Aged 59, Sir Roger is contemplating his final career move - he is said to be a strong candidate for chairman of GEC, the corporate monster George Simpson is struggling to tame. Sir Roger plans to retire from Smiths in the next 12 months; GEC chairman Lord Prior told shareholders on Friday that the company would name a successor "early in the new year".
Mr Simpson took over from the legendary Arnold Weinstock a year ago. But the new chief executive has yet to show the City that he has a convincing strategy for a company whose hotchpotch of products - ships and missiles, Hotpoint fridges and Creda cookers, giant turbines and trains - takes pounds 6.5bn in sales a year. Twice in 12 months, GEC has angered shareholders over what has been seen as over-generous salary and options packages for its top brass.
Sandy Morris, engineering analyst at ABN Amro Hoare Govett, says Sir Roger looks the ideal candidate to help Simpson alter the course of the supertanker that is GEC, the UK's largest manufacturing company. "He is not a guy who will meddle," says Morris. "He puts his hands on the tiller only if it goes too far one way or the other."
The Smiths chairman is no household name, but he is one of the UK's most astute businessmen, and one of few in the battered engineering sector to reward shareholders handsomely.
"Roger doesn't want to be in the limelight," says Sir Peter Thompson, a non-executive director at Smiths. "He has created a hell of a good business, yet nobody would put him forward as businessman of the year." Sir Roger is also a long-standing Simpson chum: they have been boardroom colleagues at Pilkington and ICI.
GEC shareholders are impatient; for years they watched as Lord Weinstock, an industrial genius of the Sixties and Seventies, lost his way. GEC shares are at 392p, the same as four years ago.
Lord Weinstock could not bring himself to sell businesses to bring clarity and focus to GEC, preferring joint ventures in power generation and telecoms, some of which look ripe for unscrambling. Nor could he find ways to invest GEC's fabled pounds 1bn cash mountain, and was equally reluctant to hand the surplus back to his shareholders.
Sir Roger would bring instant City credibility. He had no trouble persuading institutional shareholders who normally do not like one man to fill the jobs of chief executive and chairman to make an exception in his case. He wore both hats until last year when Keith Butler-Wheelhouse became Smiths' chief executive. Smiths' shares have more than doubled to 845p in four years.
Earlier this year, Mr Morris at ABN Amro ranked 14 major engineering companies by combining performances in growth in earnings and dividends, return on capital and cash flow. "Smiths came top by a considerable margin ahead of companies like Siebe and a long way in front of TI and IMI," says Mr Morris.
Over the 16 years since Sir Roger became chief executive, one comparison stands out. Smiths' sales went up a modest two-and-a-half times to the current pounds 1bn, but operating profits rose 10 times to pounds 165m in its most recent financial year. Sir Roger has no interest in growth for growth's sake.
Nor is a man who operates from modest premises in North London rather than a plush West End office at all sentimental about doubtful businesses. Two years after taking over, Sir Roger decided Smiths should get out of motor components - the division his father had helped run and one which had sent him all over Europe seeking orders. The decision was remarkable for a man who, on an unusual career path, had spent two years as an engineering apprentice at Rolls Royce after leaving Marlborough, his public school.
After shedding motor components Sir Roger turned Smiths into a three- legged stool - avionics for military and civil aircraft, medical equipment and industrial products. Each division has factories in the UK and the US where Sir Roger, unlike so many British bosses, has bought well.
Smiths supplies flight controls for Boeing, Airbus and practically every jet made in the US and the UK. It makes sterilising and operating equipment for hospitals, hoses for vacuum cleaners and Vent Axia fans. Most of all, it generates huge amounts of cash, which Sir Roger regards as the best test of success.
Each division is headed by a main board director working in the same office as Sir Roger and Mr Butler-Wheelhouse. They meet daily. "He has a collegiate style of management," says Sir Peter Thompson. "He has never run Smiths as a personal fiefdom like Weinstock."
Professor Ray Wild, principal of Henley Management College where Sir Roger chairs the governing body, says the Smiths boss is popular throughout the company. "Factory managers know him and like him. He has a good intellect and is pragmatic and practical as well."
He is distinctly unflashy. He lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife Roz and spends a lot of time with their teenage daughter Holly. He could be taken for a middle manager. "He drives a BMW, not a Roller, he is comfortable with himself, so he doesn't need to surround himself with all the trappings," says Sir Peter.
The only known luxury of a man who earned pounds 700,000 last year is shooting grouse with a group of old friends in Yorkshire each season. There could be no greater contrast with the enigmatic Lord Weinstock, who didn't like spending shareholders' money but spent a fortune of his own on racehorses.
Yet there is no doubt that despite an unremarkable physical presence Sir Roger punches above his weight. Mr Simpson has yet do so, at least at GEC. "Roger is probably the best manager I've ever come across," says Sir Peter. "He makes his objectives quite clear and makes sure everybody knows what their role is in helping achieve them."
Sir Roger has other talents GEC could use. Prof Wild says he has strong views about disclosure, the responsibility of directors and corporate practice. At Sir Roger's prompting, the Henley Management College discloses far more than it needs to as a registered charity, and operates company- style audit and remuneration committees. Sir Roger surrounds himself with strong non-executive directors rather than rubber-stamp boards.
There is one strong parallel with GEC. In the early Nineties, says Sir Peter, Smiths had amassed its own cash pile of around pounds 120m, a huge amount for a company its size. "Roger said it was the wrong time in the cycle to invest it, so he kept his powder dry." But, unlike Lord Weinstock, Sir Roger did eventually go out and find a use for the money, following a cautious acquisition policy.
Sir Roger has never made a hostile bid, so has never needed to court the media, which explains the low profile. He has said he avoids hostile takeovers for the simple reason that only in friendly deals can he exercise due diligence and be sure he is getting what he pays for.
The result? "Roger has never made a bad acquisition," says Sir Peter. Some have been outstanding, such as the 1994 $150m (pounds 93m) purchase of US medical group Deltec. Now Smiths is buying Graseby, a smaller medical products firm, for pounds 136m, following a typical Sir Roger pattern of never buying anything that reduces earnings per share.
In some ways Smiths is a mini-GEC. Both make medical equipment. Each has an industrial products division. More importantly, both are in defence, notably electronics where GEC Marconi is likely to take centre stage in Mr Simpson's strategy.
"If GEC does recruit Sir Roger it will get a guy who knows the defence industry and Marconi in particular," says Mr Morris. That could be crucial when firms like BAe and GEC itself get around to the long-awaited restructuring of the UK defence industry. Smiths' loss would undoubtedly be GEC's gain.