Obituary: Sir Christopher Harding

Nicholas Faith
Thursday 16 December 1999 00:02 GMT

CHRISTOPHER HARDING was one of Britain's most significant but least-known leading businessmen.

Virtually unknown to the general public, he nevertheless had a profound influence on a number of sectors, most obviously nuclear energy, first as an unusually open-minded chairman of British Nuclear Fuels and then as chairman of an influential pressure group for the nuclear industry. But his business portfolio was immensely wide, ranging from the chairmanship of Legal & General, the leading life insurer, to Newarthill, the private company which owns the Sir Robert McAlpine construction group. He was a man of persuasion, or consensus, described by one his many admirers as an "industrial diplomat" who clearly preferred agreed mergers - like the abortive one between L & G and NatWest - to contested bids.

Most impressively, perhaps, he left a legacy of people who had worked with him, all of whom use the same terms: "he listened to people", "he was always courteous", "he talked the same to everybody". If an employee fell ill, Harding would visit him in hospital or be quick to console a widow. Not surprisingly he was one of the 30 British businessmen designated by the Foreign Office as "Ambassadors for British Business".

Nevertheless, and notably unlike most leading businessmen, he combined firm views and a willingness to step into the most delicate boardroom situations with a stern refusal to appear in the limelight. Yet he proved an ideal candidate where diplomacy, business contacts and the need to restore morale in a company was vital. None of his former colleagues recognised one newspaper description of him as "the chairman for all seasons". This was a totally inadequate description of a man who single-handedly succeeded in enormously improving the image of the beleaguered nuclear industry.

For most of his business career, Sir Christopher (he was knighted by John Major in 1991) was a staunch Conservative and contributor to the Tory party, but he was also one of the leading businessmen who supported New Labour through the Commission on Public Policy and British Business set up in 1995 by the Institute for Public Policy Research. In doing so, he became one of the minority of leading businessmen to accept that Britain should conform to the European Union's Social Chapter, as well as a minimum wage - the sort of policies pursued by ICI, his first employer, but by no means those associated with Lord Hanson, with whom he worked for over 20 years.

He also had a wide range of non-business-related interests, including a five-year stint as chairman of the Prince of Wales's Youth Business Trust Advisory Board.

One clue to his impressive networking ability came in his entry in Who's Who, where he gave as one of his hobbies "writing letters" - "When you got a thank-you letter, it was a full half-page in his own handwriting," said one former colleague. Not surprisingly, just before his death he was getting up at 6.30 every morning to send his own Christmas cards. (Who's Who also reveals his only known eccentricity, that of "pocillovy", the little-known word indicating that he collected egg-cups.).

Harding was educated at Merchant Taylor's School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he read Modern History. In 1969, after an eight-year stint as a personnel officer in that well-known breeding ground for leading businessmen, ICI, he was head-hunted by the then James Hanson, whose family transport business did a great deal of work for ICI. At Hanson - where he remained a non- executive director until the group was demerged in 1997 - he learnt the business strategy he was to employ in many subsequent situations. His style was defined by one of the chief executives who worked with him as: "to set a firm strategic framework for the relationship between chairman and chief executive, who nevertheless enjoyed wide delegated powers".

Harding's most remarkable achievement was as chairman of British Nuclear Fuels from 1986 to 1992. In the words of one cynical observer, "Mrs Thatcher put him in charge of BNFL because he was the most charming man in England" ("He made you think you were the centre of the universe," said one admirer). But during his stint he showed far more than charm - he also demonstrated a clear understanding of the need for the industry to bring the public into its confidence.

Previously the nuclear industry always felt it had something to hide, but Harding turned this on its head. He was that rarest of animals, the head of a nuclear industry characterised by paranoia, secrecy and a well- deserved reputation for not telling the whole truth, who believed in openness and transparency.

As part of his policy, he transformed BNFL's biggest installation in Cumbria from "Windscale", a site previously notorious for its nuclear accidents whose full effects had been concealed from the public, into the visitor-friendly Sellafield, almost resembling a science theme park complete with that revolutionary innovation for a nuclear power plant, a visitor centre. Indeed, Harding delighted in showing guests round personally, describing himself as "the best nuclear tour guide in Britain".

And it is certainly true that BNFL has been much less happy a company and has had a much rougher ride in the press since his departure. But his involvement outlasted his chairmanship of BNFL, since he was chairman of the Supporters of Nuclear Energy (Sone), a lobby group representing what it described as "the only known, tried and tested and non-polluting means of generating the large amounts of electricity which modern, growing economies require". Characteristically, Harding lobbied in the background, exploiting his fabulous contact list, leaving Sir Bernard Ingham, Lady Thatcher's formidable former press secretary, to provide a public face for Sone.

Harding's one major failure was to keep BET, the industrial services group of which he was chairman from 1991 to 1996, out of the hands of Sir Clive Thompson's Rentokil Group, probably because of typical, but in this case misguided, loyalty to an under-performing chief executive.

The most recent obvious example of his emollient but decisive qualities came in October 1997, when he took the chair of United Utilities, after the abrasive Sir Desmond Pitcher had been dismissed. Harding took great care to recruit a properly qualified chief executive and let him get on with the job - a notable contrast with his autocratic predecessor. His policy brought much-needed stability to a troubled business. But this was not his only delicate assignment. At the same time he took the chair of the remuneration committee at GEC, after a "super-options scheme" for leading executives had aroused the wrath of institutional investors

As chairman of Legal & General since 1994, he helped to restore the public reputation of the insurer after the pensions mis-selling scandals of the 1980s and to ensure that it came out far more positively than most of its fellows through its tactful handling of "orphan assets" (accumulated funds which were surplus to the insurer's legal obligations to policy-holders.)

When he steered the ultimately abortive merger with NatWest he showed his sense of corporate governance at its best, ensuring that all the directors, non-executives as well as executives, were adequately consulted while he let Neville Prosser, L & G's chief executive, to carry on the detailed negotiations. Indeed, perhaps it is Prosser who provides the best summing- up of his business relationships. "I've lost a friend," he said, "who also gave me wise counsel, and I miss that."

In his personal life, following two unsuccessful marriages, Harding had found happiness with his third wife - by whom he had a daughter, now three years old who, he claimed, "ran his life".

Christopher George Francis Harding, businessman: born 17 October 1939; managing director, Hanson Transport Group 1974-99, vice-chairman 1991- 99; non-executive director, Hanson Plc 1979-97; director, British Nuclear Fuels 1984-92, chairman 1986-92; Kt 1991; chairman and director, BET plc 1992-96; director, Legal & General Group plc 1993-99, chairman 1994-99; chairman, Newarthill 1993-99; deputy chairman, United Utilities 1997-98, chairman 1998-99; married 1963 Susan Berry (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1977), 1978 Francoise de Laperriere (nee Grouille; marriage dissolved 1988), 1994 Anne Skelley (one daughter); died London 13 December 1999.

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