Ivan Menezes, chief executive officer, Diageo

The awfully early death of Ivan Menezes (63) leaves his family and many friends bereft. It leaves his beloved Diageo without one of its founders in charge for the first time in a quarter of a century. It also deprives the UK business community of one of its cleverest and most cerebral leaders and foremost champions of diversity.

Ivan was – very difficult to think of him in the past tense – an elegant, enigmatic presence. Someone once described him as a sphinx. In some ways that rang true, but not if you had engaged in one of his more animated dialogues. You knew you’d been in a barney. He cared passionately about the business, its standards and their delivery.

Yet he was always deeply respectful, courteous and decent. He did distance – an increasingly valuable quality in today’s international business landscape – very well. Yet that implied no lack of complete commitment to the cause of Diageo and, in particular, that cause was Johnnie Walker.

Non-football fans, stick with me here. Ivan’s predecessor, the peerless Paul Walsh, was Diageo’s Matt Busby. He created the legend and set the expectation of greatness. Ivan was Alex Ferguson, turning that greatness into continued excellence, delivering the glittering prizes year after year.

And if brands are like the players, Johnnie Walker was the enduring Bobby Charlton or Wayne Rooney, a single icon in a team of mega-stars. Both Walsh and Menezes saw that, appropriately managed and nurtured, Walker was a guarantee of success and gave it their special care. Their judgement was unerring. It served and continues to serve supporters and shareholders astonishingly well.

There are many specific achievements to Ivan Menezes’ name. He negotiated and delivered the Diageo acquisition of United Spirits in 2012, a deal with literally unequalled potential. He changed the three-tier spirits distribution system in the US, unlocking the vast potential of that market. He even saw the opportunity to harness the star quality of Sean Combs for Ciroc Vodka, in a joint ownership deal that brought both parties untold millions – topping that off with a billion dollar celebrity deal with George Clooney and a not much less eye-watering deal for Ryan Reynolds that may yet see Wrexham in the Premier League.

But my guess is Ivan will be prouder of the record for which he was knighted just a few short months ago. Working from a platform that had already seen his own career prosper, he made diversity a cornerstone of career planning and selection at Diageo. He is an absolute pioneer in that regard.

Some called him inscrutable. I think he was just a bit devious when required. During the last stage of the United Spirits negotiation, Ivan and I were tasked to agree the announcement with Vijay Mallya. There was a paragraph Vijay wanted in and with which we couldn’t live.

Despite Vijay’s entreaties, I took my cue from Ivan and kept completely quiet. After a silence lasting more than two minutes, Vijay relented and signed. As we left, Ivan walked close, smiled and nodded at me and said ‘glad to see you’re still learning’. It was, I think, a compliment. So I still value it today. Goodnight, my friend: flights of angels will sing you to your rest.