22 April, 2009

Sir John Harvey-Jones

Sir John Harvey-Jones was chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries from 1982 to 1987. He may have been best-known for his BBC television show, Troubleshooter, in which he advised struggling businesses.

Harvey-Jones was born in Hackney, London; but spent most of his early childhood in Dhar, India, where his father was a guardian to a teenage Maharajah. He was shipped back to Britain at age 6 to attend a prep school at Deal, Kent, where he suffered bullying and was desperately unhappy. He entered Dartmouth Royal Naval College at age 13.

Harvey-Jones joined Dartmouth Royal Naval College as a cadet in 1937, and in 1940, at the age of 16, he joined HMS Diomede as a midshipman. The next two ships that he served with, HMS Ithuriel and HMS Quentin were both sunk by enemy action. Harvey-Jones went on to join the submarine service in 1942 and received his first command at age 24.

With the end of World War II, Harvey-Jones went to the University of Cambridge to study Russian in six months and joined Naval Intelligence as an interpreter. He married Mary Bignell in 1947, and he commanded the Russian intelligence section under the guise of the "British Baltic Fishery Protection Service," which used two ex-German Schnellboots for gathering clandestine intelligence on the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, Harvey-Jones was awarded a military MBE in 1952 for his work in Naval Intelligence.

Refused permission by the Royal Navy to spend more time with his wife and daughter Gaby, who had contracted polio, he resigned his commission in 1956 and joined Imperial Chemical Industries on Teesside as a junior training manager. In 1973, at age 49, he was promoted to sit on the main board of directors. In April 1982, he became Chairman of ICI reputedly at the odds of 15-1 against, only the second split-career man and non-chemist to reach the top.

Mentored in part by John Adair, Harvey-Jones saw his responsibilities to both stockholders and employees as "making a profit out of the markets where the market is." He maintained a firm belief in "speed rather than direction", on the assumption that "once travelling a company can veer and tack towards the ultimate objective." Thus, at the business level he cut non-profit making and what he saw as non-core businesses, so that at board level he could concentrate on putting more power in fewer hands "to reduce the number of those who can say 'no' and increase the motivation of those who can say 'yes'", maintaining that "there are no bad troops, only bad leaders". After only thirty months in the job, having cut the UK workforce by one third, he had doubled the price of ICI shares and turned a loss into a one billion pound profit.

Despite his public loathing of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he accepted her offer of a knighthood for services to industry in 1985. He was voted Industrialist of the Year in 1988 for the third consecutive year and also became honorary vice-president of the Institute of Marketing. He served as chairman of The Economist from 1989 to 1994.

It was the BBC's Troubleshooter series, first broadcast in 1990, that made Harvey-Jones, according to one newspaper, the most famous industrialist since Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It ran to five series and several specials in the 1990s and also won him a BAFTA award.

Having lived most of his post-retirement period in Hay-on-Wye, he died in his sleep after a long illness, aged 83, at the Hereford County Hospital.

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