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.

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?