Oscar Lewisohn: in best traditions of Anglo-Continental finance

Old-school banker who leaves a broad and rich legacy

Oscar Lewisohn was an old-school banker who kept up the best traditions of Anglo-Continental finance long after they ceased to be fashionable and remained to the end crestfallen by the UK’s European Union departure.

Lewisohn, who died on 18 March aged 85, was a long-time OMFIF supporter, an attendee at the organisation’s first meeting at the Bundesbank in Frankfurt in March 2010 and a member of the advisory council. ‘Oscar Lewisohn was a doughty friend and supporter of OMFIF,’ says Meghnad Desai, who has chaired the advisory council since OMFIF started in 2010. ‘We relied on his wisdom and advice in our deliberations. We shall miss his generous support.’

Through his move to London in 1962 from his native Denmark, and his long association with archetypal banking house of S.G. Warburg & Co., Lewisohn embodied many constructive linkages between his adopted UK home and the financial and cultural heartlands of continental Europe. He was assisted by his command of five European languages.

His many-sided personality in some ways was a hybrid of those of his two foremost mentors – Siegmund Warburg and Henry Grunfeld, joint architects of S. G. Warburg. Refugees from Nazi Germany who arrived in London by separate routes in 1934, they set up what became Britain’s foremost merchant banking and corporate finance business after the second world war.

The founding fathers were extraordinarily punctilious and financially conservative, eschewing ‘speculative’ transactions (which included even unmatched lending) in the same zealous spirit with which they frowned on wayward punctuation in any document bearing the S.G. Warburg name. Lewisohn followed in their footsteps. ‘He was a very fine person of great integrity, who attracted the deep respect, loyalty and affection of those who worked with him,’ says David Scholey, the last chairman of the firm.

An illustrious career followed difficult early years

Lewisohn combined traits of his Danish origins and of the more than six decades he lived in the UK. He retained deep loyalty to family and friends in Denmark and talked often about his early years, interrupted by flight with his parents to Sweden. Along with many other Danish citizens of Jewish descent, Lewisohn’s family stayed there between 1943 and the war’s end to escape persecution and probably murder by German occupying forces.

Following training in commerce and banking in Denmark, the UK and the US, Lewisohn’s ascent started in the eventful year of 1962. He met on a cruise to Israel his first wife Louisa, Grunfeld’s daughter. Within the year he had married, moved to London and joined S.G. Warburg’s foreign exchange department.

He rose over the following three decades to become deputy chairman of possibly London’s most demanding financial institution. He was devoted to the firm’s core characteristics – blending meticulous standards of accountability, deep-rooted advice to many of the largest UK enterprises, a major role in developing the Eurobond market and well-orchestrated preparations for the 1986 Big Bang reform that transformed the London stock exchange and wider sectors of the financial markets.

Lewisohn (second from left) in 2022

Lewisohn’s Grunfeldian qualities were unmistakable: scrupulous attention to detail, disciplined planning, extreme caution over upholding confidentiality. Complementing these characteristics was a passion for politics of the sort displayed by Siegmund Warburg – a field that Grunfeld was happy to leave to his less reserved partner. Lewisohn forged a close bond with Eric Roll, a polymath central European-born academic and public servant who played a major role in Britain’s post-war relationships with the US and continental Europe before joining S.G. Warburg, where he helped drive international expansion during the final 20 years of his career.

Lewisohn played an important role securing S.G. Warburg’s pre-eminence in London’s financial markets towards the end of the 20th century. In an interview with Euromoney in 2019, he said: ‘There is no doubt that Warburg was streets ahead of others in anticipating the significance of Big Bang in the UK. Our investment in Akroyd & Smithers, together with our acquisition of Rowe and Pitman, ensured that we had an efficient trading and distribution business in place well in advance of Big Bang.’

Towards the end of his time at the bank, Lewisohn was saddened to see a widespread erosion of the high banking standards he had earlier espoused. The firm’s own partly self-induced downfall was particularly traumatic. Following Warburg’s death in 1982 and Grunfeld’s move into the background, the bank set aside its founding principles.

After an over-ambitious US expansion, and bond trading losses caused by the 1993-94 US interest rate spike, the firm announced a forced merger with Morgan Stanley, but the talks collapsed. In 1995, Swiss Bank Corporation acquired S. G. Warburg for a price well below earlier valuations to create SBC Warburg, which went through a series of further mergers and rebranding exercises before the name Warburg was finally retired in 2002.

Passion for Europe and the arts

In his charm, gregariousness and relish in debate, Lewisohn came to embody some of the best qualities of his adopted country. But he was depressed by the progressively more negative tone of UK dealings with the Continent that led to EU exit after the 2016 referendum. He understood British reservations towards ‘federalist’ ambitions in EU integration; he saw a ‘confederation’ as the desirable model.

As he put it in an interview in 2018, ‘You can’t blame a lot of good English people who are saying, “Look, maybe there has been too much of [Brussels]”.’ But he was deeply sensitive to the uglier side of Brexit. ‘Things have changed. London used to be a most important welcoming international place, but with this Brexit anti-immigration momentum, it weighs on people.’

Lewisohn’s interests ranged well beyond politics, economics and banking. They spanned the arts, not least music, for which his home was turned into a scene of great concerts under the expert eyes of his wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1987 after Louisa died in 1985. The Marryat Players – named after the road of the family home in south west London – was founded in 2000  and has now performed over 50 orchestral and over 50 chamber music concerts.

His interests, and the generosity with which he engaged in them, extended into education where he supported Danish students studying at Cambridge, as well as medical science (for example the Cancer Research Fund). His engagement comprised better intercultural relations; he was a sponsor of initiatives to build bridges between Jewish and Muslim communities in Denmark. Oscar Lewisohn leaves a broad and rich legacy.

David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF. Niels Thygesen is Professor Emeritus of International Economics at the University of Copenhagen and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Council.

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