Sir Robert Horton: Dynamic and combative head of BP and Railtrack

 

Sir Robert Horton had a forceful, dynamic management style which in 1990 propelled him to the top of British Petroleum, then the world's third-largest oil company. It was assumed he would develop into a titan of the industry. But his trademark vigour was accompanied by another trademark, that of imperious arrogance, which despite his undoubted talents led to his removal as chairman and chief executive within two years.

Opinions differed as to how well he performed, but there was widespread agreement that he was brought down by the "unpleasant and undiplomatic" manner in which he dealt with executives and others. One employee was quoted as saying, "Horton treated everybody as though they were head gardener. People could not bear to have any more sandpaper rubbed over them."

He was not a man to under-sell himself. "Because I am blessed with a good brain," he said, "I tend to get the right answer rather quicker and more often than most. That will sound frightfully arrogant." After BP he held senior positions in other concerns, notably Railtrack, but tended to become embroiled in boardroom battles. He was deemed deficient not only in people skills but also in corporate infighting.

Horton, who came from a well-off family which had made money in the timber trade, was born in London and brought up in Kent. BP sponsored him to attend a Scottish university where, with characteristic immodesty, he mused he had the potential to become chairman of the company.

While on his way up the BP ladder, he had been such a success in heading up the company's operations in the US. There, although he pushed through far-reaching job cuts, he was quite a popular figure. Although he cut budgets "ferociously" and scaled down its spending on community projects, he was spoken of as having "genial charm and easy humour." When he was promoted back to England the local mayor declared, "I am going to miss him," adding that he had been "a model of the way foreign owners ought to behave in terms of public responsibility."

Horton said: "It's what leadership is about. It's a matter of convincing people, it's the art of generalship. It is no surprise that I am a student of military history." But once he was in the top job at BP in England, words such as genial were replaced by descriptions such as abrasive and high-handed. There was a feeling that he was over-inclined to make cuts, which earned him the nickname of "Horton the Hatchet".

There was unease, too, at his insistence on paying large dividends which many felt BP could not at that stage afford. He wanted to change the entire ethos of BP, later saying that on his return from the US he had experienced a culture shock in witnessing "bureaucracy, distrust and second-guessing".

His aim was to replace this with a more flexible system based on "trust and openness and teamwork rather than on hierarchy". But there was so much internal resistance that he described his efforts as "like swimming in treacle". One view of his two-year spell at the top was that he set out to Americanise BP. As he himself put it: "I have always been more comfortable in the US because my approach is straightforward. In America that's regarded as favourable; here it is seen as abrupt, confrontational and arrogant."

The management expert Sir John Harvey-Jones summed him up: "Eighty per cent of his problem is style. People would go through hell for him if they believed he respected and wanted to help them. That's why he cut a swathe in the States. People there accept economic imperatives, but in Britain they still like someone to jolly them along."

Horton had asserted that one of the key challenges of the uncertain 1990s was that of "managing surprise", but his own sudden departure came as a major surprise. When he was jettisoned in a gentlemanly but ruthless boardroom coup which demonstrated that he had lost the confidence both of his board and senior executives, one commentator hailed it as "something of a triumph for corporate democracy."

His departure from BP was marked by compensation of £1.5 million, one of the largest pay-offs received by a company boss in the UK. Not long afterwards he was back, as chairman of Railtrack, where his six years were marked by privatisation and a long-running industrial action. After six years he left after what was seen as defeat in a boardroom battle. Spells at the helm of a security group and an online betting company also ended amid disputes.

***

If woundingly unfair criticism is made around the time of death, it ought to be corrected by those with first-hand knowledge, writes Tam Dalyell. Otherwise it ends to become "gospel" in the records. It has been suggested that "Hatchet Horton" closed 28 BP chemical plants and sacked half the workforce while he was chief executive officer of BP Chemicals (1980-1983) with the innuendo that this callous action was designed with the reward of a place on BP's main board in mind.

This version of events is far from the truth. As MP for West Lothian I represented at least half of those employed at the BP chemicals plant at Grangemouth. In 1981 I sat down with my friend Harry Ewing, Labour MP for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth, represent-atives of the workforce and Horton to see what could be done to save the plant. Horton was no butcher. We all recognised that the plant had become bloated. Horton won our respect by promising and soon implementing the promise, of generous provision for redundant older workers. Without his energy, and capacity for imaginative, constructive proposals, the plant could not have competed. Horton rescued BP Chemicals.

Sir Robert Baynes Horton, company executive: born London 18 August 1939; chairman and chief executive officer, BP 1990-92; chairman, Railtrack 1993–99, Chubb plc 2002–03, Sporting Exchange 2004–06; Kt 1997; married 1962 Sally Wells (one son, one daughter); died 30 December 2011.

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