Blackhurst's diary: In which our diarist praises the man overseeing ICI's retreat from empire, fumbles with a management riddle and questions whether Lane Fox is mere net totty

Blackhurst's diary: In which our diarist praises the man overseeing ICI's retreat from empire, fumbles with a management riddle and questions whether Lane Fox is mere net totty - THE SLIMLINE CHEMICAL GENERATION

by CHRIS BLACKHURST, deputy editor, The Express
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

THE SLIMLINE CHEMICAL GENERATION

Brendan O'Neill is chief executive of ICI. Not many people know that. Once, the boss of ICI would have been a pivotal national figure, a real captain of industry, head of the bellwether stock, the leader of Britain's manufacturing base. Not any more. These days, ICI is ranked 79th in the FTSE 100 by market capitalisation and employs just 5,000 people in the UK. The company will shortly move out of its grand Millbank headquarters, its home since 1928, for something smaller (head office staff has halved to just 125).

Also affected by the move will be 8 Smith Square, the house round the corner from Millbank used by ICI top brass for executive entertaining. A short walk from the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall, 8 Smith Square has played host to countless power-broking meetings down the years.

If O'Neill is disappointed with how things turned out, he does not show it. He seems to revel in the new realism sweeping ICI. His predecessors would have talked about the breadth of ICI, its dominant position as a bulk supplier of chemicals, paints and more. O'Neill, 51, prefers to discuss 'knowledge-centred business' and 'specialty products'. Translated, that means concentrating on niche markets, like supplying perfume-makers with their smells. It is hard not to like O'Neill. He does not lose his cool even when I ask, what is the bellwether today? British Telecom, he says, smiling, between undoubtedly gritted teeth. ICI is lucky to have him.

MANAGING A LAUGH

E-mail jokes are as ubiquitous as the old chain letter. Still, I can't resist this recent offering. A quiz to see whether you're qualified to be a 'manager'. Question one: How do you put a giraffe into a fridge?

Answer: Open the fridge, put the giraffe in and close the door. (This question tests whether you do simple things in an over-complicated way.) Question two: How do you put an elephant into a fridge? Wrong answer: Open the fridge, put in the elephant and close the door. Correct answer: Open fridge, take out giraffe, put in elephant and close door. (This tests your ability to think through the repercussions of your actions.) Question three: The Lion King is hosting an animal conference, all the animals attend except one. Which one? Correct answer: The elephant. (He's in the fridge. This tests your memory.) Okay, you still have one chance to show your abilities.

Question four: There is a river you must cross. But it is inhabited by crocodiles. How do you cross it? Answer: You swim across. (The crocodiles are at the animal meeting. This tests whether you learn quickly from your mistakes.)

The quiz was accompanied by a short postscript. According to Andersen Consulting, around 90% of the professionals tested got all questions wrong but many pre-schoolers got several correct answers. Andersen says this conclusively disproves the theory that most management consultants have the brains of four-year-olds.

INSCRUTABLE BAVARIANS

Was BMW ever serious about wanting Rover? A question taxing minds in Whitehall. Of particular interest was BMW's jealousy of the growing rapport developed over 15 years between Rover and Honda. The prospect of Japanese muscle entering the European limousine market filled BMW with dread, says my tame mandarin, prompting the purchase of Rover from under Honda's nose.

BACK TO THE MARSHALL PLAN

Disquiet among shareholders in British Airways, where Lord Marshall, chairman and acting CEO in the wake of Robert Ayling's departure, has taken it upon himself to scour the world for Ayling's replacement. While Marshall devotes himself to this not inconsiderable task, investors are muttering. Marshall's track record in this regard, one murmurs to me, is hardly inspiring. It was Marshall who chose Ayling - ailing from day one was this BA insider's verdict - and this time he appears to be going down the route of hiring a seasoned airline hand. What BA needs, my contact says, is a breath of fresh air, someone who understands customers and their needs.

THE WWWOMAN CAN'T HELP IT

If Martha Lane Fox is less visible in coming months, don't be surprised. Institutional investors were annoyed by the abysmal performance and botched flotation of lastminute.com. 'The PR was a disaster. What were they doing putting up a grinning schoolgirl?' asks one miffed fund manager at a party, who maintains that what is required to resurrect lastminute.com is someone with gravitas to be seen running the business. 'You don't need to be young to run a new economy operation. We want to see a heavyweight there.' And male? 'It's not sexist to say the City would like to see a bloke who knows what he is doing,' he replies. Sounds pretty sexist to me - and where does that leave Brent Hoberman?

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