Maurice Phelps — May 17, 1935 to December 28, 2020 – Henley Standard

A HENLEY businessman and rowing enthusiast has died at the age of 85. Maurice Phelps was co-founder of EP-First & Saratoga, a management consultancy which was based at Bix Manor from its launch in 1990 until 2005, when it was purchased by PwC and integrated into the company’s London operation. He was born into a famous rowing family but turned his back on the sport until his retirement in 2005, when he wrote a book on the history of the Phelps dynasty.

Mr Phelps, who lived at Goring Heath, was born in Putney on May 17, 1935, to Harry and Lilly and grew up with older siblings, Joan and Harry, both of whom have since died. His family had earned its livelihood on the River Thames since the 15th century, initially carrying passengers across the water as apprenticed watermen and lightermen and later building racing boats for use in international events. Ten of his relatives won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, a 7.5km race along the Thames in central London, while others held world, European and British sculling titles.

They include his uncles Ted and Eric Phelps, the sons of celebrated rowing coach John “Bossie” Phelps, who won numerous events in the Twenties and Thirties. Mr Phelps was a reluctant oarsman in his youth and wanted to break away from the family tradition but still heeded his parents’ advice to work hard at school. After leaving Wandsworth Grammar and completing his National Service, he took up an offer to sit a master’s degree in history at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1956.

He was the first in his family to achieve this but opted not to row, instead focusing on rugby, athletics and his vibrant social life. Here he met his wife Elizabeth, nee Hurley, whom he married in 1960 after courting her through “charm, a taste of the good life, punting and champagne parties”. The couple, who tied the knot in the Cotswolds, had three children, Richard, James and Victoria, who between them have four children of their own.

Mr Phelps joined oil giant Shell as a graduate trainee in the late Fifties and spent the next two decades working in industrial relations for various companies in the car, truck and shipbuilding sectors, including Leyland Motors. In the Eighties, he was a board member and later chief executive of British Shipbuilders, based in Durham, which he helped to privatise and make more efficient by adapting work practices from the Far East. He moved to South Oxfordshire and went into consultancy in the Nineties because he realised that modern economies were increasingly centred around knowledge.

He helped FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 firms come up with new ways to measure and improve employees’ productivity. He launched EP-First & Saratoga, which employed about 30 people, in partnership with the Saratoga Institute in America and the two organisations came up with a set of standards still used in the corporate world today. Mr Phelps, who was made a Freeman of the City of London in 1993 and joined the Company of Watermen and Lightermen in 1995, wrote the family history upon retiring as he feared his decision not to row had disappointed his father.

The resultant volume, called The Story of a Riverside Family, was praised by many in the rowing world, including five-time British Olympic champion and Henley Royal Regatta chairman Sir Steve Redgrave. In later years, Mr Phelps and Elizabeth, who died in 2017, spent more time at Port Isaac in Cornwall, which they had regularly visited since the late Sixties. The couple spent many summers on the Thames on their 26ft cruiser Lurader during the royal regatta and Henley Festival.

Mr Phelps lavished great affection on his dogs, who always played a huge part in his life, and was devastated at the loss of his last one, Harry, a year ago. Each was given their own headstone in the family garden. He died on December 28, 2020 following a short illness and a funeral was held at St Mary’s Church in Hart Street, Henley, on January 20.

His family said: “Maurice lived the good life with friends, family and his dogs. However, he was determined to make a difference — he wanted a career that solved important problems and had a greater purpose. He developed a reputation in industial relations as an astute, adversarial but likeable and charming negotiator.

The words ‘he’s got a strike’ meant his family wouldn’t see much of him for a couple of weeks. “In retrospect, he achieved what his profession would view as the ‘Holy Grail’ career. He never saw himself as an HR professional, but as a socially conscious industrialist striving to create value for society.

“Maurice was a gentleman — international in outlook and a lover of English culture. Right to the end of his life, he had a desire to keep learning; in his 2020 diary was a handwritten list of all the English kings and queens since the 12th century. “He was studying Greek history and had plans to visit Greece for a three-month study vacation, if his health held.

In his final wishes, he concluded that education is the most important ingredient of any individual’s life.

“While Maurice had high expectations of himself and his family, he was a deeply loving, kind and generous man and always supportive for any problem faced by family members.

He was genuinely interested in everyone he met and spent unlimited time helping others in many different aspects of their lives.”

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