Sir John passed away peacefully in his sleep after a long period of ill health. Nicknamed ‘The Admiral’ because of his naval background and piratical turn of phrase, he joined ICI in 1962 and was boss from 1982 to 1987. Harvey-Jones transformed the vast chemical giant – one of the world’s largest firms at the time – from a loss maker into the first company to post a billion pound profit in UK corporate history. A flamboyant figure with trademark long hair and giant kipper ties, he was an outstanding leader and motivator par excellence, a firm believer that individuals will rise to any challenge, if only they are given the opportunity to do so.
When MT last met the great man something over a year ago (for our 40th anniversary issue profile) he had lost none of his vim nor critical faculties, as his salty analysis on everything from the City (‘we live in a country where every f****** thing is for sale’) to Sir Alan Sugar (‘I always thought he was a bully’) testify. Nor had his feelings towards Margaret Thatcher, prime minister in his ICI days, mellowed with the passing of the years. ‘All my mates kept quiet because they thought she was the great she-cow from whom all good things flowed, and that if they took the tit out of their mouths they’d starve to death. But I’d stand up and say “No, Mrs Thatcher, that’s not right.”’ In return, she called him her ‘least favourite businessman’ an epithet of which he was clearly rather proud.
But it is his role as BBC TV’s original Troubleshooter for which many will remember him best. Touring the country with a suitcase full of his famous ‘Union Jack underpants’, Harvey-Jones dispensed pithy and straightforward advice to struggling businesses – including sports car maker Morgan and the NHS – not all of which were ready to take his cure. It was a task he took very seriously, regarding it as his duty to give the best advice he could and to mentor the firms involved long after the programmes were aired.
He was still receiving letters addressed to the Troubleshooter when we met for lunch in his favourite pub near Ross-on-Wye back in autumn 2006. After a fascinating and energetic discussion, an obviously slightly-weary Sir John posed happily for some terrific photographs in the pub car park, with his beloved Union Jack fluttering appropriately in the background. Talking to a man whose career had begun in the second world war – he was torpedoed twice in destroyers – and successfully spanned the decades since, there was a whiff of history in the air anyway. But we didn’t realise at the time that the piece would turn out to be his last major interview. Goodbye Sir John, we’ll miss you.
Click here to read our last interview with the great man in 2006, from our 40th birthday edition.