Media: The troubleshooter's parting shot: Despite the success of his BBC programme, Sir John Harvey-Jones is getting out of the TV personality business, says Glyn Jones
Wednesday 23 December 1992
Sir John Harvey-Jones, the 68-year-old former chairman of ICI, has decided not to do any more programmes as complex as this one. Having to go to each location as many as four times meant the latest series of seven programmes took up 50 weeks of his schedule.
'After all, I do a lot of charitable work and want to do more. I want to spend more time at home,' Sir John explained. 'Although I am willing to do things like Question Time, I have no interest in becoming a TV personality, or speaking other people's words for them.'
Using his own, often devastating, words in gutting British business has made him essential viewing for at least three million people, who each week have awaited the frank judgements Sir John meted out - with his characteristic manic cackle - to sometimes bemused managers. 'You are being killed by slow strangulation . . . The situation is barmy and intolerable . . . It is possible to break through but only if you charge the guns . . .'
Usually his victims grin and bear it. 'I've met some really marvellous people struggling to make a go of things in the worst conditions we've had in 50 years,' Sir John said. 'The way they've taken very tough words from me and taken - or rejected - my advice has been wonderful. And it was all done in live conditions. Any time I could have come away with egg all over my face.'
This sense of danger was Troubleshooter's strength. But why were so many bosses lured into a public striptease in which they revealed problems that would better be kept secret, most of all from their competitors? During one of the longuers that go with filming, Sir John made it clear that he wanted to help businessmen and women to help themselves.
Although the first step was public exposure, plenty of people still volunteered for it. After the first Troubleshooter series, hundreds of managers wrote in to ask if Sir John would nip along and help out with serious problems within their own companies.
'Normally I only saw published accounts and management plans beforehand. Then I selected the companies with Richard Reisz, the BBC's executive producer,' Sir John explained. 'When I got to the factory what I was looking for was the evenness with which management effort was spread across the business - that no one area was being neglected in pursuit of another.
'You can see with your own eyes what things are like on the shop floor. Is it tidy? Is the flow of materials right? Do people look you in the eye or do they look downcast? Is the floor planned efficiently? Do superiors know their jobs and are prices high enough?'
From these clues and his experience, Sir John made up his mind about the overall efficiency of a company. He was relentless and brutally candid in questioning top management about business strategies, but it was always possible to see what he was driving at. We shall never know how many other managers saved their companies by asking themselves the questions he asked on television.
The fact that so many companies are ready to unveil their secrets is proof of the need for a regular series that tackles industrial problems in the way in which Troubleshooter has. The first series, three years ago, built up an audience of three million and the second series set out with three million from programme one. This kind of success, winning the first series a special Bafta award, is beyond anything normally attained by programmes about business or management.
After the first series most of the companies taking part were benefiting. True, the Morgan sports car company did not take Sir John's advice and the family-owned fruit juice company diversified in a way that alarmed him. The biggest success was the pottery firm that did much as he suggested and has now quadrupled its profits. 'If we had more of those we should not be in the bloody mess we are in at the moment,' were Sir John Harvey-Jones's parting words.
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