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Peter Lehmann: Industrialist who helped privatise British Gas and was later chairman of the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Lehmann: a formidable operator and natural communicator with infectious enthusiasm and a phenomenal work-rate

Lehmann: a formidable operator and natural communicator with infectious enthusiasm and a phenomenal work-rate

For over three decades Peter Lehmann, who has died after a short illness, played a significant role in the transformation of British Gas from a public sector behemoth to a successful privatised utility, now known as Centrica. But despite a career at the heart of British industry he was the very antithesis of the "fat cat" his career might have implied.

Lehmann, the son of German Jews who fled to England in the 1930s, was educated at Manchester Grammar School, did PPE at Oxford University and joined British Gas after a doctorate in industrial economics at Sussex University. When he retired from the company he was a board member and Centrica's commercial director. En route he was closely involved in the negotiations which helped frame the legislation which privatised British Gas and later led to its demerger.

He was, however, a most unlikely board member of a FTSE100 company. A Fabian socialist and life-long member of the Labour Party, he had an appetite for public service anda commitment to community and environmental causes which required the stamina of an ox and reflecteda highly developed social conscience. He had both in abundance. Onceyou were involved with Peter you knew you would receive calls,messages or emails at all hours of the day – or night. If he wasn't an insomniac he gave a very close impression of being one.

He inspired fierce loyalty amongst all he worked with at British Gas, then Centrica, and afterwards in what passed for semi-retirement – which included a spell as a board member of the Northern Ireland energy regulator and a non-executive position on the board of Gaz de France, where his fluent French was deployed with characteristic flair. A well-deserved CBE was awarded in 2002.

In truth, Lehmann was as busy after his business career as during it. He chaired both the Energy Savings Trust, the organisation set up by the Government that dispenses advice on energy efficiency, and Green-Works, the office furniture recycling charity. He also found time, somehow, to be a tireless campaigner on fuel poverty issues. Lehmann was a highly combative chairman of the Government's Fuel Poverty Advisory Group. As well, he served as a non-executive member of the Department of Work and Pensions Disability and Carers Service Board, recently heading its audit committee.

Many of his colleagues became personal friends. One joked to a friend that when he worked for Peter he expected phone calls at 10 o'clock on a Sunday evening. "All that changed when I stopped working for him was that the phone rang at 8pm". It was a mark of Lehmann's phenomenal network of contacts, assiduously assembled via his ubiquitous black book, that within a week of the jest, Peter was on the phone demanding an explanation.

As an industrialist he proved a formidable operator, a natural communicator whose enthusiasm was infectious and whose work-rate was phenomenal. His colleagues remember a man who was intellectually curious, very bright, who excelled at all he did and who was responsible for much of the groundwork which established British Gas with an international reach. This was in the teeth of some internal opposition.

Always approachable, he was never one to flaunt the trappings of executive life nor one to pass off opportunities to get involved at the coal face of the business. At one point he quit head office for a posting to a customer services branch in London's Old Kent Road.

After he retired, Lehmann brought those same skills to everything he did. He helped nurture Green-Works from the germ of a social-enterprise idea to a fully functioning organisation, operating on commercial lines, which in April this year won a Queens Award for Enterprise in the sustainable development category. Fittingly, his last formal engagement, in September, celebrated that achievement.

Just as he was generous in the time he gave to charitable work and public service, Lehmann was also generous financially. He paid out of his own pocket to fund a worker who helped marginalised ethnic communities in London receive help with energy issues.

Energy consumers in general have every reason to be thankful for Lehmann's doggedness, campaigning zeal and economic nous. As chairman of the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group he was at the centre of the debate about energy prices.

He became convinced that suppliers were raising prices more than was justified in terms of the costs they faced. He was not the only one to raise the issue. But he was the first to sit down and put a figure on the yawning gap between the prices charged and the costs incurred.

This was an inspired piece of work which only someone with an insider's knowledge of energy utility economics – and a strong public conscience – could have accomplished. It did not go down well with the companies, or the economic regulator, Ofgem. However Lehmann always did his homework. And always fought hard for what he believed in.

Such was the force of his argument and his personality that after aneyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Ofgem board, the regulator subsequently agreed to hold an investigation into energy prices and the energy market. Its findings have shown incontrovertibly that millions of consumers are getting a poor deal from thecompetitive energy market and the companies which supply it. Now those companies are facing the prospectof legislation if they do not end unfair tariffs.

Sadly, by the time this emerged Peter Lehmann was terminally ill, diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It cut short the life of a man who gave his all to everything he did. This included passionate support for Manchester United, travelling for pleasure, numerous triathlons (his most recent in August in London's Docklands) and family life in the south London home he shared with his Trinidadian wife Tara and their two children. Their garden barbecues, orchestrated by Peter and seemingly never-ending, were a feature of neighbourhood life.

Roger Milne

Peter Lehmann, industrialist and social activist: born Littleborough, Lancashire 17 October 1944; staff, British Gas 1969-97; commercial director, Centrica 1997-98; Chairman, Energy Saving Trust 1999–2005; Chairman, Fuel Poverty Advisory Group 2002-08; CBE 2002; married 1970 Tara Samoondar (one son, one daughter); died London 4 November 2008.

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