Obituary: Lord Sharp of Grimsdyke

Eric Sharp, businessman: born London 17 August 1916; Principal, Ministry of Power 1948; UK delegate, coal and petroleum committees, Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) 1948-50; Vice-Chairman, Electricity Committee, OEEC 1951-54; Secretary to Herbert Committee of Inquiry into Electricity Supply Industry 1955-56; marketing manager, British Nylon Spinners Ltd 1957-64; director, ICI Fibres Ltd 1964-68; member of Board, Monsanto Europe 1969, member, Management Board 1970-72; deputy chairman, Monsanto Ltd 1973-74, chairman 1975-81; CBE 1980; chairman, Cable & Wireless plc 1980-90, chief Executive 1981-90; Kt 1984; created 1989 Baron Sharp of Grimsdyke; married 1950 Marion Freeman (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died London 2 May 1994.

IN 1980, the new government of Margaret Thatcher made clear their intention to privatise Cable & Wireless. The company had been the world's leading international operator of telegraphy and telephones in the inter-war years. It had been nationalised after the Second World War and thereafter suffered a long period of relative decline. The government had great difficulty in finding the right chairman to implement the plan.

Eric Sharp was nearing the end of a distinguished career in the chemicals industry at Monsanto, where he had been chairman since 1975, when he was approached by Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Industry, and Sir Peter Carey, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry, to take the chair at Cable & Wireless. His appointment was inspired and Sharp became an inspiring leader.

Following privatisation, the company grew steadily under his leadership. Its turnover, which had been pounds 200m in 1980, had increased to over pounds 3bn when he retired as chairman in 1990, with annual profits rising in the same period from pounds 60m to over pounds 600m.

Like President Harry Truman, Sharp was not afraid to take the big decisions, whatever the risks. At a time when not a single British company responded to the opportunity of competing with British Telecom, he seized the chance offered by the British Telecom Act of 1981 - which liberalised a market previously a monopoly of the GPO - to establish Mercury Communications, in 1982. Mercury was then the only full-range alternative carrier in the world, originally set up as a joint venture between Cable & Wireless and a consortium of investors, and later bought out in its entirety by Cable & Wireless.

Sharp shook the old telecommunication order with the drive to establish the Global Digital Highway (GDH), linking the shores of Europe to the shores of Asia across the United States. By the end of the 1980s Cable & Wireless had the only fibre optic link between Asia and Europe operated by a single private- sector company, offering the advantage - then new to the industry - of one company's controlling the quality of the network form one part of the world to another, offering a single service to customers; this principle has since been followed by the carrier world in general and other companies run their own GDHs on a shared basis.

This new initiative involved bold decisions and regulatory battles in many parts of the world: the acquisition of Hong Kong Telephone by Cable & Wireless in four days in 1983; the building of the first private-sector fibre-optic submarine cable across the Atlantic in 1989; the first submarine cable to link Japan to the mainland United States directly, in 1991; the establishment of Japan's second international carrier, IDC, in 1987; the linking of Japan to Korea and Hong Kong with a fibre optic network, in 1990, and the linking of Mercury to all key destinations in Europe by way of new submarine cables.

Eric Sharp's vision was to provide a first-class telecommunications service to all commercial and industrial centres of the world. London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong were key but he also saw the importance of extending the GDH across the Eurasian land mass, and exporting the Mercury service to Sweden and Australia.

Throughout this vast enterprise, which took Cable & Wireless from being a declining relic of the British Empire to being the world's only flagless flag carrier, a British company operating in over 55 different countries, Sharp led from the front, fearless in confronting those who sought to block his path, however high they stood in political or regulatory circles, and tireless in courting those whose support he needed.

Eric Sharp was born in 1916 and took a degree at the London School of Economics. He served with the Army during the Second World War and in 1948 joined the Ministry of Power as a civil servant. He was a delegate on the coal and petroleum committees of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation and Vice-Chairman of its Electricity Committee before moving to the private sector in 1957 as marketing manager at British Nylon Spinners, a company later subsumed into ICI.

He joined the American-owned chemicals company Monsanto in 1969. Sir Peter Carey, as Permanent Secretary at the DTI, knew the role Sharp had played in the chemicals industry in the 1970s and this inspired the invitation to Sharp to change industries and take on Cable & Wireless in 1980.

Sharp's achievements are notable, perhaps even heroic; under him Cable & Wireless was born again. But the way he led and achieved endeared him to all who experienced some of his spread of intellect, intuition, wit, emotion and even anger. While a habitual communicator with prime ministers and presidents, Sharp would be equally interested in anyone, however humble in status, who could contribute to the Cable & Wireless cause. This rare human quality won him much affection and admiration throughout the company and beyond, particularly in the countries he cultivated hardest: China, Japan and the United States.

The acquisition of Hong Kong Telephone and relations with China were the foundation of everything Eric Sharp did in the business and political worlds over the last decade of his life. Hong Kong Telephone is a critical source of profits to Cable & Wireless. And Sharp sold Hong Kong Telephone shares to Citic, a Chinese Communist company, giving them a role in the company, which he always saw as part of China. His last journey, from which he had just returned at the time of his death, was to China and Hong Kong.

Lion-hearted in the conduct of business and worldly affairs, Eric Sharp knew the meaning of personal suffering and was very sensitive to the personal problems of his wider circle of business friends and their families. A lover of life in all its modes, he lived it to the full and in living it was also very lovable - a real mensch.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat