The Saturday Interview / A general takes up the gauntlet: Rudolph Agnew

Click to follow
Rudolf Agnew, 60, stepped back into the limelight last week when he became non-executive chairman of Lasmo, the oil exploration company fighting a bid from rival Enterprise Oil. Born in Australia and brought up in Ireland, he worked for the mining giant Consolidated Goldfields for 32 years, defeating a bid by Minorco before the company was taken over by Lord Hanson. He lives in Belgravia with his wife, Whitney, and two children.

Richard Thomson talked to the man turning his many skills to keeping Lasmo independent.

'I think very few bids are justified or are of benefit to anyone,' says Rudolf Agnew, lighting up his third Gitane in half an hour.

It is a predictable attitude - the kind of dismissive comment you would expect to hear from the chairman of besieged Lasmo. But it has more than usual credibility, coming as it does from the battle- hardened veteran of an epic, eight- month struggle with resources group Minorco that became one of the most celebrated corporate clashes of the decade. Enterprise Oil should worry.

A tall, handsome, silver-haired man with a languid air, Rudolf Agnew looks like the former cavalry officer he is. His conversation is urbane, amusing and wide-ranging. He is deeply immersed in history, peppering his remarks with historical allusions. None of which makes him a soft touch, though.

He is taking his job as the two days-a-week chairman of Lasmo seriously. 'My job is as a facilitator, making sure that things happen. I'm going to argue the future; the other side will only argue the past.'

Enterprise Oil must have studied his daunting form during bids. During his defence of ConsGold in 1989 he used every weapon in the book.

He hired Kroll, the private investigators, for example, and inflicted a verbal assault on Sir Michael Edwardes - including slighting allusions to his lack of mining ability and his small stature - that the Minorco chairman still remembers with discomfort.

The memory is evidently uncomfortable for Mr Agnew, too. His personal attack was only prompted because 'Edwardes attacked the competence of our management first. I was reacting, and I have the Irishman's ability to retaliate'. By that he means he has the gift of the gab.

The savagery of his defence was no doubt also prompted by his loyalty to a company at which he had spent 32 years. 'The worst of the bid, though, was eating sandwiches for eight months,' he recalls with a characteristic flash of humour.

Eventually he won, but nine months later ConsGold was to fall to a knock-out cash bid from Lord Hanson.

The out-turn seems to have led to a period of uncertainty. Still loyal to ConsGold, he accepted a seat on the Hanson board, but left after three years, possibly because he found the Hanson tilt at ICI to be of little benefit to anyone.

He became chairman of TVS in the run-up to its failed bid for a television franchise, a move that he concedes 'may not have been the best appointment', because of his lack of detailed knowlege of the industry.

So the chance to join Lasmo came as a considerable relief. 'I was so excited to get back into this field. Exploration and extraction are in my blood after 32 years at ConsGold.'

He was also in complete sympathy with the philosophy of Lasmo's new chief executive, Joe Darby. 'Joe wants a small focused company, to forge its future by concentration. That is what I did at ConsGold, focusing the group back from diversification to fundamentals.'

By his own admission, it is excitement that drives him in business. 'I like to live well, but money has never been my real motive. I've never indulged in overpay and special arrangements,' he says. Still, he stands to gain a handsome pounds 150,000 payoff if Enterprise's bid succeeds and he has to leave Lasmo. But to him the real excitement is a strategic challenge. 'I am intrigued by the problem of getting from A to B, where A is a company in a muddle and B is when it is in an ideal state. I am naturally a strategic thinker. It is said I am bored by detail' - although not, he swiftly points out, unable to handle it.

He is a great admirer of Charles II who 'came back to a deeply dispirited and divided country and healed the wounds,' rather, one suspects, as he hopes to do for Lasmo. You sense, however, that his admiration is as much for the returning king's insouciance, wit and enjoyment of life, things that clearly matter a great deal to him as well.

He has little time for the humourless, workaholic image of modern business. He sees himself instead as a kind of general, planning strategy, marshalling troops - the man with the overall plan.

That attitude probably owes much to the four years he spent in the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars between his Catholic schooling at Downside and following his father into ConsGold. Both business and soldiering allow a man to have a certain style and certain values, and, of course, both involve risk.

Those values include determination and courage as well as a sense of humour. And, as Mr Agnew modestly acknowleges, you also need luck.

He candidly admits to having had his share of good fortune. 'In 1967 ConsGold invested in the construction materials business but had no one to run it. I had just finished a stint in Australia and was taking a leisurely path home through the pleasure centres of South-east Asia.

'Since, at 33, I was the only middle manager available, I got the job. It was nothing to do with my abilities. That was luck, because nine years later I and some others had built it into the biggest and most powerful subsidiary in the group. Which was why, at a very young age, I became chief executive.'

While running ConsGold, he came under heavy attack from the City and the public for refusing to withdraw from South Africa. Although he admits that it would have been hard to replace the profits that came from the country, it is typical that he looked to history for guidance on principles.

'I thought it was better to feed apartheid than starve it. I took as my model 18th, 19th and 20th century Britain where oligarchy retreated just ahead of advancing economic power. Increasing poverty, as in France, Russia and post- First World War Germany, led to revolution.'

He is delighted that although South Africa did starve under sanctions, there has been no revolution. 'The important thing now is how much investment there will be.'

On Britain, his adopted country after being brought up in Ireland, he is surprisingly patriotic. 'I've got all the colonial inferiority complexes,' he says, insisting that he believes passionately in the greatness of Britain, hard though that is at times. He admires the country's tolerance and pragmatism, its genius for trade and the management of money.

But he is worried. Although a life-long Tory voter, he is not pleased at the way government is, in his view, strangling industry with over-regulation.

On Europe he is firmly with the sceptics. He has no doubt that membership of the European Union and its web of niggling rules is inimical to Britain.

''We've locked ourselves into a society (Europe) in decline which is not temperamentally suited to our genius. I've never seen an economic argument for Britain being a member.'

Despite these concerns, Rudolf Agnew still obviously relishes doing business, and has no intention of relinquishing his new job to an Enterprise takeover.

Lasmo is lucky in its chairman.

(Photograph omitted)