The leaders' leader

Who is our top industrialist? An annual poll, exclusive to the IoS, is led by BP's Sir David Simon. How did he come from nowhere to win the accolade?

Patrick Hosking
Sunday 31 December 1995 00:02 GMT

A BUSINESSMAN who was until recently largely unknown outside the oil industry has rocketed in the esteem of his peers to take pole position as Britain's most admired industrialist.

Sir David Simon, chairman of British Petroleum, is this year's most impressive industrialist, according to the annual poll of top business leaders conducted by leading pollsters MORI and published exclusively in the Independent on Sunday.

Sir David took 13 per cent of the vote, enough to beat both Sir Colin Marshall of British Airways and Richard Branson of Virgin fame, who were second-equal with 8 per cent each.

Lord Hanson, who won every year in the five years to 1992 and again in 1994, was beaten into fourth place, taking 7 per cent of the vote, while Lord Weinstock of GEC, another past winner, received 4 per cent.

The fastest climber up the rankings after Sir David was Archie Norman, the retailer credited with turning round the Asda supermarket chain. He scored 5 per cent of the vote, having never previously appeared in the list. Another rising star was Lord Sheppard of Grand Metropolitan.

Sir Denys Henderson, now chairman of Rank Organisation, and Marks & Spencer's Sir Richard Greenbury each slipped a notch, respectively from 6 per cent to 5 per cent and from 5 per cent to 4 per cent.

The survey, in which 122 business leaders in all named "the most impressive industrialist in Britain at the moment", also threw the spotlight on some fresh talent: Clive Thompson of Rentokil, George Simpson of Lucas and Sir Richard Sykes of Glaxo-Wellcome, now the world's biggest drugs company, all appeared for the first time.

The survey also revealed there is much less consensus than there used to be about what constitutes quality management. In 1990 Lord Hanson won by a landslide with 56 per cent of the votes. This year 13 per cent was enough to secure the top place, and no less than 22 business people scored more than 2 per cent.

For the first time, the winner is not a household name. Sir David Simon is little-known outside the business community. He has neither the public profile of a Branson, nor the ever-loyal shareholder fan club of a Hanson.

What he has, however, is an impeccable track record. Since he took over from Bob Horton as BP's chief executive in June 1992, Britain's biggest oil company has been transformed.

BP then was bloated, over-borrowed, complacent and in the embarrassing position of having to halve its dividend. BP today is slimmer, has far less debt and is far more profitable. The share price - investors' ultimate measure - reflects the turnaround: it has more than doubled from 245p to well over pounds 5. Last week it hit a new high of 545p as BP clinched a $3.5bn (pounds 2.24bn) deal to develop gas reserves in the Algerian part of the Sahara desert.

Sir David could not be more different from his predecessor. Mr Horton, now chairman of Railtrack, was pugnacious, confrontational, and courted publicity. Sir David is a low-key consensus man and is wary of appearing in the public eye.

"He's terrified of becoming the next Sir John Harvey-Jones," says a colleague. "He knows only too well that if you are built up you can be knocked down again."

Harvey-Jones he is not, at least not in looks. Dome-headed, bespectacled and sporting a very dull tie, he looks more like an accountant or middle- ranking civil servant than the leader of Britain's second biggest company, just behind Glaxo-Wellcome.

Yet sitting at the round table in his office in BP's head office in London's Finsbury Circus - the very building he visited as a schoolboy 37 years ago to be interviewed for a BP-sponsored scholarship - he is obviously comfortable doing what he does. The overwhelming impression is of a man having a terrific time.

He is a wild gesticulator, arms going windmill-style to emphasise a point, forefinger punching my notebook to refer me to an earlier point. His delivery is machine-gun. Ironic, offbeat jokes come thick and fast. Sometimes he rambles or wanders up some conversational cul-de-sac. He is never at a loss for words.

He spends around four days a week on BP business. His rapidly growing reputation has taken him on to the Greenbury Committee, the court (board) of the Bank of England and the EC's Competitiveness Advisory Group. He is also a non-executive director of Grand Met and on the advisory board of Deutsche Bank.

His management philosphy is hard to pin down - a curious mix of business school teaching, raw entrepreneurialism and folksy common sense: most of his thinking is illustrated with sporting analogies or metaphors.

Building, running and motivating teams is at the heart of his approach: "The process of building teams is one of the most important factors in getting per- formance out of big organisations. Obviously we've got a lot of talented people in BP. The issue is are they switched on or not?"

"I'm a relentless people person, he says. The skill lies in picking and enthusing the right people. "You try to share the journey together."

"One of my tests is," he says, "am I working with people who I'd like to go and have a drink with?"

He admits his management style is one of consensus. "I'm not a big arguer. I don't like confrontation. In today's jargon, I like re-spinning it."

Does that mean he sometimes has to give way? "I give ground pretty fast, but I'm terribly quick at regrouping and coming at it in another way."

Isn't there a danger this style leads to compromise and fudge? "The important thing is keeping the dynamic going, moving forward towards the target. I'm a great believer in spending a lot of time talking about what you're trying to achieve."

How does he define bad management? "Managers who don't listen. Telling is not enough."

What have been his worst moments at BP? Breaking the bad news to close colleagues that he wasn't going to promote them: "I've told perhaps half a dozen people who were really close that they were not going to make it. The people decisions are always the toughest. The business decisions may involve a lot of money, but they're never as hard."

He is a great believer in management theory. He has an MBA from Insead, the leading French business school, and thinks business should be taught in schools: "It seems to me quite as important as history or geography."

But at the same time he believes there is an instinctual side to business, the commercial nous which tells you what will make money and what will not. He talks about an innate commercial capacity in some people. "You don't have to discuss things. You can sense it. It's about a tingly feeling. The tingle is as important as the intellect."

As ever, he has a sports analogy to illustrate the point. David Gower and Geoff Boycott were both great cricketers, Gower through natural flair, Boycott through dogged application. Which is he? "I think I'm both. I think that's why I'm where I am."

That entrepreneurial instinct is put into his personal investments. He never invests in blue- chip companies other than BP, preferring to put his money into the small-scale ventures of friends and associates. He first got the habit when he bankrolled a bookshop co-managed by his first wife. He has also invested in a joinery business and a dance club. He is a member and shareholder of the Groucho Club, beloved of the media and acting fraternity, in London's Soho.

In 1968 he invested in a fizzy- water company in Walkern, Hertfordshire, convinced that the fondness for bottled table water would cross the Channel. He was about 15 years too early, but he still quadrupled his money.

"I've always put money with pals with great ideas," he says. He admits that in a huge organisation like BP, "You never get the smell of the greasepaint in quite the same way."

David Alec Gwyn Simon (his nickname at BP is Dags to this day) was born in London in July 1939 just weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War. He did not see his natural father until he was 11. He was brought up by his mother and stepfather, a Free French fighter pilot. After the war they lived in France for two years, but returned to Britain when de Gaulle was thrown out of office.

He won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, the Sussex boarding school, where his flair for languages and passion for sport stood him in good stead. He became head boy and captain of rugby. "I loved sport. It was more than a hobby; it was my life."

He went on to Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge to read modern languages, and got a lower second. He applied to BP to sponsor him through university. It did, the not unnatural stipulation being he would have to work for the company in vacations. He enjoyed the work, and has been with BP ever since.

Outside work he plays golf to a 15 handicap. He lives in Islington, close to his beloved Arsenal. He likes opera, loves reading and even enjoys going to the supermarket - the perfect antidote to the cosseted, unreal world that is the topmost echelon of a huge multinational.

Most impressive industrialists

Ranking Industrialist Company Percentage of vote

1994 1995

1 Sir David Simon BP 4% 13%

2 Sir Colin Marshall BA 11% 8%

2= Richard Branson Virgin 8% 8%

4 Lord Hanson Hanson plc 14% 7%

5= Sir Denys Henderson Rank Organisation 6% 5%

5= Archie Norman Asda - 5%

7= Lord Weinstock GEC 11% 4%

7= Sir Christopher Hogg Courtaulds 6% 4%

7= Sir Richard Greenbury Marks & Spencer 5% 4%

7= Lord Sheppard Grand Metropolitan - 4%

11= Nigel Rudd Williams Holdings 2% 3%

11= Sir David Lees GKN - 3%

11= Clive Thompson Rentokil - 3%

11= Sir John Egan BAA - 3%

11= George Simpson Lucas - 3%

11= Dr Richard Sykes Glaxo-Wellcome - 3%

17= Greg Hutchings Tomkins 3% 2%

17= Sir Ronnie Hampel ICI 3% 2%

17= Christopher Lewinton TI Group - 2%

17= Barry Stephens Siebe - 2%

17= Sir Ian MacLaurin Tesco - 2%

17= Sir Iain Vallance BT - 2%

Source: MORI

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