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Thursday, 02 October 2014

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Cumbrian business giant Bill Lowther retires

Bill Lowther, a colossus of Cumbrian business for five decades, has retired at the second attempt.

Bill Lowther photo
Bill Lowther

The 73-year-old is stepping down as deputy chairman of Innovia Films in Wigton, ending a career with the company and its predecessors going back 57 years.

He retired before, in 2003, but was tempted back a year later when then Belgian parent company, UCB, sold the business to its management team backed by venture capital. Mr Lowther is credited with saving the polypropylene and cellophane film maker from closure when the Wigton site was under threat in the 1980s.

His efforts were rewarded with the OBE, CBE, the freedom of Allerdale, and the title of Wigton’s “man of the millennium” in 2000.

He has a block at the town’s Nelson Thomlinson School named after him and now the research and development facility at Innovia bears his name too.

David Beeby, chief executive of Innovia, told staff this week: “In recognition of Bill’s outstanding contribution to the business, I am delighted to announce that we will be renaming the R&D building. With immediate effect, the building will be known as the Lowther R&D Centre.”

He added: “I am sure you will all join me in thanking Bill for his massive contribution to our business and wishing him a long, healthy and happy retirement with his family.”

Mr Lowther grew up in Cross Lane, Wigton. He left school at 15, following his father’s footsteps to what was then British Rayophane as an apprentice engineer.

He studied part time to become a chartered engineer and promotion followed.

In 1970 British Sidac, as British Rayophane had become, built a polypropylene film plant at Wigton in a joint venture with ICI.

He was appointed works engineer and became site general manager in 1976.

By then, British Sidac had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Belgian concern UCB. Mr Lowther was appointed to British Sidac’s board and sent to the US to get an MBA at Harvard Business School.

He rose to become director general of UCB’s Films division, in charge of factories worldwide. Under his stewardship the Wigton site went from strength to strength, winning the prestigious Queen’s Award for Export twice in 11 years.

UCB developed profitable niche markets becoming the world number one in bottle labels, polypropylene wrapping for cigarettes, perfumes and CDs, and in security film used as a base material for banknotes. In 1991 he was awarded an OBE for services to the packaging industry and in 1998 a CBE for services to industry and to the local community.

In between, he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre de Leopold – the Belgian equivalent of a knighthood – for services to industry. This is the highest honour of its kind ever given to a non-Belgian.

Mr Lowther, a married father of three who lives in Carlisle, repeatedly won a place in the North West Power 100 list of the region’s most influential individuals.

He chaired the Cumbria Strategic Partnership, West Cumbria Development Agency and the Cumbria Board of the Prince’s Youth Business Trust, and was made Deputy Lieutenant of Cumbria in 1991. He served on the boards of BNFL, Cumbria Vision and the University of Central Lancashire, was a governor of three schools and a magistrate for many years including a spell as chairman of the Wigton bench.

He hit the headlines for the wrong reasons in 2010 when he was accused of corruption. He was charged with bribing the governor of the state bank of Vietnam with a university place for the governor’s son in exchange for printing contracts worth £90 million. Mr Lowther strenuously denied the allegation and was cleared unanimously by a jury last December.

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