Profile: The alchemist from ICI: Ronnie Hampel's job is to refine the demerged giant and turn it back into gold. David Bowen reports

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The Independent Online
RONNIE HAMPEL is a non-executive director of British Aerospace, which announced a pounds 1.2bn loss on Wednesday. He is also chief operating officer of ICI, which announced a pounds 384m loss on Thursday. As a board member of Britain's two most unprofitable companies, Hampel has the dubious privilege of being closer to the heart of the industrial crisis than anyone else.

Up to now, he has been allowed to battle on without much attention. As No 2 at ICI for the past 18 months, he has let the chairman, Sir Denys Henderson, fend off the media fire. Yet it has become clear to ICI watchers that Sir Denys and Hampel are a Tweedledum and Tweedledee double act. They spark off each other and even look slightly alike: both are big and bald - though Hampel does give Sir Denys a few pounds around the middle.

All this is set to change. Last week ICI confirmed that it wants to split in two. Hampel will have the toughest job: to run new ICI, the bigger but less glamorous chunk that will make industrial chemicals, paints and explosives. With sales last year of pounds 8.4bn, it will still be one of the 10 biggest British companies by sales, and the City will be watching like a hawk to see if it can survive. Its chief executive will have one of the hottest seats in town.

Hampel, who shares his Millbank office with an alarmingly realistic Dulux dog, says he relishes the prospect. He pushed hard for the demerger, and persuaded the board to extend his retirement date by 18 months, to September 1995, to give him a chance to mould the new ICI as he wants. 'I would not have been able to live with the idea of putting the split into effect then disappearing,' he says.

ICI has long been fertile territory for management strategists, and Hampel is keen to put his own ideas into practice. Bill Andrews, managing director of Powell Duffryn, where Hampel used to be non-executive director, says he will be good at this. 'He made us think through our industrial strategy with great clarity,' he says.

Hampel's starting-point is that the chemical industry is due for a massive shake-out in the Nineties. It will not have the fast growth of the Eighties, and the companies that survive will be the nimblest on their feet. The changes of the past 10 years will not be enough to save ICI, he says: 'Its performance in real terms has been steadily declining. We decided it could not meet the challenge in its current form.'

So he will try to make ICI leaner and meaner. The head office staff will be cut close to 100 (it is now 500), divisional financial performance will be minutely monitored. Lest this make ICI sound like Hanson, he will also involve chief executives more closely in strategy: not a move a conglomerate would contemplate.

Hampel talks of changing the direction of the great ship ICI. This could be dangerous, for John Harvey-Jones used the same metaphor 10 years ago, and it is not fashionable to sing the Troubleshooter's praises in ICI now. ('If you want to cause a silence at an ICI lunch, say something nice about Harvey- Jones,' says Cecil, now Lord Parkinson.) Will Hampel, with his rigorous strategic thinking, be any more successful than Harvey-Jones with his cultural shock tactics? Only time will tell.

Although Ronald Claus Hampel has had a conventional if highly successful career in ICI, his background is unusual. His mother came from Graz in Austria. His father was an engineer from Brunn in Moravia(now Brno in the Czech Republic) who was sent to Britain in the Twenties to build sugar beet factories. He was offered a permanent job with free house, car and coal, and decided to stay.

Ronnie was born in 1932, and raised as an Englishman. 'You couldn't bring someone up in the Thirties speaking German,' he says. His parents suffered a little. His father had a light bulb to keep his fine stamp collection at the right temperature; a neighbour spotted it and reported him as signalling to enemy aircraft.

The young Hampel was sent to the public school Canford, where he earned a Boy's Own profile. He was in the first team in rugby, hockey, cricket and athletics, and became Captain of Royal (or Real) Tennis.

He was also head of school and company sergeant-major in the Combined Cadet Force, and took French and German at Higher Certificate (though he was not entirely unsuited to a scientific career: he got Very Good in his Elementary Mathematics School Certificate). He also spent two months in Third Man territory - staying illegally with his godfather in Russian-occupied Vienna for two months.

After a year's national service in the Royal Horse Artillery, he went on to read modern languages and law at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Lord Parkinson met him at Cambridge, where he stood out mainly because he did not drink. 'He was a quietly confident person, not at all showy,' Lord Parkinson says. 'He seemed at peace with himself and always knew where he was going. But I don't think we would have predicted that he would become an outstanding figure in industry.' Another contemporary recalls that he was 'a sociable, clubbable chap. He wasn't a remarkable intellect, or at least he wasn't an obvious one.'

He used the time other people spent drinking playing sports: taking advantage of his unusual skill, he won a half- blue at Royal Tennis.

Hampel joined ICI as a trainee in 1955. 'For the first two years I was shipped around to places that didn't want to see me, sitting alongside people and watching them. Quite why I stayed I'm not sure.'

But he did, and claims that after this, he had nothing but fun at ICI - even though its culture was everything he now rejects. 'I had nothing to do with profit for the first 10 years I was there,' he says. 'I was called a sales control clerk at one time: that implied sales were about allocating production.'

He identifies his break from the pack as his appointment in 1964 to a committee that had four future ICI directors sitting on it: 'In a company this size, you have to be seen.'

Hampel rose smoothly through the group, working in the Plant Protection division and spending four years in the United States - ending up in charge of ICI's affairs in Latin America. By the 1980 recession, he was chairman of the paints division (whence the Dulux dog). His success at protecting its profits gave him the final push to stardom, and he joined the main board, with reponsibility for the Americas,in 1985.

By the end of the Eighties he was established in industrial and government circles as a man to watch. Lord Parkinson says he was 'very much in mind' as a possible chairman of British Rail in 1989, and was also considered to run one of the privatised electricity generating companies. He let it be known that he was happy at ICI.

In 1983, he had been recruited as non-executive director of Powell Duffryn, the engineering company. Bill Andrews says two qualities made him stand out. 'First, he has a very incisive mind: when you put a case to him, you have to have your facts marshalled. Second, he has a good sense of humour. He always makes you feel relaxed.'

He learned something else at Powell Duffryn: how to deal with the great predator. Hanson made a bid for the company in 1985, and was repulsed. 'Ronnie gave us a great deal of advice and support during the defence,' Mr Andrews says. 'He was involved about 10 times as much as he would have been during normal times.'

In May 1991 Hanson bought a tiny stake in ICI, which treated it as a serious threat. Hampel emerged as the man in charge of the defence. 'I went into it rather naive. I hadn't understood the degree to which businesses sought to use the media to get their views across,' he says. He concedes that 'we learnt relatively quickly'. This is something of an understatement: Lord Hanson himself acknowledged that he was beaten hands down in the media battle.

It is always difficult to identify exactly what allows a manager to rise to the top of a vast organisation. Hampel points to his lucky appointment in 1964, and he is clearly sharp-witted, direct ('Some say too direct,' he says) and a good communicator. Lord Parkinson says he has become more confident and 'is a little bit more outgoing', though he still enjoys retreating to his house in Cornwall with his wife and four children whenever he can.

Hampel was closely involved with British Aerospace's troubles. Sir Graham Day has nothing but praise for him: 'He's intellectually tough, incisive, he gets to an issue and hangs on to it like a dog with a bone.' He is also, Sir Graham says, a moral man, where 'what is proper is black and white'. Best of all, he has an infectious laugh. 'That says to me he doesn't take himself so damned seriously.'

His Cornish house is by a golf course and here, according to his occasional golfing partner Lord Parkinson, he shows the quality that may set him apart. Though he is a middle handicap golfer, he is extraordinarilycompetitive. He is the same in business, and would have been unhappy had he not made it to the top. But he has - albeit to the top of a truncated group - and now he cannot wait to start bashing the new ICI into shape. 'I'm by nature fairly impatient, and I've sometimes been frustrated at not being able to get things done rapidly enough,' he says. 'There is an excitement about what we are now doing.'

(Photograph omitted)