One of the very first computer specialists to make it all the way to the board of a major corporation, Peter Hermon, who has died aged 93, blazed a trail and set standards for successful computer management that were years ahead of their time, most notably for Dunlop Rubber Company from 1959-65 and then for British Airways and its predecessor companies, BEA and BOAC, from 1965 through to the early 1980s.
For BOAC, he developed, virtually from scratch, a computer communications system that covered every aspect of the airline’s business activity, including reservations, departure control, message switching, flight planning, crew rostering, engineering and financial control.
This developed into the celebrated Boadicea project, a network of computers linking cities around the globe from the USA to New Zealand, from Finland to South Africa, to a central computer complex in London. The system, implemented on time, within budget and without problems, set standards for the airline industry that have survived to this day. It also had airlines all over the world clamouring to buy the company’s know-how and software, leading to sales to over 50 airlines. By 1983, these sales amounted to some £40m a year at 2008 values, enough to cover the airline’s investment in computers many times over, a success acknowledged by two Queen’s Awards for both technological innovation and export achievement.
When BOAC merged with BEA in 1972, Hermon became Group Management Services Director with the immediate task of integrating two separate computer installations based on IBM and Univac equipment. The role then broadened to embrace organisation and productivity and it was Hermon who produced a report for the Secretary of State for Trade & Industry that led to the full integration of both airlines to produce British Airways in 1976. He also led the team that, in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, developed a strategy for cutting staff numbers from 57,000 to 38,000, achieving savings in excess of £100m a year.
His last appointment at British Airways was as Managing Director of the airline’s European Division.
As well as serving on the boards of both BOAC and British Airways, Hermon was also Chairman of SITA, a worldwide communications operation specialising in the needs of the travel industry, and of International Aeradio Ltd (IAL), a BA subsidiary later sold to STC.
He left BA in 1983 to join Tandem Computers as UK Managing Director from where, shortly after, he was headhunted into Lloyds of London, the world’s premier insurance market, with a brief to effect a root and branch modernisation of its computer systems. When it came to the crunch, this proved a bridge too far, as Hermon once described it, for such a traditional organisation and he moved on to Harris Queensway and then, as a freelance management consultant, to handle assignments for, among others, Saatchi and Saatchi, Argos and Credit Lyonnais. In 1970 he was appointed a part-time adviser to the Civil Service on computer strategy and later served on the Government’s Central Computer Agency
Peter Hermon was born in 1928, His parents were Arthur and Beatrice (nee Poulter). His mother was a dressmaker and his father worked for Morris Motors in Oxford as a technical manager.
He was educated at Nottingham High School where he held two scholarships. He went from there to Oxford University on no fewer than three further scholarships – a state scholarship, a major open scholarship to St John’s College and a Henry Mellish scholarship, a single award open to anyone living in Nottinghamshire. He then took a double first in Pure and Applied Mathematics and a prize for the best result across the university. He was then elected to a Harmsworth Senior Scholarship at Merton College for research in Pure Mathematics.
Grounding in LEO credited for later successes
Hermon left Oxford in 1954 to join J. Lyons & Co of teashops and catering fame. It was here that he cut his computer teeth as one of a remarkable group of British computer pioneers who developed the world’s first business computer and the applications to run on it. These were stirring days, Hermon recalled, when the computer buff had to turn his hand to everything – business analysis, programming, operating and sweeping the floor before VIP visitors toured the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) site in Cadby Hall to pay homage to the groundbreaking work that was going on there.
Hermon’s particular role within Lyons involved the installation of the first of the second generation LEO 2 computers for the Imperial Tobacco Company in Bristol. The complexity of the tobacco company’s pricing and credit terms led to the largest and most complex suite of programs yet attempted at the time. This was followed, in 1959, with the installation of an integrated sales accounting system, a concept years ahead of its time, running on the first of a third generation LEO 3 computers for Dunlop Rubber at Fort Dunlop. Hermon at this time had joined Dunlop and went on to coordinate the company’s computer strategy worldwide.
Much of the later computer successes at British Airways were credited by Hermon to his time with LEO. The team he built up at BA contained no fewer than nine managers from LEO Computers with many other ex-LEO people further down the line.
In retirement, Peter Hermon, devoted much of his time to writing. He was a contributor to a book on the development of the LEO computer, entitled in the UK ‘User-driven Innovation’ and in the US and Hong Kong “LEO: the incredible story of the world’s first business computer,” published by McGraw Hill. Peter became increasingly involved in the activities of the LEO Computers Society, attending reunions and contributing to keep the LEO flame burning, repeating his conviction that the standards set by the LEO ethos underlay his own success.
He also authored a two-volume “Hill-walking in Wales,” the definitive guide to climbing the 170 or so 2000ft mountains in the principality, as well as “Lifting the Veil,” a plain language guide to the Bible. He had also preached widely for the Association for the Propagation of the Faith, the official missionary society of the Catholic church.
Peter Hermon married Norma Stuart Brealey in January 1954, the marriage lasting 57 years until her death in 2011. They had four children: David, who predeceased him in 1976, Juliet, Robert and Caroline. Six grandchildren and five great grandchildren also survive him. He was married for a second time in December 2016 to Patricia Cheek.