Profile: Fate, pharmaceuticals, fresh air and fun: David Barnes: The head of Zeneca tells William Kay that his career in chemicals was due to chance more than animal magnetism
Sunday 06 March 1994
Serendipity has been a recurrent theme for David Barnes, once a would-be vet who became a laboratory assistant and claims that he has let fate decide his job moves ever since.
'I joined ICI because I thought a couple of years there would at least help me to get a job elsewhere,' he explained, 'but in fact I have always enjoyed what I have been doing and people have just told me to go and do something else.' As Barnes is chief executive of Zeneca, the pharmaceuticals, fertilisers and coatings group that was spun off from ICI last year, he is either being a touch disingenuous or he has been extremely lucky. But someone had to run the new show, and when it came to the crunch, Barnes's age and pharmaceutical background made him the obvious candidate.
By the end of last week he was visibly relaxing, after surviving public scrutiny of Zeneca's first annual results and looking forward to a modest celebration of his 58th birthday with his wife, Fiona.
'How many other people in their last five years have the opportunity to be chief executive of a new company of Zeneca's size, quality and potential?', he asked, with the air of someone who has been given a particularly well-oiled train set. How well oiled was demonstrated by a 42 per cent rise in 1993's pre-tax profits to pounds 627m. But the shares fell a shade and are more lowly rated than rivals Glaxo and Wellcome, suggesting that the company is still on probation as far as the investment community is concerned.
Next weekend Zeneca's head office becomes physically separate from ICI's, when it leaves London's Millbank to move alongside GEC's spartan fortress in Mayfair. But there is already a tangible difference between the oak-panelled suite that Sir Denys Henderson inhabits as chairman of both ICI and Zeneca, and the functional box on the opposite side of the building that is Barnes's base for another week.
His working surroundings are relatively unimportant if only because no office can compare to the great wide-open spaces, as far as Barnes is concerned. 'I am an outdoor person,' he declared. 'To the extent that one can ever say 'never', I could never live in a town.'
His liking for fresh air goes back to childhood. Barnes, son of a colonial administrator, was born in what was Nyasaland - now Malawi. His memory of that part of the world is hazy, as at the age of six he was shipped off to prep school on the equally rural Lancashire-Cumbria border near the Lake District.
'Like many children at that time, I saw very little of my parents during the war,' he recalled, 'but you just had to get used to it and learn to stand on your own feet.'
There followed a spell at Shrewsbury public school in the 1950s, which might not have been tailor-made for someone of Barnes's shy disposition, given that it was dominated for much of the time by Willie Rushton and Richard Ingrams as they hammered out the satirical style that was to lead to the formation of Private Eye.
'They got their hands on the school magazine,' Barnes remembered, 'and they were pretty irreverent. I was amused by them, but I wasn't part of their group.' Instead, he contented himself with cross-country running - and cutting up animal cadavers.
'I spent a lot of free time in the biology labs,' he said with a gleam. 'I quite enjoyed dissection - toads, rats, mice, that sort of thing.' Why? Barnes thought for a moment and transported himself back to those school labs. 'Chemistry is something you learn by rote and physics is very much a quantified science, a bit like reading gas meters,' he replied. 'Biology, on the other hand, is much less well defined, much more qualitative. It's more like growing beans. It looks at the differences between creatures, why a pig's stomach is different from a cow's.
'I am fascinated by animal behaviour. If it were possible to have my time again and do something I really wanted to do, I would spend much more time studying that. Why is it that cuckoos never see their parents, yet always behave like cuckoos? There is a strong assumption that nearly all behaviour must be inherited with the genes.
'As the saying goes, 'With him for a sire and her for a dam, is it any surprise that I am what I am?' But that is rather controversial when you apply it to humans.'
Unsurprisingly, he and Fiona live in Oxfordshire surrounded by dogs. Their children, Alison and Jonathan, have grown up and moved away, and Barnes enjoys spending weekends walking, bird- watching - and fishing and shooting.
'I don't like going on shoots where there are hundreds of birds going over,' he explained, 'but there is much pleasure for me in working a dog and understanding the way geese, ducks or pigeons behave, the fact they feed down sun. You have to try and interpret their actions and understand what motivates them.'
As to reconciling the apparent contradiction between hunting and bird-watching, Barnes sees no moral distinction between killing game and eating bacon, beef or salmon. This is all the odder in view of the fact that he gave up a veterinary degree course at Liverpool University when he realised that, in contrast with doctors, vets are frequently expected to kill their patients instead of curing them.
'I had a vocational conflict,' Barnes admitted. 'If you want to heal animals, it is astonishing how many people ask you to do the reverse.
'It may be for commercial reasons, like a farmer who wants a cow killed, or it may just be because someone is going abroad and doesn't want to take the family labrador.'
Conflicting loyalties - to ICI and his own family - have also prevented Barnes from making much use of his many foreign trips to go walkabout in the surrounding countryside.
'I wish I'd been slightly less puritanical about that,' he reflected. 'I would feel a bit guilty about leaving the family a day or two early, or coming back to them a day or two later, in order to go sightseeing. Mind you, having a holiday on your own is pretty miserable. I had one stop-over in Hawaii, and sitting alone on Waikiki Beach is not a satisfying experience.'
So instead, he contents himself with walking around Scotland or Wales, preferably if there is an inviting pub at the end of the lane.
'Sometimes, though, I would like more reliable weather,' Barnes remarked Eeyoreishly. 'We had some super narrow-boat holidays when the children were small, but if it's pouring with rain all you can do is get wet or moor up.'
While the children were growing out of their wellies, Barnes was steadily being pulled up through the ICI hierarchy as pharmaceuticals blossomed from a dowdy Cinderella to the glamour status it acquired in the late 1980s.
'When I joined', he said, 'ICI didn't know it had a pharmaceuticals business. It was de minimis and didn't even turn a profit until it made pounds 1m in 1963. Who would have thought that 20 years later it would be ICI's main profit earner?' Last year the pharmaceuticals division of Zeneca made a trading profit of pounds 589m.
Barnes believes that after more than a decade of false dawns, we really are about to see biotechnology take off as a science and an industry.
'This morning there are 300,000 more mouths to feed than last night,' he pointed out, 'and the world adds the equivalent of the population of the US every three years. More efficient fertiliser isn't going to be enough to feed everyone. Biotech is going to improve our ability to understand plants and animals, their genetic make-up, their predisposition to disease and how to rectify that. What could be more exciting?'
While Barnes concedes that these developments raise difficult ethical questions, ICI's approach stems from its early work in beta blockers. That led to the invention of heart drugs, and more recently the company's anti-asthma compound, Accolate, which Barnes claims works differently from its main competitors.
Biotech breakthroughs also have direct implications for Zeneca's agrochemicals and speciality chemicals operations.
The specialities include Quorn, the soya bean compound that tastes like blandest chicken but wins applause from vegetarians and can be used as the basis for stir-fries, casseroles and many other dishes.
Quorn has been slow to take off, however, suggesting that Zeneca may need help on the marketing front.
'Maybe we should sell little pots of flavourings with it, like those sample paint pots that were so successful,' Barnes ventured. 'But whatever happens it's a lot more satisfying than selling washing machines.'
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