THE CHRIS BLACKHURST INTERVIEW: Sir Richard Sykes - Don't imagine that the former boss of Glaxo, maestro of two of the greatest takeovers of the pharmaceuticals sector, has become rector of Imperial College to enjoy a life of cloistered ease. He's there strictly to put it on a business footing and to steer it to a prosperous future.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Don't imagine that the former boss of Glaxo, maestro of two of the greatest takeovers of the pharmaceuticals sector, has become rector of Imperial College to enjoy a life of cloistered ease. He's there strictly to put it on a business footing and to steer it to a prosperous future.

On the ground floor of the building that houses Sir Richard Sykes's office, a group of youngsters sit in a huddle on the floor. They wear the urban street uniform of the modern student: trainers, combats, rucksacks. Branded of course. Lost in their own thoughts, they don't look up when a visitor arrives.

Upstairs, on the fifth floor, Sykes is complaining about the heat in his glass-fronted office. The sun is shining and the temperature inside is climbing. There's no air-conditioning. Despite the stuffiness, Sykes keeps his pinstripe suit jacket on. His shirtsleeves remain down, his collar buttoned up, his tie tightly knotted.

In the old days, when Sykes headed GlaxoSmithKline, it would have been so, so different. His attire would have been the same - old habits die hard - but the air would have been cooled; the taxi would have whisked visitors straight to the front of the building instead of dropping them at a barrier hundreds of yards away; there would have been airline-style receptionists to greet them in the marble-clad lobby, not a bunch of students squatting on the lino. The executive lift would have whisked guests straight to his suite, where a battery of assistants would serve coffee and tea from china cups on a silver tray and offer them a business paper or magazine to read while Sykes wrapped up a conference call. The cushions on the sofas in the meeting area would have been far plumper than those on the one sofa at the end of his thin, cluttered office.

Sykes, though, would have been the same. You can take the boy out of Huddersfield but you can't take Huddersfield out of the boy. Sykes, for all his business success, for all the millions he earned transforming Glaxo into a global powerhouse - swallowing not one but two pharmaceutical giants in Wellcome and SmithKline along the way - still speaks in a flat Yorkshire tone, still looks as though he would be at home running a public library in a Pennine town.

Which, in a sense - though he won't thank me for saying so - is where he's traded places. Last spring, he stepped down from the chairmanship of GlaxoSmithKline and, at 60, became full-time Rector of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London. All the trappings of the international mogul went: the chauffeur and the luxury lifestyle (but not the money - Glaxo pays him a retirement package of pounds 660,000 a year).

With it too, went the pressures of running a multi-billion, multinational empire. No more whistlestop investor tours; no Q&A sessions with too-clever-by-half analysts; no interminable meetings with in-house and ex- ternal advisers; no worries about boardroom colleagues sniping behind your back; no annual general meetings with obstreperous and, at times, preposterous small shareholders.

Sykes went to an altogether more rarefied place, where resources are fewer but the life is calmer. The move suits him. He looks good for his years, not an ounce of fat on his whippet-like frame, sporting a full head of hair, looking as though he could step back into his old job and pick up the cudgels. Seeing him like this is a surprise: the path of retiring captains of industry to the ivory towers of academe is a well worn one; often they're an honorarium, not to be taken too seriously, a thank-you for a career well served. In Sykes's case, though, there is the sense that he has done this too soon, that he could still be bestriding the corporate world, if not at GlaxoSmithKline then at another big-name company.

Sykes is having none of it. Okay, his office may overlook a cloister full of students lounging in the sun and, to add to the sense of detachment, the college's old Queen's Tower is right outside his window But Imperial is no sinecure. He has swapped one hot seat for another and his burning desire to succeed is as strong as ever. 'Running a business and running a university may seem very different in context, but when you examine them, the context is the same. A business is public and is there to make money for its investors. A university is private and isn't there to make money,' says Sykes. 'The motive of each movement is different, but they both need to be businesslike in the way they operate.'

The one biggest difference between them, he says, is the finances. 'In a successful company, if you want to do something you know the chances are the money can be found. In a university, if you want to do something you have to go outside the room, you have to first identify where the money can be found.'

No sooner are we talking than it's all about money. Notions about a life of intellectual bliss, a monastic existence on a leafy campus - albeit in central London - are banished. Sykes wants me, wants the world to know that being rector of Imperial is a serious job, just as demanding as heading a mega, all-conquering business.

Partly, it's his pride. Sykes is the sort of bloke who doesn't let up for a second. Even 20 years from now, assuming his health is good, you know he'll have some project or other on the go.

He has always been like it. He left school at 16 not because he had to but because he was different. His school was a solid, northern grammar (among its alumni was Harold Wilson), his father worked as a carpenter and his mother ran the family smallholding. Blessed with this comfortable background and his intelligence, most other boys would have stayed put. Sykes, though, was impatient to get on, to experience more than a classroom. So he worked in a hospital pathology lab during the day and studied in the evenings. Only later did he return to full-time education.

Even then, he didn't just do a degree. He got a first in microbiology from London before moving on to complete a doctorate at Bristol. His chosen subject? 'Infectious diseases really fascinated me,' he said, in a response that could have come straight from a chiller starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Yet Sykes will never be like other academics, either. For him, money isn't a dirty subject not to be mentioned in the senior common room. He was earning cash while his contemporaries were still wearing school blazers.

And obsessed as he was by nasty organisms at university, he didn't hesitate when given the chance to join Mammon. He jumped, and began heading Glaxo's antibiotic research unit at 29. Today, he talks about money with an insouciance that a don would not have - and might just get up the noses of some of his cash-strapped colleagues. Asked, for instance, how much he earns as rector, he replies: 'It's pounds 200,000 - actually a bit higher. It's a token.' Perhaps realising how that could come across, he adds, quickly: 'A good token'. And partly, it's because running an academic institution these days is all about money.

It's unavoidable. 'It's our most pressing issue,' says Sykes. No longer can seats of learning rest upon past reputations and bask in former glories (in Imperial's case, that's 17 Nobel prize-winners). Every area of activity is open to assessment and comparison. Come top or thereabouts and the money is safe; take your eye off the ball and slip and it will disappear.

In Imperial's case, the money is considerable - not FTSE-100 size, but Sykes is managing a substantial enterprise. Total annual turnover is about pounds 400 million. The college has 10,000 students, 1,100 academic staff and 4,300 research and support staff, based on sites in central London, Berkshire and Kent. More than half the income comes from private sources, from contracts with major firms and research grants. Imperial's links with businesses, says Sykes, net it twice what Cambridge gets in private funding.

This is why Sykes is here. In Imperial, he's found an institution that, in its field of science, technology and medicine, is up there with Oxford and Cambridge, and in many areas ahead. And, unlike those august and higher-profile bodies, one man is able to run Imperial. Whereas at Oxbridge, power is dissipated along collegiate lines, at Imperial it is centred on Sykes's office.

Sykes took the job because at Imperial the title of rector - which may sound quaint - actually denotes CEO. There's a council to which he must report, but Imperial is his train-set. The combination of prestige and power proved irresistible. You can feel it when he talks about Imperial encompassing 'the largest medical school in Europe', about tie-ups with big companies from BP to Glaxo; its growing Business School; close contacts with rich, successful alumni (such as Gary Tanaka, who donated pounds 25 million last year for improvements to the Business School building). Gradually, listening to him, the students downstairs start to fade from the memory.

They're important, naturally, but they're not why Sykes is here. With his CV, you assume, he could have chosen any science educational establishment, but he chose Imperial. Why? Because it offered him the opportunity to do things his way - 'to make a difference', as he puts it - and because its reputation is second to none, especially overseas and among the business community.

Imperial may seem like a higgledy-piggledy collection of buildings in Kensington and elsewhere, embracing as it does a sub- sidiary like the Royal School of Mines, a name resonant of a bygone age. But Imperial competes for funding, students and staff in an international field, with Oxford and Cambridge. On the wall in Sykes's room is a painting of the American desert, of cowboy country. It's not accidental. Much of his thinking is conditioned by America.

In 1977, he left Glaxo to work for Squibb, then the British company's arch-rival, in the US. He returned to Glaxo in 1986 (as deputy head of Glaxo Group Research) imbued with a love of the American way. He admired the can-do attitude, the lack of snobbishness and, in his own work, the unapologetic affinities between research facilities in higher education and big business. Within seven years he was in charge of the whole Glaxo group.

The City was caught unawares, assuming that Ernest Mario's successor as group CEO would be another tried-and-trained commercial marketing man.

But Sykes's ability to move seamlessly between research - foundation of the company's future success - and the business side won him admirers in the boardroom. Glaxo had grown enormously, mostly on the back of Zantac, its treatment for stomach ulcers. Other chiefs might have been content to enjoy the fruits of this wonder drug, which was racking up sales of pounds 2 billion a year, but Sykes's US experience had taught him not to stay still, to seek out new targets. His restless ambition led to the crowning achievements of his career, the mergers with Wellcome in 1995 and SmithKline Beecham in 2000.

At Imperial, Sykes was soon at it again, endorsing a merger with University College London. To the business eye, such a marriage may not seem like big news. But mayhem erupted in London's academic circles. Opponents of the planned deal argued that consolidation and takeovers belonged in the profit-driven world of business, where size is all; they had no place in university teaching.

Much of the criticism fell on Sykes. The initial idea came from UCL, loudly advocated by its chief, Sir Derek Roberts. The rationale was clear: the joint body would have 18,000 students and a research budget of over pounds 400 million - more than Oxford and Cambridge combined. 'The aim was to create in London one high-class institution,' says Sykes, 'We compete for staff, for grants, we're very close to each other, so why not merge?' Imperial staff were in favour, UCL staff weren't. 'They said I had a reputation for being an imperialist - forgive the pun - for being a merger merchant, and they were opposed to getting together with Imperial.'

The battle became personal, in a way rarely seen in commerce and certainly not by Sykes during the Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham takeovers. Two web sites were established to attack him and he was accused of 'Sykomania' by his opponents - mainly at UCL - for his desire to weld the two bodies together.

This vitriol reflected the deep suspicion of business among many academics. Redundancies would follow, they argued, recalling the cuts that followed Glaxo's two huge deals. Matters weren't helped by the assumption that Sykes would lead the new college and that it would one day take the name University of London. He was accused of empire-building - charges that, in typically robust fashion, he rejects: 'I can't believe small is beautiful, not where universities are concerned.'

As for the name, there is already a long-established University of London. It's only a matter of time before the University of London is forced to rationalise and decide what to do with its lesser colleges. 'University of London isn't a good brand. It's a brand that encompasses Imperial, UCL, King's and the other lesser centres of excellence. It's a mish-mash.'

Some of those lesser lights would disappear in a rationalisation, leaving the combined UCL-Imperial unchallenged with 29 departments rated five-star - the highest accolade - for their research, more than Oxford and Cambridge. It would have become the University of London with, presumably, Sykes at its apex.

Such grandiose intention is frowned on in academic circles and hardly to be discussed openly. Sykes was seen by some as a pariah with no place in a publicly funded seat of learning. During the merger row, he disclosed plans to charge Imperial undergraduates up to pounds 10,500 a year if the government removed the cap on tuition fees - almost as though he were deliberately exacerbating the rift.

Sykes's paper to his ruling council advocating the charges was ill-timed and may have stymied the planned merger, which was voted down by UCL's dons. The man himself is unrepentant. 'We had two managements agreeing it was a good idea - you don't get that in business,' he enthuses. 'I'd do it again tomorrow.' Provided, he adds, everybody - not just the ruling bodies of the two colleges but the dons as well - was in agreement.

That's the difference between Sykes the corporate bruiser and Sykes the rector. At Glaxo, once the board made up its mind, that was it. Shareholders in the company were unlikely to vote down a board decision. In the more democratic academic world, the staff are the equivalent of shareholders - they must be placated.

'In business, you don't have to consult anybody,' says Sykes. 'Once the board has made a decision, that's it.' But the City is also a less forgiving audience. 'If I'd tried to merge with Wellcome and failed, that would have left a bad mark against me at Glaxo,' he admits. As it is, no mud from the collapse of the UCL merger has stuck.

'It's not damaged my reputation, not at all. There's no residue of ill feeling.' He goes further. Discussion about the marriage made the dons question what sort of institution they wanted Imperial to become and how it should adapt and change. For the first time, he says, colleagues took a long hard look at themselves and each other, and acknowledged that reforms had to be made.

If anything, the merger talk strengthened Sykes's hand. He inherited a convoluted structure, which he has streamlined along classic corporate lines: four divisions (faculties) reporting to him, plus the business school, which roams across departments. Some senior academics found their own power bases eroded as Sykes established an executive committee to manage the sprawling institution. Again, it contains job titles that would grace any company below group board level, with people responsible for finance, development, human resources and marketing. Everything has been made to look slicker and yes, more businesslike.

But such changes are difficult to assess at a university. It's obviously a source of frustration for Sykes, whose instincts are to deal with hard numbers and facts - criteria that aren't vague and, critically, cannot be questioned. 'When you're running a company you've got hard measures, like earnings-per-share growth, to judge your success by. And, in a company there's always sales and profits. In a university, you've got research excellence, which is a soft measure, the quality of teaching, which is soft, and the quality of the students, which is soft again.'

Woolly or not, he still sticks to a daily regime that wouldn't have been out of place at Glaxo. He's at his desk at 7.30 most mornings and leaves past 6 most evenings. One difference: he has a flat on the campus so he can walk to work. 'I'm running it like a chief executive,' he says. 'I talk to my department heads ever day, I discuss the strategic plan, I'm examining the targets we set ourselves.' He also presses a considerable amount of flesh in a campaign to secure ever greater funding.

Sykes was never a reticent character at Glaxo, always outspoken and to the point on industry matters. But shrugging off the corporate shackles lets him vent his spleen on issues that he had to stay silent about at Glaxo. He has been appointed to run an inquiry for Tomorrow's Company, an independent think-tank, into the best way to create 'a blueprint for a better investment system'. For Sykes, such a harmless-sounding subject matter is cover for an all-out attack on the people who made his life hell: small shareholders who ask ridiculous questions at annual general meetings; and institutional investors who are governed by short-termism and have no real understanding of the problems the firm faces. Small investors, he says, should be excluded from the meetings to allow fund managers to grill management. At present, such gatherings are 'a wasted opportunity, where people with no real interest in the breadth of a company are allowed to disrupt the meeting'. Whereas, those who actually own the business sit on the sidelines and say and learn nothing.

Sykes stresses he isn't criticising the small shareholder who owns a few hundred or a few thousand shares. It's the one share-owning troublemaker, the chap who has a bee in his bonnet about one aspect of the firm's affairs and won't shut up who gets him annoyed. For Tomorrow's Company, Sykes is leading a team of fund managers, senior executives and pension trustees.

He's also an adviser to the Department of Trade and Industry, which has sought to distance itself from his remarks on shareholders. If there's a feeling of something stirring, of an industrialist with nothing to prove who is still only 60 and can't help his agitation at what he sees as the iniquities and problems in our society, that would be right. He has a weary disdain for politicians and their empty promises. 'We're at a crossroads, we need somebody to shape things - a bit like Mrs Thatcher, somebody who can get things done. They need vision and they need to do it. We were told 'education, education, education', but nothing has been achieved.'

Sykes, it goes without saying, would like to be asked for his views, believes he's got something to offer. He grew Glaxo into a worldbeater and now he's wandering round a university campus nodding at students who probably don't know who he is or what he's done, and if they do, aren't impressed. Don't get him wrong - he's enjoying himself. He loves the vitality of youth. 'You can't get depressed here. They're very polite, they all say hello.'

On the way out, the students are still sitting on the floor. They're lost in their world; upstairs, the rector is deep in his.

< SYKES IN A MINUTE 1942: Born Huddersfield, educated Royds Hall School, Huddersfield; London University; Bristol University 1972: Head of antibiotic research unit, Glaxo Research 1977: Assistant director, department of microbiology, Squibb Institute for Medical Research 1987: Group research and development director, chairman and CEO of Glaxo Group Research 1993: Deputy chairman and chief executive of Glaxo 1994: Knighted for services to pharmaceutical industry 1995; Deputy chairman and CEO, Glaxo Wellcome 1997: Chairman, Glaxo Wellcome 2000: Chairman, GlaxoSmithKline 2001: Rector, Imperial College, London

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