Obituary: Lord Sharp of Grimsdyke
Saturday 07 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.
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