Laying it on the line

Profile: Bob Horton; 'I don't think I'm arrogant or abrasive. I tend to say what I think and I don't disguise it'

THERE was a time in the 1990s when everything Bob Horton touched seemed to turn to dust. Booted out of the top job at BP four years ago after a boardroom coup, within months of his arrival at Railtrack the network ground to a halt in the most damaging industrial dispute of the decade. There were no winners in the bitter 1994 signalmen's strike, just losers - chief among them the chairman.

He was holidaying in France when Railtrack first offered a pay deal, then denied it had ever been made. A public relations ploy, offering to donate the difference between his and union leader Jimmy Knapp's salary to charity in return for a deal, backfired embarrassingly. All it did was highlight the gulf between his pay, now pounds 125,000 for a three-day week, and that received by signalmen.

True, he was caught between the Department of Transport and Mr Knapp. But he made enemies far and wide. The non-travelling public's sympathy drained at every turn to Mr Knapp, whose union baron image beforehand had placed dinosaurs higher up on the evolutionary ladder.

Then came Railtrack's first timetable - 80,000 copies of it and two supplements, riddled with errors and later pulped. "The train standing at platform four is for Birmingham, or is it Budleigh Salterton...?"

Now it's trees. The only way to stop those leaves on the line is to chop 'em down, Railtrack dictates, leaving suburbia up in arms. "Horton the Hatchet", his old BP sobriquet, seems to have skipped to the chainsaw.

Reclining in a leather armchair in his oak-panelled London office, Horton hardly seems the ogre his public persona suggests. He's busy, very busy - Railtrack's flotation prospectus is due on Monday.

He's sometimes clipped as we speed through the questions and openly admits he's no train buff. But he talks enthusiastically of a resurgent railway for the 21st century after years of cuts. At the ripe old age of 56, putting Railtrack in the private sector will be perhaps his last shot at glory. And he's certainly got guts, after all the hatchet jobs, to succumb to a profile at all.

"I was under no illusions that taking this job would put me back in the rough and tumble of the public spotlight. I've had my fair share of knocks and bruises since then," he says.

"I'm delighted at how we've taken a blend of good railwaymen and people from outside the industry and blended them together into a well functioning machine."

That last epithet betrays the "systems man" to a tee. He made his start in BP not as a grizzly oilman drilling the arctic wastes, but in supply - plotting the black stuff's path through tanker and refinery to market - and corporate planning. Indeed, some of the fondest memories of the early days at BP came from introducing computers.

"There was sheer comradeship, a bunch of really dedicated people. We were unlocking the secrets of the oil universe. It had all been witchcraft up until then," he says.

Horton joined the oil giant in 1960 after studying mechanical engineering at St Andrews University on a BP scholarship - all far removed from the family timber business in Reading. So why? "The subject interested me and I looked for people prepared to pay for me to be educated".

A year into his studies, ambition had already built a reputation that would come back to haunt him: at 19, he predicted he would either be prime minister or chairman of BP. He was no slouch at politics, becoming chairman of the university Conservative Association and vice chairman of the National Federation of Conservative Students.

Nor was he slow to marry: his wife Sally was in her first year at St Andrews when he was in his last. They were engaged after a a couple of terms, married in 1962 and have one son and daughter.

Toying with a political career soon gave way to plotting a path through BP: as captain of the tanker arm, head of planning, BP chemicals chief and then, in 1983, as finance director. Four years at BP's troubled Standard Oil operation in the US brought the "hatchet" reputation - he slashed jobs, but turned it into profit - and the ultimate reward in 1990, the chairmanship.

Hardly the background, though, to run 22,000 miles of track, handling more departures every day than all the world's airlines put together. Horton is having none of that.

"I believe I've drawn on my experience of 30 years of taking on large organisations and cutting them down to size and earning a fairly unenviable reputation with it," he says.

It was one that put the signalmen, half Railtrack's 11,500 staff, on guard immediately and may yet lead to more action as he tries to replace boxes with computers to cut costs and push up profits.

BP in 1990 was bloated with massive debts after over-expansion. Scaling back was inevitable, but as oil analyst Fergus McLeod of NatWest Securities said after the 1992 boardroom coup: "What was unavoidable was the impression, whether deliberate or unwitting, given by the former chairman that he was arrogant and uncaring."

Unfortunate quotes have made matters worse, such as this in Fortune magazine: "Because I am blessed by my good brain, I tend to get the right answer rather quicker and more often than most people."

Indeed, so low was morale after 10,000 job cuts that BP staff were openly circulating subversive material - the most infamous a parody of a December 1991 interview given to the Financial Times' "In My Office" series, called instead "A Room of my Own".

It stang with "compliments": Horton's fluent Cambodian in conversations with Pol Pot, his early Sanskrit poems, his "forthcoming book" on Humility co-written with Pope John Paul II, his amendments to Mozart's operas: ''They needed updating, and I've managed to cut 20 per cent of the fat," the piece spits.

Of course, Horton is regretful, but strictly to a point. "You always learn by experience. The task I had to do was a very difficult one. I'm not going to do a Norman Lamont and say I regret nothing.

"The two words people used about me were 'arrogant' and 'abrasive'. I don't think that I am. I tend to say what I think and I don't tend to disguise it."

He is intensely proud of his achievement in bringing Railtrack to market, carving a new organisation in just two years. It is hardly a gravy train: his current pay is one sixth of the pounds 770,000 salary at BP and a fraction of his pounds 1.5m payoff.

Neither does he believe in slashing the network; he wants to get more passengers to use rail through more investment. It is an aim shared by Labour, but Horton believes passionately in the private sector.

On relations with the Opposition, uncharacteristically he shies from comment. Labour, though, is more candid: "Relations are frosty in the extreme," shadow transport secretary Clare Short's office says, referring to a bust-up after a private meeting in January. Railtrack's chief executive, John Edmonds, later apologised to Ms Short after the firm said Labour had ruled out renationalisation. Horton says he won't quit if John Major loses the election, but it remains to be seen whether Labour will try to "bury the Hatchet".

And should we be scanning the New Year's honours for a knighthood? "That's a bit below the belt. I've no idea. I'm not doing this for that. I'm doing it out of a sense of duty for the job that needs to be done."

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