Dr Donald Garvin Harris 1938-2013


Donald Garvin Harris was born on the 23rd April 1938 to parents who ran a kosher butcher’s shop in North East London. He attended Hackney Downs School (which had been established as the Grocers’ Company School) and then trained as a mathematician at University College, London. After graduation in 1960 Donald went to work for International Computers and Tabulators (ICT), which eventually became part of ICL. Following a posting to Glasgow, he headed up ICT demonstration unit. In 1964 he joined Tesco Stores, being the first person with a degree to be recruited to the company. He was tasked with creating and developing a computer department, initially involving the replacement of punched card systems. It is hard now to conceive of retailing without computing technology, but, at that time, this was an innovation. At various times Donald Harris was also in charge of distribution, administration and training for Tesco, as well as being responsible for corporate planning. When appointed to the main board in 1975 he was the youngest director. In his ten years as a Director Donald was part of the radical restructuring of the business from its ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ origins, through Operation Checkout and the business transformation that followed.


He received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of the University of Sterling – Oration by Professor Sparks

Whilst at Tesco, Donald co-authored a report for the Office of Fair Trading on the impact of retailing technology on consumers. As a member of the ‘little Neddy’ on distributive trades in the 1980s, he chaired a working party on Technology in Business which encouraged the use of computer technology in small shops. He was Chairman of the Article Number Association during its formative years and as laser scanning and electronic trading rules were developed.

Donald completed a PhD part-time with Brunel University on “The Effects of Micro Electronics in Supermarkets”. Not many directors at that time had a PhD on the topic of retailing. This gives a clue to Donald’s difference. His long-term involvement with education and computers was reflected in his membership of the Computer Board for Universities and Research Councils, which gave him responsibility for computer provision in the higher education sector. Donald saw his role as beyond the confines of the company or indeed the sector.


Following his graduation from the Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School in 1985, Donald left Tesco and joined the University of Stirling full-time to help set up the world’s first MBA in Retailing by distance learning. His commitment to education generally, and specifically to retail education, saw him become involved in various advisory, examining and developmental roles in other British Universities, including visiting appointments at York and Newcastle, and latterly in professional bodies such as the Institute of Grocery Distribution and the Institute of Logistics and Distribution Management (for both of which he was a Fellow).


For his involvement in computing, retailing and education he was awarded an OBE in the Honours’ list in 1990 and an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Stirling in 1998. In 1990 he became a JP and dispensed his own inimitable brand of wisdom, humour and justice for a number of years. He was a very competent bridge player and a high ranking freemason. Donald was a generous host, and was unsparing in giving his time and help to support his family, friends and colleagues. In recent years Donald suffered ill-health but continued to take a keen interest in Tesco and retailing generally.


Leigh Sparks wrote:-

“If I ever come to write the story of my time in academia (and it’s likely to be more Twilight than The Masters given the changing nature of universities) then there will be a special place reserved for those that have mentored and helped me along the way. Unfortunately one of these special people died last week.

Donald Harris will have been known to a number of followers of this blog from his career in Tesco, his involvement with retail and education technology, his roles (and then fellowships) with professional bodies such as the Institute of Logistics and Distribution Management and the Institute of Grocery Distribution and from his time as an academic at Stirling, where he was influential in the introduction of the MBA in Retailing.

In 1998 the University of Stirling awarded Donald Harris an honorary doctorate to go alongside his OBE for services to computing, retailing and education. My 1998 oration (the University’s word not mine) is available here for those who want to know a little more about Donald and the affection and esteem with which he was held at Stirling.

Donald was a mathematician by initial degree. However, he joined Tesco in 1964 and led and developed their computing department at a time of great change in technology and in the company. He was a Board Director at the time of Operation Checkout and oversaw the initial transformation of the supply chain that this “wild success” spawned. He also played a wider industry role in the introduction of bar-coding and electronic trading to UK retailing. Throughout he was interested in education, research and academia, achieving a PhD part-time on retailing and technology and becoming a member of the Computer Board for Universities and Research Councils.

The pull of these wider interests encouraged Donald to leave Tesco, graduate from the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Programme and join the University of Stirling in the mid 1980s. At Stirling for over a decade he dispensed wisdom and enthusiasm and left a distinctive mark on cohorts of students, including our MBA in Retailing graduates.

In recent years Donald’s health had sadly declined but he still kept a keen watch over the development of Tesco and a strong interest in the changing nature of retailing.

Some of my memories of Donald are included in the attached oration, but in paying tribute to him here,  I would like to make two wider points, which reflect both the man and the changing nature of UK Universities.

Donald was informed, intelligent and erudite and brought these qualities to both retailing and academia, spanning the ‘divide’ between them. He helped me significantly by opening doors in Tesco for my PhD, at a time when most other retailers kept them closed. He had no reason to do so, other than he wanted to encourage research and especially research into retailing. He “got” the need for business to engage and involve and not be seen as distant, and not to see academia either as simply an exploitable resource or as a threat.

But on the other side, I am forced to reflect on the serendipity of timing. Stirling was lucky to recruit Donald as we established the IRS and its programmes.  His background was not typical, yet provided huge value to the University (he quickly became the chair of the University’s Computer Users Committee to great effect), not only in teaching retailing and making links with business. With the current pre-occupations of Universities on the REF and a uni-directional focus on highly-ranked (but often unread) academic peer-assessed journal articles, we would be unlikely to be able to recruit someone like Donald today. And that change diminishes Universities, teachers, researchers, students and business.”