Obituary: Dick Onians

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The Independent Culture
DICK ONIANS had never been to university, yet he rose to be a vice-president of Monsanto, then to set up and manage the international venture capital group Baring Private Equity Partners, and to pursue a global career unmatched by better-known figures.

It was hard to believe Onians was a banker. He did not measure a company's success by last year's profits, but rather by its capacity for innovation, its preparedness to think long-term, and more than anything by the fire in the eyes of its management team. When assessing potential candidates for investment he liked to be sure their business plans had not been written by consultants: too professional a document made him uneasy.

As a venture capitalist he had a more American than British attitude to risk. He liked what he called the "more playful, win-some-lose-some" stance of US backers, who would back a small business, hoping for gains, but prepared for losses. His skills as a judge of business people and his willingness to understand their businesses and to get stuck in and help their managements, has meant that after 15 years the group now has offices in over 20 countries and more than $1.3 billion of funds under management.

Onians was born and brought up in Thetford in Norfolk, attending Thetford Grammar School. At the age of 19 he joined Monsanto, and stayed with them for the next 24 years (1959-84), working in Europe, Asia and the Americas. He encouraged Monsanto's imaginative policy of association with universities and entrepreneurs, harnessing new discoveries, technologies and research.

Subsequently, at Barings, he enabled them to establish their first funds in Europe thanks to a connection with Hambrecht and Quist, one of the major US venture capitalists. He also helped to found and in 1985-86 became the first chairman of the Europe Venture Capital Association.

Onian's interest in the arts, business, education, the environment, governance and technology made him a natural for the many-faceted Royal Society of Arts, an organisation that he saw as uniquely able to bring together people from business, government, the voluntary sector, academe or anywhere else who are willing and able to change things. He became a member of the RSA Council in 1991, and chairman from 1997.

He championed the RSA's role of "think and do" - aiming always at rigorous thinking followed by practical projects. A typical example was his involvement in the Centre for Tomorrow's Company, founded at his urging on the back of the RSA's Tomorrow's Company Inquiry with its recommendations for an "inclusive approach" to business management. Onians feared the inquiry report might gather dust if not followed with practical action.

For a consummate investor and manager of money Onians had a civilised awareness of its relative value when placed alongside the things he regarded as really constituting wealth - the arts, lifelong learning, family relationships, the environment, health. He spoke witheringly of press reports of Russia as bankrupt, as if its ballet, literature, science and medicine went for nothing.

His concern about society's penchant for measuring everything in money led to his theme of "Redefining Wealth" for his last RSA lecture given in October. Too weak and frail to stand (he had been seriously ill with cancer for nine months) he delivered the lecture sitting down, and held his audience's unwavering attention for 40 minutes. He argued cogently for a value-rethink, for new measures for business, new policies for politicians, new attitudes for educationalists, new goals for us all. He ended with Bernard Shaw's words: "We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it, than to consume wealth without creating it."

Onians' modesty was such that his East Anglian neighbours and colleagues on the East of England Tourist Board (which he chaired from 1996) could be forgiven if they assumed his prodigious work for the region took all of his time. He never name-dropped, he never let slip that he'd just been to the US (or to Buckingham Palace or to Downing Street) for lunch. He came into a room with none of that self-importance that causes a hush. He'd sit down quietly and chat to the secretary.

For me, Dick Onians combined two other enviable qualities: he was wonderfully calm, and wonderfully optimistic. He made you believe that the problem could be cracked, and that he had every confidence that you would crack it. I like a tale told by Mark Goyder, the CEO of the Centre for Tomorrow's Company, who once saved him from falling in the sea when he slipped while clambering into a fishing boat. "I'm glad you did that," said Dick mildly. "I can't swim."

Prue Leith

Richard Anderson Onians, investment banker: born Thetford, Norfolk 21 April 1940; Chairman, RSA 1997-99; married 1961 Marianne Laidlaw (one son, one daughter); died London 28 March 1999.