Obituary: John Cahill

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The Independent Online
John Cahill was an outstandingly effective, and greatly underrated, businessman, an impressive figure, 6ft 4in tall, who appeared especially forbidding when peering over his half-moon spectacles. In the 35 years after he joined BTR (then called the Birmingham Tyre and Rubber Company) in 1955 he was one of the four executives led by Sir Owen Green who built it into a leading industrial holding group. Subsequently, as chairman of British Aerospace, he rescued Britain's principal aerospace company from the edge of bankruptcy. Nevertheless he was too brusque, too honest, too much of a loner, to be appreciated for his full worth.

Cahill worked 12 hours a day seven days a week and hated holidays which, he said, spoiled the rhythm of his life, though he sometimes expressed the wish to retire: "I would like to do some prison visiting and work with small children."

He had a miserable childhood himself. His Irish Catholic father, notable for a violent temper which the son inherited but kept largely under control, was one of the founders of Blue Circle Cement and later an entrepreneur and merchant banker. Cahill himself was sent off to boarding school at the age of nine. He hated it. As he later said: "Even if you absolutely detest a child, don't do it. It is so lonely . . ." He was beaten regularly, with canes thick and thin, "the thin ones stung and the thick ones just hurt. It quickly ceased to be a deterrent."

The lonely child was father to the driven loner of an adult, happy only with his wife and three daughters, a man obsessed with punctuality and orderliness and "with the importance of honesty in every sense".

After a short spell in a stockbroker's office in the late 1940s, he took fright at the idea that brokers could be nationalised and sent out 300 job applications. One went to the Birmingham Tyre and Rubber Company which made him the company's second post-war management trainee. When Owen Green joined the company in 1956 Cahill became his loyal lieutenant, one of the four "horsemen" who built BTR into an industrial giant. The BTR formula was simple: combining autonomy for subsidiaries with rigorous financial controls. But, to its great, and under-recognised, credit, BTR, unlike Hanson and GEC - with which it was often compared - specialised in encouraging investment and growth within the companies it acquired, once they had been reorganised to conform with the notoriously puritan BTR ethic.

For over a decade Cahill was involved in expanding BTR's operations in the United States, but he retired prematurely at the age of 60 in 1990 because of BTR's failure to take over the Massachusetts-based Norton abrasives group.

In April 1992, he took over as chairman of British Aerospace, just before the group's low point. A disastrous splurge of diversification had left the group on its knees. In September 1992, six months after taking over, Cahill had to announce a write-off of pounds 1bn for restructuring the company, a drastic policy of what he called "costs down".

Cahill also slimmed the group, getting rid of a big construction group, Ballast Needham, and, closer to the group's core, its corporate jet business. His efforts received a considerable boost from the long-delayed signature in January 1993 of a pounds 3bn order from the Saudis for Tornado aircraft, the so-called Yamamah 2 deal, signed only after a personal intervention by the Prime Minister, John Major. Cahill's main failure was his inability to implement a joint venture with the Taiwanese to take over BAe's loss- making regional jet business. This was not entirely his fault, but it helped his enemies on the board, as did the uproar surrounding the sale of the Rover group to BMW in January 1994.

In the political in-fighting characteristic of BAe Cahill was at a disadvantage, as a loner who ended up without an ally on the board. As one friend remarked after he left in early 1994, after only two years of a chairmanship: "He is completely straightforward; building bridges is something that would never have occurred to him as necessary."

Cahill's unusual financial arrangements also served to cloud his achievements: he continued to live in the United States and insisted that he be paid there through the group's American subsidiary. He secured share options which proved highly profitable: largely because, thanks to his efforts, the share price had risen more than five times during his stewardship. He received a total pay-off of over pounds 3m from BAe last year, attracting wide public disapproval. But he could look back with some satisfaction at his period at BAe as its European rivals the German-Dutch Dasa group controlled by Daimler Benz, struggles with appalling losses caused by an unwillingness to pursue the same ruthless cost-cutting policy as BAe.

Characteristically, Cahill refused to make a fuss at his sudden departure, commenting merely that "I have worked for 48 years; I now might take a few weeks off." Nevertheless early this year he was back on the business scene as the new chairman of the troubled American airline TWA.

Nicholas Faith

John Conway Cahill, businessman: born Ruislip, Middlesex 8 January 1930; deputy overseas general manager, BTR Industries 1963-76, deputy managing director 1976-78, president and chief executive, BTR Inc and chairman, BTR Pan American 1979-86, chief executive, BTR plc 1987-90, non-executive chairman, BTR Inc 1987-92; chairman, British Aerospace 1992-94; married 1956 Giovanna Lenardon (three daughters); died Rhode Island 4 November 1995.