Sir John Harvey-Jones: Celebrity Business Leader

January 11, 2008


Sir John Harvey-Jones was one of Britain’s first celebrity business leaders, first as a reforming chairman of ICI, and then as a successful television performer as a trouble-shooter. He combined the romantic flamboyance of a larger-than life charismatic with a hint of his earlier experiences as a Royal Navy officer

Sir John Harvey-Jones (April 16th 1924-January 9th 2008) was both a one-off, and yet a near-perfect illustration of the buccaneering businessman-cum-entrepreneur lauded in the 1980s for his charisma and dynamism. He was without doubt in style, and arguably in substantive results, a remarkable contrast to those who attained leadership at ICI for much of its history, both before and since his watch (1982-1987).

ICI was one of the great old British Institutions. It was the twentieth century heir to the East India Company for ambitious young men (and eventually women) seeking life-time careers carrying considerable professional status. It some ways it retained the culture of its earlier name Imperial Chemical Industries, which predated notions of branding and corporate identity, and even notions of modern management and marketing.

It was somehow typical that the company accepted the need to move away from the old label of Empire and Imperialism, while retaining the acronym for it which it had already become well-known industrially.

When the business theorist Andrew Pettigrew studied the company in The Awakening Giant, he portrayed a complex technocracy espousing modernist views, and yet preparing for momumental changes.

ICI was at the time perceived as the IBM of British manufacturing. Even its technical professionals appeared in public dressed in sober business suits. Its culture was explained to me by a senior execuive in the following anecdote.

A new recruit, a chemist (what else?), was about to set off for a meeting with other technical executives at a production plant of a customer. He had turned up in what would later be called casual clothes, and was sent home to get into what he then probably regarded as his best suit. ICI people (like IBMers) in the 1980s did not appear in public in sports jackets. Nor did they wear flamboyant ties.

Jones the tie

Especially ICI chairmen. Except for Harvey-Jones who tended to appear rather like an extra for M in the Bond films of the day. His appearance was even more in contrast with the leaders of the company.

ICI chairmen were internally promoted, and typically safe pairs of hands. Harvey-Jones although an insider, was neither an accountant nor a technical professional. His experiences of leadership derived from his early days as naval officer after his training at The Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, and had served in the Navy from 1937 to 1956. He was fond of recounting his leadership experiences in active service. As a sub-mariner

‘the aim was painfully apparent: sink [the enemy] or be sunk’,

he wrote in the introduction to his autobiographical book Making it Happen.

Making it Happen

The book throws much light on the professional influences that helped shape his leadership approach. Its title came from his ‘flimsy’, the hand-written and supposedly confidential report made of an officer leaving command or a ship. His commanding officer had once rated him ‘an able officer who knows how to make things happen, albeit tactfully’. He remained aware of the description, and tried to live up to it throughout his illustrious business career, although his public persona hardly signalled a man noted for tactfulness.

The book made compelling reading for students of leadership. It still leaves me to suspect that he was able to apply a vast store of experience (which was later to be called tacit knowledge) but was unable to integrate it into a coherent leadership approach. He was indeed an intuitive trouble-shooter, the apt title for his subsequent TV series.

The BBC summed up his early achievements

After leaving the Royal Navy as a lieutenant-commander in 1956 … he joined ICI on Teesside as a junior manager. By 1973 he was on the main board, eventually becoming chairman in 1982 when the company was struggling to emerge from a recession. …When he stepped down, profits had trebled, even though he later wrote that he had not made much difference and that he wished he had left the company earlier to start his own business … In fact, Sir John had stripped away many of the company’s peripheral businesses and concentrated on its core strengths. He also reformed its lumbering bureaucracy.

A Personal Recollection

I knew Sir John only slightly, but learned much from others who knew him better, within and beyond ICI. He had a suspicion of Business Schools, but had acknowledged the advice received from Professor Tom Lupton, who was to become head of Manchester Business School.

In a Vital Topics lecture at that institute in the 1980s, Sir John defended ICI’s refusal to seek out MBAs for special treatment. We hire people for what they can do, not for paper qualifications, he had insisted. I had the impression he rather liked taking the unpopular view for that particular audience. It may have been one of his characteristics. There certainly seemed to be genuine enthusiasm, warmth, and enjoyment at saying it as he saw it, in his televised encounters with business people.

Leaders make a difference, and in the long run …

John Harvey-Jones made an impact on people he met. His story is in some ways an unfashionable one of the heroic individualist, contrasting with views of the corrosive effects of high office and power, or the modest dedication of the fifth level leader.

He probably accelerated necessary changes within a great international company. Those changes demonstrate how a leader can make a difference. The ultimate fate of ICI demonstrates the longer term economic factors which were to have even more significant impact.

The heavy chemicals on which ICI built its empire declined in economic importance. The more dynamic specialties chemicals became the profitable part of the company, and ultimately were spun off into what became as part of a multi-national pharmaceuticals company, Astra Zeneca.