profile: Rob Cawthorn: A Brit doing rather well over there

The Yorkshireman laying siege to Fisons has an unlikely background for the head of a multi-billion US company.
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The Independent Online
A QUICK parlour game: how many Brits can you name who are running big US corporations? Tony O'Reilly of Heinz? No, he's Irish. Alex Trotman of Ford? Just about, though he has since taken dual nationality. Sam Laidlaw at Amerada Hess? Yes. Sir Dennis Weather- stone at J P Morgan? Yes.

But British people at the top of US companies are still for the most part a rare species. American shareholders tend to prefer their own kind. The cultures are miles apart. And until recently anyway, Britain hardly led the world for the quality and reputation of its managers.

Rob Cawthorn, a Yorkshireman, is one of the few Brits to have reached the head of the table in an American boardroom. He is executive chairman of Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, based in Pennsylvania. This month, he has been firmly ensconced in the Berkeley Hotel in London, from where he is laying siege to Fisons. RPR is neither Heinz, nor Ford. But it has grown to a stock market value of $5.7bn (pounds 3.8bn). Investors canny or lucky enough to have bought into the company when Cawthorn arrived in 1982 have seen their money multiply seven and a half times.

He is not the most obvious person to have reached the top in meritocratic America. To hear his own account of his formative years - a privileged, undemanding upbringing - he could have walked straight into P G Wodehouse's Drones Club, no questions asked.

He was born in Masham, Yorkshire, in 1935, and had a rural upbringing. His father was an auction- eer and valuer. His mother was the daughter of a nursery manager. They also ran a small farm. By his own admission, he was "spoilt rotten" by his mother and two elder sisters. He would agree to go riding only if one of his sisters saddled his pony.

He remembers the war and German bombers flying overhead on their way to Belfast. Once a bomb landed on the nearby pub, shattering his bedroom window.

Aged eight, he was sent off to a boarding prep school, a kind of Dotheboys Hall in the frozen Pennines. He hated it and missed his family. He was beaten in his first term for refusing to eat pilchards on toast. His Latin master tormented him about his broad Yorkshire accent (now long since transformed into mid-Atlantic drawl). He was made to recite "The nun has one bun" and mocked relentlessly. "I can remember the humiliation of that. It stays with me to this day. I hate very few people, but that Latin master I hated."

On to Shrewsbury aged 13, where Michael Heseltine was a contemporary. He spent three years slacking there, he says, but made some lifelong friends and became an ace at rifle and pistol shooting.

He wanted to be a farmer and he did well enough academically to get into Cambridge to read agriculture. "It was a lot easier in those days. I wouldn't get in today." Before Cambridge, he did two years' National Service as an officer in the 14th/20th King's Hussars. He was recruited because he was a good horseman and therefore a useful addition to the regiment's polo team, which was based in Libya. Again, it was an idle period.

"I had my own batman. I didn't lift a finger. It was usually four gin and tonics before lunch and then off to the beach to sleep it off." He used to frequent the casino in Libya, and he continued the gambling habit at Cambridge, both on the horses and later in his rooms in Trinity College, where he delighted his fellow undergraduates by running a roulette wheel. He also met his future wife Susan, a teacher, there.

Cambridge proved to be a turning-point. "I'd been brought up to think I was great. I'd been to good schools, a good regiment. It was then I realised that others without my advantages had a lot more to offer. That was a really, really shocking experience and brought me up short. I then decided I hated the system."

Disillusioned with Britain, he decided to see the world. Told that land could be had for a dollar an acre in Canada, he crossed the Atlantic to seek his fortune. He was 23 and got a job managing a cattle farm near Toronto. Soon after, an advertisment from Pfizer in the local paper caught his eye. The US pharmaceuticals group's veterinary products division was looking for salesmen to spearhead a drive into Canada.

Cawthorn got in early and was rewarded with Ontario - a vast sales patch. He rose rapidly. After complaining to his bosses about the lousy support advertising, he was summoned to Montreal to run the marketing department. Promotion followed promotion and by 29 he was heading the division. "As it grew, I grew," he recalls. Pfizer later sent him to run its Africa and Middle East operation, based in Nairobi, and then Europe, from Brussels.

In 1979 - before most people had even heard of genetic engineering - he joined Biogen, one of the fastest-growing bio-tech companies in the US. But he became disillusioned when Walter Gilbert, the Nobel Prize-winning professor, took over as chairman and set off on a spending spree that led the company into difficulties. "It was a total disaster." Cawthorn left after three years, to join the then tiny American drugs group, Rorer, to run its international operations. Within three years, he was chief executive. A year later, he took on the chairmanship as well.

Cawthorn masterminded a shrewd series of acquisitions and deals. He snapped up Revlon's drugs arm, a deal sealed on a handshake with Ron Perelman, the leveraged buyout specialist who took over the rest of the cosmetics group. He bought another drugs group, Armour, and then turned his mind to a bigger deal. In 1989, he got to know Jean-Rene Fourtou, chairman of Rhone-Poulenc, the former state-owned French chemicals group. They discussed a joint bid for American Cyanamid. That never got off the ground, but they discovered they had the same business philosphy. So they hatched a plan whereby Rhone-Poulenc injected its drugs operations into Rorer in return for a controlling stake, and RPR was born.

Cawthorn says: "People thought it would be a marriage made in hell." In fact, the American-French mix has worked well after the painful business of shedding 5,000 jobs. He explains: "The recipe was, one, move quickly. The worst thing is uncertainty. People can deal with bad news much better than uncertainty. And, two, act fairly. Pick the best person for each particular job, regardless of where they come from."

There have been occasional hiccups since the merger. The shares plunged briefly in 1993 after a profits warning, and there were pursed lips among shareholders because Cawthorn and other RPR directors had received large bonuses linked to an earlier, higher share price.

Cawthorn denies he is a rich man. By US corporate standards, he is right. He was paid $500,000 last year, and has options plus 120,000 RPR shares, worth $5.4m. And he already has the farm he always hankered after - 500 acres of timber and hay in Quebec. "It's my ultimate bolthole. If everything else goes wrong, I'll go back to that."

His two daughters are now grown up. Outside work, he enjoys tennis, skiing, sun, sea and the garden.

Unlike many other businessmen, he seems genuinely at ease with himself - and still likeably surprised he got to the top. "Business schools tell people they have to have a five- or 10-year career plan. I think that's nonsense. If I'd done that I would never have got where I am."