ERNEST JOHNSTONE, who has died aged 86, was a much-liked northern industrialist, one of four brothers who built up Johnstone’s Paints into a major UK-wide manufacturer.
It was Ernest who took the brand into football, where it has been highly visible ever since the Johnstone’s Paints name was a ubiquitous fixture behind the goals at top-flight matches on Match of the Day in the 1970s and 1980s.
Ernest was the most clubbable of men, obsessed with sport. These were qualities that well suited his role as joint sales and marketing director of the firm with his brother Ian. Where Ian would work with all the major municipal corporations in the land – Manchester Corporation, employing a thousand decorators, obtained all its paint from Johnstone’s – Ernie was the people-person who entertained clients at his beloved Manchester City Football Club or at Denton Golf Club where he was captain, and who organised the open days at the firm’s rapidly expanding national network of paint depots.
Entertainment, however, was never at the expense of business. Sport positioned the brand perfectly as the choice for professionals. Ernie’s bonhomie went hand-in-hand with an insatiable appetite for a deal and razor-sharp mental arithmetic.
Many a deal was struck in the hospitality box or at depot evenings, and Ernie Johnstone rarely found himself at the wrong end of it.
Ernest Johnstone was born the youngest of five children in Gorton on August 12 1933, to John Johnstone and Cecilia, née Riches. John ran the paint business founded in Glasgow in 1890 by his father, James Johnstone, a former sea captain. It was Johnstone grandpère who had moved his paint company to Manchester and thenceforth – apart from John’s enduring Glasgow accent, the wearing of Johnstone tartan on special occasions and an attachment to the clan motto, Nunquam Non Paratus – the family became an integral part of the fabric of Manchester.
The firm became well established as a paint supplier locally, but it was hard work and there were few luxuries as the children, daughter Celia followed by James, Robert, Ian and Ernest, grew up. Ernest was not yet 12 when VE Day marked the end of war, by which time all his brothers – including 15-year old Ian – had already joined the firm. In reconstruction Britain there was a great demand for distempers and emulsion paints, which the factory struggled to supply for want of raw materials. Nevertheless, John Johnstone expanded the factory with bigger machinery and the business grew.
To gain experience and “get the chips knocked off him”, John arranged for Ernest to work at Lewis’s department store selling washing machines before, in 1952, being sent to Hong Kong for two years’ army national service. On his return he joined the firm and in 1960 he married Joan Murphy, a daughter of Salvation Army ministers, with whom he had four daughters during a marriage that lasted sixty years.
After John Johnstone died in 1963 – their sister Celia having married filmmaker Tony Cadd and moved to Brighton – the four brothers took over the running of the firm. James was managing director and, as a qualified chemist, most responsible for assuring the quality of the product. Accountant Robert steered the finances as the business grew. Ian and Ernest built up the customer network and sales operation. Famously the brothers lunched together most days at the paint factory in Gorton, running the business as a close-knit group.
They set about broadening the horizons of the firm from a local manufacturer to a national brand, opening a depot a year in all the main towns in England, Scotland and Wales, including three in London and two in Birmingham. When they celebrated the firm’s centenary in 1990, there were 25 depots nationwide and the brothers had grown the company 50-fold.
The brothers chose that year, almost three decades after they’d taken charge, to sell the firm to La Seigneurie, part of the Elf Oil group. It has changed hands several times since. Today, Johnstone’s Paints is part of the American PPG corporation. The brand association with football ended in 2011 when Carlisle United beat Brentford 1-0 to win the last Johnstone’s Paints Trophy, but its image as the choice for professional decorators has stuck to this day.
Ernie Johnstone remained a larger than life Manchester character, captain of captains of the Manchester and District Golf Alliance and president of the Manchester Rotary Club. In that capacity he filled Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall for a charity concert by the Black Dyke Band, one of the oldest and best-known brass bands in the world and a symbol of northern England’s textile mills.
A stroke on the golf course in 2017 left Ernest with severely restricted mobility, but his sharp wit and impresario spirit were undimmed even on his deathbed when, surrounded by all 18 of his close family, he gave instructions for the processional (Blue Moon, what else?) – and recessional music – (We’ll Meet Again) – to be played at his Salvation Army funeral.
Ernest Johnstone, born August 12 1933, died in Stockport on March 2 2020. He is survived by his wife Joan, four daughters and nine grandchildren – and also by Ian, the last of the Johnstone brothers, with whom he worked so closely for many decades.
This obituary was first published in The Telegraph.