Sir Austin Bide
Thursday 29 May 2008
It was good to see Nicholas Faith crediting Austin Bide [obituary, 24 May] with the principal responsibility for the transformation of Glaxo from the 1970s, an achievement which, as a result of Austin's reluctance to seek personal publicity, has tended to be attributed to others,
writes Dr D.W. Budworth.
He was a very different man in private, or in what C.P. Snow called "closed politics", as I learnt from his involvement with the CBI, where, as secretary to the Research and Technology Committee, I first met him in his office in Clarges Street as the junior member of a team of three which had called to invite him to accept the chair of that committee. Behind him was displayed a poster of a rhinoceros, inscribed "I may have my faults, but being wrong isn't one of them", and he gave every appearance of believing it. He was one of three men I have known who could terrorise a roomful of his peers without raising his voice much above a whisper.
Despite this beginning, we were soon on first-name terms and, possibly because I was also a scientist, we got on very well. He was very easy to deal with, as he knew his own mind but would listen to what was said to him and accept advice which appeared to be well founded. He had a very clear strategic view about the pharmaceutical industry, in which he maintained that it was essential to keep up research and development spending and to operate internationally. He once confessed to me that he was no great fan of equity and the way in which its holders exercise influence over companies.
After a year or two, I was promoted to a post which involved looking after the Companies Committee, of which Austin, in common with about 20 chairmen or chief executives of major companies, was a member. One of my qualifications for the post, according to my boss, was "that you can cope with Austin Bide".
About a week after he had joined British Leyland, I met him at a CBI Council meeting and said "Now's your chance to preach your doctrine of making the right products", to which he replied "I already have".
Unfortunately, the combination of the highly empirical tradition of British Leyland, so different from that of the pharmaceutical industry, and the lack of understanding of industry on the part of successive British governments (a point brought out by Tam Dalyell) proved too much even for him to overcome.
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