged young people, community projects in Wimbledon – where Taylor lived – and many other charities.

Ian Taylor married Cristina (Tina) Hare, whom he first met in Venezuela, in 1982; she survives him with their four children.

Ian Taylor. born February 7 1956, died June 8 2020