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Nigel Doughty obituary

Private equity investor with a passion for progressive causes, Labour politics – and Nottingham Forest Football Club

Nigel Doughty was a big man, successful in business, with generosity to match. Tall, good-looking and clever, yet modest and unassuming, he never lost contact with his working-class roots in Newark, in Nottinghamshire. He was found dead at the age of 54 in the gym at his home – unexpectedly given his degree of fitness.

The connection with his roots was most dramatically expressed in his support for Nottingham Forest Football Club, which he had owned since 1999. Though he always kept a low profile, over the years he loaned the club almost £100m, knowing the chances of ever seeing the money again were slim.

He knew, too, that the likelihood of the club ever winning a European title again in his lifetime was slimmer: he loved to show off the European Cup replica in the boardroom, a reminder of the Brian Clough era that had cemented his obsession with Forest in his early 20s. And he knew, and often complained, that football finances were crazy, and totally unsustainable.

The last time I spoke to him was five days before his death, while watching Burnley beat his team 2-0. He was in Berlin, following the game via the internet. Businessmen around the world were used to Nigel skipping meetings to watch his club.

A solid Labour supporter, at fundraisers Nigel was always the one the auctioneer looked to for a nod when others started to flag. Our conversation reflected his usual enthusiasms and preoccupations – passionate about the club, pessimistic about the match, confident about his own business despite the economic gloom.

In 1985, he and Dick Hanson started the partnership that eventually became their private equity firm, Doughty Hanson, and Nigel remained co-chief executive until 2009. One of the most successful such enterprises in the world, it specialises in buying all or part of companies, turning them round and selling them on for a profit. Its global reach is reflected in offices in London, New York, Paris, Munich, Frankfurt, Milan, Stockholm, Luxembourg and Prague.

Companies and brands bought and/or sold by Doughty Hanson ranged from the luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer to The Priory clinic, from sportswear firm Umbro to Vue cinemas, from Hovis bread to Mr Kipling cakes. In 2005, they made a £300m profit on their five-year tenure of RHM, the former Ranks Hovis McDougall, and Doughty immediately stepped up his flow of cash to Forest.

Private equity gets a bad press, a lot of it deserved. But Nigel had real values and they were reflected in the way he did business. His was the first private equity firm to sign up to a UN charter on responsible investment, calling on investors to take into account social, environmental and corporate governance issues rather than focus entirely on short-term profit. When they bought a major Danish energy company, they kept union representation on the board.

Nigel’s thinking contributed to the development of arguments about “responsible capitalism” under Ed Miliband, and last year he presented a paper on small businesses which is being considered as part of Labour’s policy review. An assistant treasurer of the party, Nigel gave it £3.6m before the last election, and both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown benefited from his advice, ideas and touches of moral support.

His Labour politics came from his upbringing and his belief that those who had should help those who didn’t. His mother, Mercia Doughty, had worked as a nurse at Newark hospital, whose new endoscopy centre and pre-operative assessment unit he helped fund with a £1m donation. When Nigel was seven, his father, Ted, introduced him to the terraces of the City Ground.

Nigel studied at Magnus school, Newark, and Cranfield University, Bedfordshire, gaining an MBA in 1984. Later he founded the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management, supporting a programme to teach business students how to pursue responsibility and sustainability alongside the search for profits. He set up other foundations to further the aims of medical, children’s, educational and sports charities.

Tony Roberts, Nigel’s English teacher at Magnus School and now the leader of Newark and Sherwood district council, told the Nottingham Evening Post: “He made use of his success, he didn’t clutch it to himself, he did some good with it and will be remembered for his tremendous generosity.”

Nigel is survived by his wife, Lucy, whom he married in 2004, and their two sons; by his son and daughter from his first marriage, to Carol, which ended in divorce in 1997; and by his father. His mother predeceased him.

• Nigel Edward Doughty, businessman, philanthropist and football club owner, born 10 June 1957; died 4 February 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds