OPINION - Goerge M Mangion| Wednesday, 27 February 2008
Little was written about the loss of Sir John Harvey-Jones in Malta’s financial press when he passed away on Friday, 11 January 2008 at Hereford County Hospital.
Sir John Harvey-Jones, ex-chairman of ICI became a TV business guru associated with an eccentric look of long unkempt hair, colourful ties and a bonhomie smile.
Undoubtedly, he portrayed himself as a outwardly confident and charismatic leader.
Sir John has also been the Chancellor of Bradford University, a Vice President of the Royal Society of Arts, Vice Chairman of the Policy Studies Institute and the Institute of Marketing, and a Trustee of the Science Museum. He has sat on the Boards of a number of companies.
He was voted Industrialist of the Year in 1988 for the third consecutive year. He also worked for several charities. Four years ago at age 79 he joined leading business practitioners and academics at the launch of a University of Liverpool initiative designed to develop ways of increasing competition in the market place.
The project aimed to create connections between communities, leading to innovative ways of sharing experience and expertise in order to make a difference to the Knowledge Economy.
The so called ‘GNOSIS’ management research initiative did bring together business leaders, policy makers and academics to share knowledge and support innovation and competitiveness within UK companies.
With hindsight, I remember clearly reading a book about his pioneering days at the helm of what was then UK ‘s largest industry namely ICI.
So my thanks go to Sir John for all he did to make marketing as a profession interesting to me, then as a member of the local branch of The Marketing Institute. He inspired me on reading ‘The TroubleShooter’ books.
In 1990, then elected as treasurer of the Malta branch I persuaded the council to explore the possibility of visiting and filming on Xandir Malta a handpicked list of local companies in distress and try to help them achieve a quick turnaround.
It was a pioneering feat years ahead of equally investigative slots like Disset, Xarabank and Bondi Plus on PBS.
Again, then as of now, you would find no volunteer companies in the private sector who would open up their boardrooms and air their commercial woes to the public. Such programmes would not be attracting the magnitude of sponsorship that supports Where’s Everybody? slots on the State financed TV station much less on the political/ private stations.
In spite of insuperable drawbacks, as representative of the Marketing Institute, I did manage in the end to visit BBC studios in London and discuss with the Troubleshooter producer how the complex film editing was performed.
In this article , I intend to give a brief insight of my mentor who inspired me so gallantly and led me to try (without success) to emulate his highly educative TV series sponsored by BBC. Interestingly enough I modeled my original idea after discussing the project with Dr Josie Pace, then president of the Marketing Institute. Jose backed me wholeheartedly and he was very supportive of my initiative .
He did in fact join me on my explorative trip to BBC studios and to the headquarters of Institute of Marketing in Oxford. Let me give some more background on Sir John’s career.
In April 1982 he was appointed Chairman of ICI .and was universally acknowledged as an icon of best management practice in action. John Harvey-Jones, was a legend within ICI and held in very high esteem.
Elected as chairman of ICI from 1982 to 1987, he transformed the company from a loss-making outfit making a 300 million pound loss and transforming it into a billion pound a year profit. As a good manager 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.
In his words “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”.
His reassuring words to subordinates was that it almost doesn’t matter what you do as long as you are constantly trying something new.
Sir John had stripped away many of ICI ‘s peripheral businesses and concentrated on its core strengths. The chemicals firm, which made Dulux paint, was struggling when Sir John became chairman.
He brought a sense of adventure and dynamism to the bureaucracy of ICI and made some bold decisions. Naturally he inevitably met with stiff resistance to change from certain quarters who enjoyed the status quo.
His very first step, predictably, was cost-cutting at the very top, reducing the main board from 14 to eight. Over six years, ICI’ s workforce was trimmed down by a third.
Linked to his downsizing was a crystal clear strategy which boiled down to giving ICI’ s customers what they wanted, rather than what the group already made.
If only this motto is universally followed economies need suffer no sudden recession or serious drop of productivity.
Many remember him for his unashamedly buccaneering attitude to life and his work. Yet, ironically, what remains of ICI, was sold to a Dutch rival only a few weeks before his death.
At the start of this year, Holland’s Akzo Nobel announced the completion of its £8bn (€11.2 bn) takeover of ICI.
Paradoxically John started from humble origins and swiftly made his mark especially during the austere Margaret Thatcher’s days. In his autobiography, ‘Getting It Together’, he described his inner motivation and an ongoing emotional struggle as a person born in April 1924 with a childhood of extremes.
One reads how at the time his father, an army officer was acting as guardian to an adolescent Maharajah in India. John spent most of his early childhood in Dhar, India.
He returned to England at the age of 6 to attend a prep school at Deal, Kent. Later at age 13 he entered Dartmouth Royal Naval College.
At Dartmouth John began a career that he would cherish the rest of his working life. He learned German and at the end of 1940 went straight into active service as a sixteen year old mid-shipman.
Rewarding his service in Naval Intelligence the country honoured him with a military MBE .
Harvey-Jones then spent several years in MI6, the British secret service branch, this being the most mysterious period in his career. It is an open secret that even as chairman of ICI he never dared to visit the Soviet Union.
His popularity mushroomed with the production of a commercial TV series aptly called “Troubleshooter” the perfect conduit for communicating his ideas about business to a television audience of millions. It also won him a Bafta award.
This was a popular BBC TV series in which he advised struggling businesses.
The series would film him visiting in his flamboyant style ailing companies, observing their practices, looking at their books and interrogating directors .
The interesting final part of the programme reveals in real-life scenario the turnaround based on his recommendations. During his visits to such companies Sir John would outline proposals, often drastic in nature, that management needed to implement in order to turn their businesses around.
Troubleshooter series, first broadcast in 1990, made him, according to one newspaper, the most famous industrialist of the post-war period.
Sir John became the acceptable face of capitalism through his pragmatic TV programme. Back to Malta, I don’t regret one moment my efforts to generate interest amongst local marketeers to reach out to ailing companies and try produce a documentary series that would be of a high educative standard. Naturally we can host a local business leader of Sir John’s stature.
I augur that either FOI , MCAST or GRTU will join forces and revisit the idea of sponsoring a “Troubleshooter “ style series to commemorate Sir John ‘s legacy and improve competitiveness in industry.
27 February 2008
ISSUE NO. 524