Interview: Straight talk and loud ties: Sir John Harvey-Jones: The former chairman of ICI knows what's wrong with everyone else's business. But just how good was he, asks Chris Blackhurst

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ARRIVING 10 minutes late for a meeting with Sir John Harvey-Jones is no disadvantage, especially if British Rail is to blame.

Barely have I finished apologising than he launches into a tirade, not against 'the poor buggers who have to drive the trains' but the Government for not giving the country a better rail system. It is a tableau that anyone who has watched his Troubleshooter programmes on BBC2 will instantly recognise: the former ICI chairman battering bosses for screwing up; berating them for not heeding his advice; giving it to them straight.

Sir John, an avuncular, ho-ho-ho 68-year-old with long, unkempt hair and a taste for wearing ties that belong in other men's bottom drawers, has become that most unattainable of beings: ordinary chap turned television personality. Troubleshooter 2, the second series, has an audience of three million, unprecedented for a business programme. In a Gallup poll last month, one in five of those interviewed named Sir John as the man they would most like to see inside Number 10 in place of John Major.

Sir John is everything a politician is not: direct, up-front and brutally honest. His programme is required viewing for anyone of a sadistic bent. Every Tuesday night, a company or public body calls him in - last week it was South Yorkshire police, the week before, Norton motorbikes, and before that Double Two shirts. More often than not, he turns on those who invited him. He suggested Norton should consider liquidation and start again.

In his suite in the Mayfair Hotel, London - familiar to viewers as an execution site for hapless bosses - he throws his head back and emits a bull-like guffaw, half laugh, half roar. This is his response to any suggestion that he does it for the money. 'I worked it out, I make pounds 7 an hour from the programmes. Even in my dotage I can do better than that - my wife would even pay me not to do it.'

When he buys groceries in the market, the trader jacks the price up, and he can't go to the pub without 20 people surrounding him with their business problems. And Parallax, his main private company, earned just pounds 320,000 last year, hardly the superstar league. So why does he do it?

'Because there are an awful lot of poor buggers in business who are lonely and alone and have nobody to ask for advice or help. They daren't go to their bank manager because the bank has made a bigger mess than they have.' More laughter.

Too many business people are scared: scared to make tough decisions, to cut back, to expand one way and not another and, if needs be, to close the company, walk away and start again. 'People in Britain think liquidation is a sin. They throw everything in, including their houses and then finally say - there's no way this can be saved.' America, he says, has got it right. 'There, you're not a real man unless you sink one company below you.'

The British, he says, later, think that wanting to be the best is a sign of megalomania. 'The problem is that businesses here reach a comfort level that is far below their potential. As a nation we lack the aspiration of being Numero Uno.' Too much in Britain, he says, gets in the way of wealth creation.

He pauses. 'I know, I'm a poor man's Ross Perot with smaller ears and a bigger stomach.'

JOHN HARVEY-JONES spent much of his early childhood in India, where his father was guardian to a young maharaja. He spent six desperately unhappy years at boarding school in England before he entered the Dartmouth Naval College at 13. He stayed with the navy until 1956, when he left to join ICI as a junior manager. In 1982, he became the chemical group's chairman; he retired in 1987.

His former senior colleagues at ICI moan about how hard he was to work with and how he sometimes took the credit for what they felt were their decisions. When he wrote his memoirs, Getting it Together, they refused to co-operate. He was greatly hurt and, since then, relations have been strained.

Mention his former stamping ground and the famous smile fades. 'I never comment on ICI. It's a bloody good company with bloody good people,' he says, tersely. Pride dictates, though, that he must make a dig. 'They've gone on paying out dividends to shareholders in a situation where rationally they should not have been doing so.'

But his own record since ICI is not the stuff of an all-conquering troubleshooter. He took on four major non-executive directorships. One company, Burns-Anderson (financial services), where he was chairman, went into liquidation. ('A big mistake,' says Sir John. 'I'm not proud of that.') Another, GPA (aircraft leasing), suffered a disastrous rebuff when it tried to float on the stock market. It is now in urgent talks with bankers.

'He's good TV and he's done a lot for making industry more accessible,' said Charles Morgan, head of Morgan cars. 'But everyone is saying he's the saviour of British industry and he's not, is he?' Morgan was one of the companies that got the Harvey-Jones treatment in the first Troubleshooter series. His advice, said Garel Rhys, Professor of Motor Industry Economics at Cardiff Business School, was 'totally wrong'. For years, Morgan had produced a small number of expensive cars for which there was a long waiting list. The problem was that profits remained low. The Harvey-Jones solution was to raise prices and cut the waiting list by increasing output.

Not the answer, said Professor Rhys. Morgan rightly ignored Sir John's advice and that is why it is still in business. If Morgan had expanded production, 'the market would have walked away when the recession came'. Instead, it is one of only two UK car companies - the other is Vauxhall - that has survived for more than 30 years. 'There are no fields full of Morgan cars at Morgan,' Professor Rhys said.

Other management academics are equally critical. They argue that Harvey-Jones is wrong to generalise from his experiences at ICI. The chemical industry is about mass production: making large quantities of quite basic things as efficiently and as cheaply as possible. Morgan cars, Norton motorcycles and county police forces are grappling with far more complex products. 'ICI was very good at handling bulk fluid and powder but not very good at managing small discrete processes,' said Colin New, professor of manufacturing strategy at the Cranfield Institute of Technology.

The businessmen that have been through his wringer are often understandably aggrieved. Last month, on the programme, David Macdonald, head of Norton, was looking forward to Sir John's visit: 'I'm really interested to know what he's got to say.' Mr Macdonald had a plan to turn round Norton, which has large debts and few sales.

However, Sir John not only thought the plan no good but also had 'personal doubts' about Mr Macdonald. 'I could not make out whether (he) was an honest man who was trying to feel his way through a morass of opposing possibilities and having difficulty deciding which was the most likely, or whether he was in the business for some unfathomable personal ambition,' Sir John told viewers.

'I found it personally unfair,' Mr Macdonald said last week. 'From the day I joined I've made it clear I'm a stop-gap chief executive, there to try and keep the company afloat. My skill, if I have one, is as a design engineer.'

DOES Sir John believe that he always knows best? 'I know that on Troubleshooter I come across as a smart arse who knows the answer to every problem. But I've made virtually every damned mistake in the book.'

The more you talk to Sir John, the more he seems an unstoppable force. Humble, occasionally; wrong, sometimes; putdownable, never. Everything he says on his show is for the greater good of the business, the business community at large and, because our livelihoods all depend on a vibrant economy, for the nation's good.

Sir John does acknowledge that, coming from ICI, he was 'arrogant enough to think I knew British business pretty well'. In fact, as he has discovered, there is a whole swathe of commerce - small, private, family firms - that is overlooked by the City, the media, the banks, the government. They are the bedrock of our economy, yet, he says, nobody is assisting them. 'In Europe and the US all sorts of consultants are there to help.'

And you can forget the CBI - you won't find any help there. 'A distillation of distillation, an outfit comprising people whose only belief is to look after themselves.'

He was a founder member of the Social Democratic Party, and never disguises his contempt for Thatcherism. His politics can best be described as capitalist with a social conscience. He has advised Labour but did not vote Labour at the last election because he disagreed with raising taxes for the hell of it - 'political dogma, not practical' - and the party would 'put the NHS reforms back to square one'.

Almost on cue, the phone goes. It is an NHS management consultant asking Sir John for his views on opting out. What follows is a run-down on why trust hospitals are a good thing: why doctors should be allowed to manage themselves, etc, etc.

Then Sir John is off to dinner with Alan Yentob, controller of BBC2. The subject? The next Troubleshooter series. Sir John wants it to be in India, back to his roots. After Britain, a sub-continent awaits.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments