Sir John Harvey-Jones: Ebullient business leader who chaired ICI and found fame as the BBC's 'Troubleshooter'

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John Henry Harvey-Jones, businessman: born London 16 April 1924; MBE 1952; staff, Imperial Chemical Industries plc 1956-67, techno-commercial director 1967-68, deputy chairman, Heavy Organic Chemicals Division 1968-70, chairman, Petrochemicals Division 1970-73, deputy chairman 1978-82, chairman 1982-87; Kt 1985; chairman, The Economist 1989-94; married 1947 Mary Bignell (one daughter); died Hereford 10 January 2008.

John Harvey-Jones, chairman of ICI from 1982 to 1987, was one of the most remarkable characters in British business. It was not only his unruly hair and aggressively loud ties that distinguished him, but his unashamedly buccaneering attitude to life and his work. Yet, ironically, the remnants of ICI, in his time Britain's biggest industrial company, were sold to a Dutch rival only a few weeks before his death.

After his retirement from ICI his ebullient personality transformed him into a major television personality in the ground-breaking BBC series Troubleshooter, first screened in 1990. In it Harvey-Jones dispensed blunt, loud, authoritative – if not always suitable – advice to a variety of organisations, above all small and medium-sized businesses. Indeed, he was as much a showman as a businessman – once dancing on the table at a dull, formal dinner at The Economist when he was chairman, and walking out of an awards dinner immediately after he had lost. Not surprisingly, his whole life story was rather different from that of most other British businessmen.

Though born in London (in 1924), he spent the first six years of his life in India, where his father was tutor to a young Maharajah. Like so many others he was sent home at the age of seven to go to a boarding shchool where, equally typically, he was thoroughly unhappy. At 13, denied the possibility of a career as a lawyer becase his father claimed he didn't have the funds to support him, he was sent to Dartmouth Naval College, where, he once said, "in the most ruthless way possible we were taught only those things which it was considered a naval officer needed to know" – though he did admit to being taught history by a young Cyril Northcote Parkinson, later famous as the author of Parkinson's Law.

Harvey-Jones was 15 at the start of the Second World War and was first in action at the age of 16. He had an exciting war. He served on two destroyers which were sunk under him in the Mediterranean, and then transferred to submarines, partly to protect his sensitive ears from the noise of heavy guns, but mainly, he said, to prove himself. His rise was rapid; at the age of 24 he found himself in command of a submarine.

After the war, Harvey-Jones was sent to learn Russian and German at Cambridge, clearly a preparation for a career in intelligence. His first role was acting as liaison officer between the Russians and the defeated Germans at Wilhelmshaven on the Baltic coast while the port was being dismantled and shipped to the Soviet Union as part of the spoils of the Allied victory. On his return to London, he worked for two years as one of the Navy's Russian intelligence experts.

He then returned to active service to run the Navy's stations at Kiel and Hamburg, where he got to know – and like – most of Germany's surviving admirals. This was followed by command of a high-speed ex-torpedo boat with a German crew. "What we were ostensibly doing was fishery protection in the Baltic; you can make your own guesses as to what we were actually doing. That was tremendous fun. Marvellous, absolutely marvellous!" In 1949 the Admiralty put him back in the proper Navy, serving during the Korean war before being sent off for some months in the Antarctic. He returned to Britain with an MBE for his work in the Baltic.

Harvey-Jones then spent several years in MI6, the most mysterious period in his career, in work so sensitive that even as chairman of ICI he never dared to visit the Soviet Union. But we do know that he worked in the Russian section, thanks to his knowledge of the language and his experience in the Baltic, and that he shared an office with the Russian spy Gerge Blake. The discovery of Blake's activities may have been one of the reasons why he left the Navy in 1956. He always claimed that it was because of the polio contracted by his only daughter – who later became his secretary and business partner – that he abandoned a career guaranteed to take him away for long periods of time.

He joined ICI because, he said, it was in a basic industry that he thought he could understand. Perhaps he instinctively gravitated towards another large, institutionalised organisation that needed leaders of men. He faced his first challenge within days of starting work at the group's huge chemical manufacturing complex at Wilton, on Teesside. One of Wilton's incinerators was failing to burn enough waste, and it had been decided to replace it. Harvey-Jones was sent to investigate and found a mountain of rubbish. Within hours he had determined that the real problem was a lack of method, and spent a week helping the men feed the incinerator according to his ideas. When he handed in his report a week later, he was able to add casually that they had run out of material to burn.

For the next decade he was given a series of difficult jobs in which he displayed his talents as a real-life troubleshooter. After getting ICI to build its own refinery to produce naptha, a vital raw material, he was put in charge of selling hydrocarbons.He then successfully sorted out industrial relations at the massive Wilton site, where management had effectively lost control to a militant group of shop stewards, a problem that had broken several divisional chairmen.

From then on Harvey-Jones's rise was rapid. By 1970 he was chairman of ICI's petrochemicals and plastics division, and in 1973 he became the youngest member of the main board, at the age of 49. He found the next few years almong the most difficult in his career, calling them "the bored years". The board's debates seemed academic rather than real, but his early attempts to stimulate anything but superficial changes were frustrated by what he described as "the seductive power of the status quo". In 1976, though, he was given responsibility for rescuing ICI's man-made fibres division, which was losing market share in Europe to Far Eastern rivals at a frightening rate.

In 1978, Harvey-Jones became one of ICI's three deputy chairmen, with his portfolio embracing plastics, which he saw as heading the same way as fibres. In 1980, disaster struck. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, raised interest rates to combat inflation, the value of sterling rose dramatically, and in nine months ICI's results fell from a profit of £600m to a loss of £200m. By the end of 1981, a third of the group's UK customers had gone out of business.

Harvey-Jones became chairman of ICI at the beginning of May 1982. It was a measure of the crisis facing ICI like most of British industry at the time, that he was also given chief executive powers. He put his future firmly on the line. "I am a high-risk choice," he said. "What I am going to do may not work out. We failed to read the changing world in the 1970s. If I get it wrong again, I will resign." His first step, predictably, was more cost-cutting. But this time he began at the very top, reducing the main board from 14 to eight.

To underline the message, he put the group's grandiose headquarters on Millbank near the Houses of Parliament up for sale, cutting its staff from 1,200 to 400 (he wanted to make it 150). Then he scrapped all controls except for three parameters; profit, cash and strategic direction. The strategy boiled down to giving ICI's customers what they wanted, rather than what the group already made. It involved sweeping changes, such as swapping one of ICI's crown jewels, its polythene business, for BP's PVC operations, and withdrawing entirely from making polyester.

And it meant drastic redundancies. Over six years, ICI's workforce was cut by a third, following the severe cuts already made by his predecessor, Sir Maurice Hodgson, to whom many of his colleagues attributed Harvey-Jones' success. Politically, he was also untypical of his fellow industrialists. A founder member of the SDP, he became one of Margaret Thatcher's most bitter opponents in the business community, accusing her of decimating British manufacturing industry.

To ICI's shareholders, however, their new chairman rapidly became a hero. To their astonishment, in 1984 ICI became the first British industrial company to achieve profit of £1bn as a result of the way he had slimmed down the company's structure and sold off underperforming subsidiaries. The next year Harvey-Jones was knighted. He retired two years later, his departure soured by the discovery that his high profile had been deeply resented by his colleagues who felt, with some justice, that his success was partly due to the improvement in the British economy as a whole during his chairmanship. Moreover his successor, Sir Denys Henderson, had to sell off most of the acquisitions made during Harvey-Jones' chairmanship.

For Harvey-Jones his time after he left the chair of ICI was the very opposite of "retirement" – he once claimed that he was working a 120-hour week. After delivering the prestigious Dimbleby Lecture in 1990 came the fame associated with Troubleshooter. Not all his "clients" appreciated his advice – most famously Morgan Motors took no notice, yet survived and flourished. New series in 1995 – produced a mere six weeks after a stroke – and 2000 kept him in the public eye. His rumbustious personality was naturally suited to television and made him far more public a figure, which gave him the authority to suggest that the BBC should be "slimmed down" and abandon rate-chasing networks like Radio 1.

His fame and thirst for work resulted in a mixed bag of jobs. They ranged from chairmanship of The Economist to the presidency of the town band at Ross-on-Wye, his home town, but also included some disasters, most obviously the bankruptcy of a financial services group of which he was chairman.

His first book, Making It Happen: reflections on leadership (1987), had been purely a business book; his second, Getting It Together (1991), was more personal. In it he confessed that from boyhood he had had a picture in his mind of the sort of person he wanted to be, "a sort of Boy's Own Paper composite, archetypal British gentleman – simultaneously strong and compassionate, stiff-lipped yet emotional, courageous both physically and morally, doing incessantly to others as you would be done to yourself". More interestingly he admitted to the inner conflct beween the outwardly confident and charismatic leader, his childish feelings of inadequacy and his desire to impress his father.

Nicholas Faith

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