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A TRIBUTE TO GEOFFREY WATLING


Norwich businessman Geoff Watling in the inboard hydro Symphony Credit lobmbc website

1952 : Norwich businessman Geoff Watling in the inboard hydro Symphony.
Credit: lobmbc website

On the opening of the The Watling Way Exhibition at the Norfolk Records Office in July 2013

Yes, Geoffrey would have celebrated his centenary this year- bless him.

He would be very disappointed not to be with us today such was his formidable zest for life - -- mortality did not enter his thoughts.

And I can tell you that he would have been really chuffed at this exhibition, and especially at sharing it with his father whom he held in highest esteem.

I had the privilege of being a close business associate and friend of Geoffrey’s for some 20 years; here are a few personal recollections of the GW that I knew and worked with.

I was first introduced to Geoffrey in 1980 by another successful local entrepreneur and character, Tom Watson. GW and TW set up a joint company to acquire holiday camps around the Norfolk coast, and a hotel at West Runton.

As the third director, and an added bonus, my principal task was to referee these two larger than life characters scoring points off one another. It was a nightmare.

One thing I learnt quickly was not to carry any money when out with GW and TW. We would pull up at a filling station and neither of them would ever have the fuel money.

My first lesson from two millionaires- let somebody else pay.

Geoffrey was an inveterate venture capitalist, having backed more than 150 businesses even before I got to know him.

He had a keen eye for opportunity, and didn't bother with expensive due diligence. For him it was all about the business itself and the person running it, and their combined ability to give him a decent return. Like all good venture capitalists, Geoffrey provided the money and guidance, others did the work!

When setting up our first joint venture, Geoffrey was then 70 years old- he was always coy about his age. He called me a "young fella"- I was 40- and said he was semi-retired as a measly 20 businesses remaining in his portfolio hardly represented an empire any more.

Geoffrey and I hit it off from the word go, we shared a love of sport, and Norwich City in particular, and we had a spirit of adventure; business not only had to make money but it was to be fun too.

Our business relationship was built on mutual trust, and our agreements, despite the millions involved, were sealed with a handshake and literally scratched out in a few words on the back of an envelope, then dumped for safe keeping in a cardboard box Geoffrey kept near to his desk.

Thus it was that Geoffrey and I came together to buy a Boating Holiday company in France with 60 boats.

It tickled Geoffrey’s fancy to own a boating company as he had enjoyed power boat racing at Oulton Broad in his younger days, racing his speedboats “Melody”, “Symphony” and “Miss Oulton”.

With a French based boating company, there was also the added dimension of travel, which was a passion for Geoffrey.

On the strength of this successful venture, which was sold and bought back at a tidy profit, we went on to build a far grander international boating business, Crown Blue Line, operating on the inland waterways throughout Europe, and even on the Erie Canal in New York State, growing the fleet to 600 boats. This was sold to First Choice in 2000, enabling Geoffrey, now in his late 80’s to move on to other challenges!

It should be mentioned that nearly all of the hundreds of new boats for our European fleets were built here in Norfolk, contributing many tens of millions of pounds to the local economy and generating millions more in export earnings. Headquartered here in a small office in Ber Street, was Europe’s largest boating holiday company, with a worldwide customer reach and brand name, and yet this achievement has strangely been overlooked in public recognition.

Geoffrey and I shared an office in Ber Street, and I have many happy memories of our time together there. Geoffrey always played up its location in providing excellent city centre parking, much appreciated by my wife and daughters, but what he overlooked was the alarming underwriting costs to myself of the shopping trips!

It was no coincidence that the Ber Street office overlooked All Saints Green, and what is now Norfolk Tower, as this was where the original Watling horse drawn transport business originated.

Geoffrey was proud of his father, and the fact that Charles had trusted Geoffrey, the older brother, to be put in charge of the family business at the tender age of 16.

Father Charles had no doubt seen the business promise of his son when finding out that Geoffrey, while still at school, was rearing rabbits for profit, and feeding them with oats from his father’s horses.

Charles was the first President of the Norwich Traffic Club in 1934, and Geoffrey followed in his father’s footsteps in 1977. Geoffrey introduced me in 1988 and I'm still trying for the highest office!

Geoffrey and I share rare distinctions, he as the longest serving Chairman of Norwich City F C, holding office for 16 years, and me the shortest serving director -10 days- in 1995 when assisting in the transfer of the Club’s ownership. But that’s a story for another day.

Geoffrey was big in presence and personality. He was a shrewd business man, who backed many more winners than losers, and never let the ups and downs of business dictate or interfere with his private life.

He was fun to be with, charismatic, always on the go, sharp witted, and in business was always supportive regardless of the challenges.

In our early days together, Geoffrey liked going out for Lunch on a Friday, his usual was a large Dover sole. The main attraction however was to make use of his Trust House Forte card that allowed two meals for the price of one.

Geoffrey also loved ice cream- so much so he went off and bought an ice cream factory in Gt Yarmouth.

Geoffrey always had two banks (he must have had inkling of the 2008 financial crisis), and neither bank manager ever really knew the extent of the GW empire or how much he was worth.

Our bank meetings were quite often hilarious, with GW playing a humble role when all knew he was a man of substance but not how much.

A bank director once confided "they don't make them like Geoffrey anymore"- how true.

Geoffrey liked the best things in life, and he enjoyed lobster and champagne.

Geoffrey always had the first new model Jaguar cars- his two personalised number plates GW 80 and GW 444 being instantly recognisable.

He adored dancing and big band music- so he brought Stan Kenton to play in Norwich.

He loved to travel to exotic places- especially if the Football club was paying- and ocean cruising.

But for Geoffrey there was no place like home, and nowhere could beat his beloved Norwich and the Norfolk Countryside. “Look around you” he would exclaim, “Is there anywhere in the world more beautiful than what we have around us here”.

Geoffrey was no mean sportsman, reaching the finals of the Norfolk Amateur Tennis Tournament in 1953.

His football career was less auspicious, signing off with the St Lawrence's team in the Business Houses League with a magnificent 20 nil loss. His brother was goalkeeper. One can only imagine the post match analysis!

If conversation in his later years invariably turned to the “Old Norwich” of his youth, it was usually tinted with humour. I remember once, when talking about the Samson and Hercules, he would relate how the ballroom floor was placed over the redundant swimming pool beneath. He reckoned that many a wartime British serviceman would have thanked him if he had been able to have the floor moved aside to drop the American servicemen, now dancing with their girls, into the pool.

Whether Geoffrey would have liked his Go Go Gorilla as positioned outside the Samson today I don't know, but at least he's outlived Freddy Mercury.

Geoffrey was a wonderful friend and business partner, who treated me as an equal notwithstanding his eminence and wealth.

He touched so many people and put a smile on so many faces. This exhibition, and his Charity, are reminders of his generous and unique contribution to Norwich and Norfolk life

For me, and I suspect for most of you here today, Geoffrey will always be – Mr Norwich City.

And knowing my Geoffrey, I expect this master entrepreneur has arranged for the entrance to the Pearly Gates to be renamed Carrow Road, or seeing us here today, "Watling Way".

Thank you

Keith Gregory