Sir Graham Wilkins

Far-sighted chairman of Beecham's
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The Independent Online

Graham John Wilkins, industrialist: born Mudford, Somerset 22 January 1924; director and vice-president, Beecham (Canada) 1954-59; assistant managing director, C.L. Bencard Ltd and Beecham Research Labs Ltd 1959, managing director 1960, director, pharmaceutical division 1962-64; director and chairman, pharmaceutical division, Beecham Group 1964-72, managing director (pharmaceuticals) 1972-73, executive vice- chairman 1974, chairman and chief executive 1975-84, president 1984-89; Kt 1980; chairman, Thorn-EMI 1985-89, chief executive 1985-87; married 1945 Daphne Haynes (died 1989), 1990 Helen McGregor; died Ashford, Middlesex 2 July 2003

Graham Wilkins was of considerable importance in several roles: as the chairman of the Beecham Group who transformed the company into a major force in the international pharmaceutical industry; as a far-sighted industrialist who foresaw the need for large-scale groupings in the pharmaceutical field; as the chairman who rescued Thorn EMI; and as the first person to try and help Britain's then grossly overworked junior doctors. Tactful and quiet, "with all the qualities of a West Countryman" as a friend says, he was yet decisive. "Solving problems," he once said "is what management is all about."

Graham John Wilkins - universally known as Bob, after an elder sister, unable to pronounce his real name, called him "the beautiful Bobby" - was born in 1924 in the depths of rural Somerset, one of six children. His origins were modest - his father was the schoolmaster son of a wheelwright, his mother the daughter of a bricklayer. Like many others of his generation he owed his opportunity to winning a scholarship at the age of 11 to a grammar school - in his case at Yeovil.

He went on to get a BSc in chemistry and mathematics at University College, South West of England, Exeter (now Exeter University). He graduated in 1944 when Britain was on a total war footing and was conscripted to work at BP's research centre at Sunbury-on-Thames, south-west of London. But he left as soon as he could after the end of the war and joined the Maclean's toothpaste subsidiary of the Beecham Group. There he worked for four years on research into toothpaste, Lucozade and a new shampoo.

In the late 1940s he decided that, as he said, "I was better at managing people than molecules", and took on a series of managerial roles round the world. These provided him with unusual opportunities at an earlier age than would have been possible in most large British companies at the time. His first - and possibly toughest - assignment was to sort out the mess in Beecham's Indian subsidiary in Bombay. He then spent five years running the group's activities in the Western Hemisphere, building factories in Brazil and Venezuela at a time when the company was rapidly expanding its North American activities.

But his return to Britain in 1959 marked the beginning of his major contribution to Beecham - and to pharmaceuticals. Henry Lazell, then Beecham's chairman, had wanted to extend his group's activities into pharmaceuticals and in 1957 its researchers had isolated the penicillin nucleus, leading to a new generation of semi-synthetic penicillins. It was Wilkins' job to develop the business by finding the right executives, building factories and creating a marketing organisation. As such he was largely instrumental in transforming Beecham from a primarily consumer products business into a major force in the world pharmaceutical sector.

Within two years he had been promoted to head the research company and in 1964 was appointed to be chairman of the newly created Pharmaceutical Division. The new dominance of the division he had done so much to create ensured that he became chairman and chief executive in 1975, a post he held until his retirement in 1984 - though he retained the honorary post of president for a further five years. During his period as chairman he was knighted, profits more than trebled, and Beecham emerged as a world leader in semi-synthetic penicillins. In 1981 the group launched Augmentin, a product with a wider range of applications than any other antibiotic, which became the biggest single seller of all the group's products.

His achievements had already been recognised when he was elected as president of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry for a two-year term in 1969 and in 1978 he became president of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries' Association for four years.

Wilkins was a firm opponent of proposals for nationalising the pharmaceutical business and recognised the need for larger groupings if Britain were to claim a place at the top table of a business then dominated by Swiss, German and American firms. "The cost of research is going up so rapidly," he said, "that you need to be a big company to finance it and you can't finance large-scale research out of the United Kingdom market". As a result, in 1971 Beecham tried to take over Glaxo, a move blocked by the Monopolies Commission - although both companies were eventually absorbed into what is now known as GSK (GlaxoSmithKline).

On leaving Beecham Wilkins had hoped to retire, play golf, indulge his taste for travel, good food and wine and take on a handful of non-executive directorships - these included the Hill Samuel Group; Rowntree and Eastern Electricity. But he was called out of retirement in 1985 for the most high-profile role of his career, as chairman of Thorn EMI after what was described as "the most dramatic boardroom coup the City has witnessed for years". After his predecessor, Peter Laister, had been in the job for little more than a year, a period during which the share price had collapsed by nearly a half, he was removed by the non-executive directors and replaced by Wilkins, the company's non-executive deputy chairman.

He was under no illusions about the scale of his task: "To get Thorn right," he said, "there can be no short-term turnaround but I will stay in my position until the job is done . . . we're talking of a year or two years." In fact it took him four. He had to restructure the company, getting rid of companies, installing new management in others, placing more emphasis on marketing in what had been a production-oriented group, continuing Laister's drive into defence and other electronic businesses, and arranging for an orderly succession to Colin Southgate.

Wilkins' other major achievement was as chairman of the pay review body for doctors and dentists, the Doctors' and Dentists' Remuneration Board, between 1986 and 1990. Under his chairmanship the Board came up with a radical proposal - accepted by the government in 1989 - to reduce the then excessive hours worked by junior doctors by ruling that those required to be on call and standby duty for more than 96 hours a week should receive double payments.

Nicholas Faith

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