Click here to read John Sankey’s interview with Martin Moodiefrom 2006

A stranger called this morning
He didn’t leave his name
Left us only silence
Life will never be the same

– Roger McGough (Liverpool poet), ‘The Sound Collector’

It is with much sorrow that we report the death of John Sankey, one of the most respected figures of UK duty free and travel retail. He passed on Sunday at the age of 84.

John was the long-time Chairman of Cecil MacDonald & Co, the renowned English travel retail supplier and distributor.

He is survived by his two children, Gordon (Cecil MacDonald & Co Financial Director) and Julie. His beloved wife Barbara died just over a year ago.

Cecil MacDonald & Co Managing Director Steve Wescott told The Moodie Davitt Report, “He was my Chairman, my mentor and most of all my friend and I will miss him greatly.”

John Sankey, born in Liverpool, began his working career at Cunard White Star in 1948. “I was waiting to go to sea as a deck cadet, but the first ship was not due for eight weeks,” he recalled in a 2006 interview with The Moodie Davitt Report, “so I asked for temporary work. Instead of staying a few weeks as intended I stayed a few years.”

He then began selling Red Tower lager to ships, the beginning of a life-time involvement with duty free and travel retail. In 1955 he was introduced to a businessman called Cecil Macdonald, a former World War I Captain who had fought in the trenches, who offered John a job in London. He worked in the capital city from Monday to Friday before driving back to Liverpool in his Ford Popular at weekends.

The company was then known as Jackson Crewe (the name change came in 1961) and the workforce numbered two – Cecil Macdonald and John Sankey. In 1961, John took over the running of the business and became a shareholder (Cecil Macdonald retired in 1969 and died four years later).

Under John’s leadership, the company flourished and expanded. It added Duty Free Warehouses in 1972, a hotel in Rye in 1976, Airways in 1994 and UK jewellery distributor Michael Wright & Associates in 1998.

Driven by his influence, Cecil Macdonald & Co became synonymous with distribution efficiency, old-fashioned values of integrity and honesty, and a great nurturer of brands.

John and Cecil Macdonald experienced phenomenal success story with Bell’s Scotch whisky – now part of the Diageo empire. “1955 was our first year with the brand,” he recalled. “Whisky was still on allocation in those days and we sold just 747 cases in the first year. By the time the brand was eventually taken over by Guinness, we were selling 170,000 cases a year in UK duty free alone.”

That success prompted then-Arthur Bell’s Chairman Raymond Miquel to offer Cecil Macdonald the worldwide duty free agency for the brand. “It’s a disgrace that we’re in every shop in the UK and we’re only in one outside it, Paris,” thundered Miquel.

John changed that situation profoundly. “Twelve years later Bell’s was in every main duty free shop in Europe and most of those in America,” he remembered. He went to a Bonded Store Dealers Association convention in Puerto Rico, where he sat in a bar with long-time industry friend and wholesaler Cees Wisser. “About 18 or 19 of these guys came in and I got an order from each of them. Raymond Miquel couldn’t believe it – all I did was sit in the bar drinking Pina Colada.”

Eventually Bell’s was taken in-house by United Distillers Group, paving the way for Cecil Macdonald to work the same magic with The Famous Grouse. “Did you outsell Bell’s?” I asked him in that 2006 interview. “Pretty early on,” he replied with a smile.

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Lunch with a legend at Langan’s
We toasted his birthday with a (generously measured) glass of Hine Cognac – a tipple that John many years ago built into a huge UK duty free success story. It was a warm, reassuring, high-quality blend. Just like John Sankey.

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In his 2006 interview with The Moodie Davitt Report, he recalled the naming ceremony of the Queen Mary 2 as his career highlight. “When the Queen said, ‘I name this ship Queen Mary 2’ and the Champagne bottle broke and the London Symphony Orchestra played, it was phenomenal,” he recalled, his eyes filling with tears. “Oh yes, I’m a total patriot,” he added, “We’ve got three Union Jacks flying outside our hotel in Rye.”

John was also a staunch Liverpool Football Club supporter – “I was in Rome when they won the European Cup in 1977. And in Istanbul when they won it again in 2005.”

Despite his success, he remained a down-to-earth, humble and deeply generous character. When he was named one of The Moodie Report’s People of the Year in 2005 he was pleasantly surprised to get a note from Dubai Duty Free Managing Director Colm McLoughlin congratulating him. “He’s one of the biggest names in the business, always in the headlines,” he said, “So I thought, that was rather nice that he took the trouble.”

John Sankey, too, was a man who always took the trouble. Someone who never forgot his roots but was immensely and rightly proud of what the company had achieved. “I will be taking it easier, but I have no intention of retiring,” he said back in 2006. “I have enjoyed every minute of working with the company, I love my staff and they know that.”

And they loved him. So did many others. Farewell John Sankey, a good and honourable man. The Moodie Davitt Report joins with the travel retail community in expressing our deepest condolences to his family and colleagues.

Footnote: Readers can pay their respects to John via the Disqus feedback platform below. All messages will be passed on to John’s family.