Profile: A man of all reason: Anglo-American's Julian Ogilvie Thompson tells Gail Counsell that logic will prevail over anarchy

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The Independent Online
JULIAN Ogilvie Thompson is in a style known as Discreet English. From his pale blue public- school voice to his unexciting tie, the 58-year-old South African chairman of the sprawling Anglo American financial and mining empire is a model of British understatement.

Ask his friends about him and they describe a man who sounds destined for the diplomatic service: aesthetic, intellectual, convinced an appeal to reason will be sufficient to resolve any problem, no matter how emotionally charged.

It is a bedside manner that has been put to the test in recent days, as South Africa's political temperature has reached boiling point.

With unfortunate timing, Anglo, South Africa's largest company, accounting for a quarter of the value of the Johannesburg stock exchange, chose this week to embark on a mission to convince Europe of its merits as a corporate investment.

The pace has been gruelling. After kicking off in Johannesburg on Monday, zipping through Zurich on Tuesday, Frankfurt on Wednesday and London on Thursday, the roadshow ended in Paris on Friday. A police escort from the corporate jet at Le Bourget airport to the Ritz Hotel in the centre of Paris may have helped to smooth the way and dodge the lorry blockades, but it was nevertheless a punishing schedule.

'I sleep a lot on planes,' says Mr Ogilvie Thompson, somewhat unnecessarily.

Yet if the places were different, the questions were the same. At each stop the dominant issue for investors, as the relationship between the African National Congress and the South African government worsened daily, was how Anglo would cope with an antagonistic black regime or, worse, with violent anarchy.

The response was the predictably measured one, ingrained in a corporation that has built its business on negotiation and compromise, and a man who is, or has made himself, a chip off the Anglo block.

Repeatedly reciting the mantra, 'quietly confident of a peaceful settlement', he patiently reassured potential investors of the eminently reasonable nature of the leaders of the three main power groups, and his belief that they would recognise their mutual dependency.

Such an analysis may be logical, but may not be realistic, given the bitterness and bloodshed that stains South Africa's political terrain. Yet press him on the point, and he clearly finds it difficult to envisage a world in which people are driven by emotion rather than reason.

'Look,' he says, and pauses. It it his way of appealing to your sense of reasonableness and he does it after every awkward question.

'None of the main parties thinks they can make it by fighting it out. After two or three months, we're confident that they'll get back into the process. In the end, logic does prevail. It has to prevail and their leaders know this.'

His head is slightly on one side, his voice is light and rather thin, revealing only the faintest trace of a South African accent.

That is very much the Anglo style. The company was formed by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer in 1917 and brought to maturity by his soft-spoken son Harry, a man with sound liberal credentials. Although the Oppenheimer family now have only a relatively small number of shares in the company, they are still its driving force, thanks to a mixture of complicated cross-holdings and strength of personality. It is Sir Ernest's quotations that dot the corporate video, and Harry's face that explains the company's credo.

One observer, who knows the company well, notes that most of its executives have adopted the mannerisms of Harry, who retired as chairman in 1982. 'Everyone talks like Harry,' he says. 'Softly, with their heads on one side in a rather reflective fashion. The emphasis is on being anti- confrontational, on negotiating their way out of a problem. They will say, 'Don't you think we ought to consider doing this or that,' and what they really mean is, 'Get off your butt and get on with things.' '

Running such an empire could be an uncomfortable position for a chief executive who wanted to stamp his own character on a company, especially since there is a widely held belief that Jot is keeping the chair warm for 47-year-old Nicky Oppenheimer, the deputy chairman. But Jot has put a lot of effort into fitting into the mould.

Admittedly, his physique has been a problem. His six foot four inches, even when deflated by a slight stoop, make him seem an altogether more towering and forceful figure than his short and bearded mentor.

'Julian has worked hard at being like Harry but it doesn't always come off. He's a big man and it's difficult for men like that to fit precisely into the Oppenheimer mould.'

His rather formal nickname, after his initials, is the kind staff give to someone of whom they stand in awe. He is not the kind of employer with whom it would be easy to socialise. The son of a former chief justice, a Rhodes Scholar and an Oxford PPE graduate does not suffer fools gladly.

The formative elements in his youth were his father - a respected lawyer, in the best traditions of South Africa's intermittently independent judiciary - and Hubert Kidd, his bookish schoolmaster at Bishops, the Diocesan College in Cape Town.

From the former he learnt that 'there's no point in trying to bluff one's way out of a situation. One always had to do one's homework, think things through first.' Early inklings of the intellectually rigorous style that is his hallmark today.

Mr Kidd was the door from the closed society of South Africa to the wider world. 'In South Africa there is always a danger that schools go sport mad. He was a great Latin scholar. He made us learn Greek and we would always spend time after finishing our lessons talking about anything that came along.'

The net result is rather anachronistic - someone who wouldn't have been out of place as a district commissioner in Kenya in the days when the map was pink, but whose ability to relate to the South Africa which will emerge must be open to question.

Ask him what he feels - as opposed to what he thinks - about what has happened to South Africa since President de Klerk's dramatic unbanning of the ANC, and he tells you what he thinks about it.

Even when describing apartheid as 'crazy - morally wrong and economically suicidal', he gives the impression that he is primarily offended by the illogicality of the system.

Unlike the distinctly liberal Harry Oppenheimer, his politics are said to be right of centre. He speaks admiringly of Lady Thatcher's economic credos: he has a strong dislike of government spending and bureaucracy. Like any good Victorian, Jot firmly believes in the power of education.

A rare flash of passion - it is the first time in half an hour he has used the word 'exciting' - occurs when he speaks of Anglo's educational initiatives.

It is not long, however, before there is yet another appeal to logic. 'Redistributing money is not going to be effective. You have to redistribute skills, to take down the barriers and improve education.'

Eminently reasonable. Eminently logical. Eminently Anglo.

(Photograph omitted)

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