Gerard Fairtlough: Entrepreneur in biotechnology

Saturday 09 February 2008 01:00

Gerard Fairtlough began his career as an organisation man, spending 25 years with Royal Dutch Shell, but he later acquired a taste for entrepreneurial action and became an inspiration to emerging businesses. In 1980 he set up the biotechnology company Celltech, heading the firm as chief executive until 1990.

With a degree in natural sciences from King's College, Cambridge, the self-confessed "chemistry geek" joined Royal Dutch Shell in 1953 at a time of rapid change in the petrochemicals industry. New synthetic processes were replacing dirty, coal-based manufacturing as the market for plastics expanded, but as Fairtlough was later to admit, "the dreadful importance of greenhouse gas emissions was simply unknown. We were making problems for the future but we didn't foresee them".

The chance to bring about a strategic alliance in the mid 1960s between Shell and Puerto Rico Refining – which proved hugely profitable for Shell, after hair-raising early problems – was a personal stroke of luck that taught Fairtlough a great deal. He was promoted to be marketing manager of Shell's Base Chemicals unit, responsible for setting up closer links between marketing and manufacturing. However, despite continuing to rise in the company, eventually becoming CEO of Shell Chemicals UK, he became increasingly impatient with the restrictions of corporate life.

In 1978 he resigned, to join the National Enterprise Board, a venture capital organisation set up by the then Labour government to encourage enterprise. This led to Fairtlough founding Celltech, one of the first UK biotech companies.

Celltech began with the great advantage of first rights over all biotechnology innovations emanating from the Medical Research Council and its laboratory for molecular biology in Cambridge. However, Fairtlough faced a delicate management task: could he overcome the traditional mutual suspicion between academia and British industry, so that a company at the frontiers of science could capitalise on its academic ties without becoming too "ivory towery" to respond to the fast-changing needs of the marketplace?

Fairtlough was able to gainsay critics who said Celltech was "too little, too late" to compete with established US biotech companies. He was convinced that genetic engineering had so vast a potential that a year or two of delay would be of little long-term consequence. He was proved right. Early successes included cloned rennin, a milk-clotting enzyme used extensively to make cheese, and a "gene-mapping" service to identify the genetic constitution of micro-organisms used in the food and brewing industries.

Much of Celltech's manufacturing focused on monoclonal antibodies, used to help diagnose, trace and treat diseases such as cancers. By the late 1980s Celltech, using a biochemical engineering process rather than the previous method of culturing from mice, had become the world's leading manufacturer of monoclonal antibodies, exporting them to drug companies to use in their own products.

Fairtlough's charisma was crucial in motivating a group of scientists and from the start he adopted a remarkably open style of management, entrusting staff with commercial secrets. But, most unusually for an entrepreneur, Fairtlough was uninterested in making his personal fortune. In 1989 he was appointed CBE for his work at Celltech. He had brought the company from a tiny start-up to a thriving business, which in 1993 launched on the Stock Exchange and in 2004 was acquired by the Belgian biopharmaceuticals firm UCB for £1.5bn.

After leaving Celltech in 1990, Fairtlough was chairman, director or "business angel" for 10 or so early-stage companies, and an adviser to government and research institutes. His books Creative Compartments (1994) and The Three Ways of Getting Things Done (2005) brought his ideas on hierarchy and management to a wider audience.

With his wife Lisa he also developed his wide-ranging interests in the cross-over between arts and business, and supported and advised a range of environmental, humanitarian and arts-based charities, including Friends of the Earth, the Young Vic and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Fairtlough was notable for his intellectual rigour and integrity. Although one was sometimes uneasily aware that there was no fooling him, he was endlessly kind and his wisdom cast light on many diverse lives.

Caroline Dilke

Gerard Howard Fairtlough, businessman: born Hayling Island, Hampshire 5 September 1930; staff, Royal Dutch Shell Group 1953-78, managing director, Shell Chemicals UK Ltd 1973-78; chairman, Coverdale Organisation 1974-93; Divisional Director, National Enterprise Board 1978-80; chief executive, Celltech Ltd 1980-90; CBE 1989; married 1954 Lisa Betambeau (two sons, two daughters); died Ryall, Dorset 15 December 2007.

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