The MT 40 Interview: Sir John Harvey-Jones

A controlling father who threw his son in the deep end produced one of the great British managers.

by Matthew Gwyther & Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The UK's first business TV celebrity is now 82. The original Troubleshooter, laying the path for The Apprentice, Dragon's Den and Make Me A Million, may be getting on a bit but Sir John Harvey-Jones has lost neither his vim nor his critical faculties. When asked what he thinks of the individual who has inherited his mantle as the nation's most famous telly business man - Sir Alan Sugar - his eyes blaze and he is forthright in his judgment.

'I never liked Alan. I always thought he was a bully. His values are in my view totally irrelevant to the needs of business. I watch his programme with horror. If I had behaved that way for one day at ICI, I'd have been hot-stuffed and rightly.'

Sugar's rise to fame shows how far things have changed. Commissioning editors in the la-la land of telly are falling over each other in search of new business-based ideas. Entrepreneurs are up there with showbiz folk and sports stars as the new gods, and getting rich through commerce has become sexy overnight. The watching public wants to know what the secret is, how they can be cute, smart and one step ahead. It's easy to forget that before Harvey-Jones there was no room on popular TV for business.

The estimable Money Programme - like MT, 40 years old this year - was far too highbrow and strictly for those in the trade. On the news, business was just there to be castigated in consumer stories about rip-off, fat-cattery and malfeasance.

So when in 1989 Sir John came along with his first BBC Troubleshooter series, featuring our hero as a bluff corporate doctor who prodded around, ran the tests and delivered the diagnosis as he saw it, the nation was hooked. There were five craftily produced series, as companies and organisations - from Morgan Cars and Triang Toys to South Yorkshire Police and the NHS - went through his humane mangle. (He recommended the luckless Norton motorbikes to just go straight into liquidation and try again.) His method was always the same: armed with five years of accounts (except for the NHS, 'who couldn't even produce one year's'), he would first visit the management to see what they thought was going on and then get down to the shop floor to discover the gory truth.

It was a simple and compelling formula and it made Sir John a star, far better known than he'd ever been as the mere chairman of ICI - and he loved it, in a conflicted sort of way. In a Gallup poll of 1992, one in five named Sir John as the person they would most like to see inside Number 10 in place of John Major.

But, like the former prime minister, he now enjoys a more tranquil existence.

With a couple of strokes behind him and a duodenal ulcer under his belt, Harvey-Jones now resides in the peaceful idyll of Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border, where MT joined him on a blustery day. The infamous brown suit and kipper tie of Troubleshooter days are gone, replaced at our meeting by an equally idiosyncratic combination of grey lumberjack shirt and an obviously well-loved tweed jacket. 'If I'd realised you were going to take my photograph, I'd have worn something a bit better,' he says as he squares up for the lens in the country pub car park. But despite the mufti and the passage of well over a decade since he was a regular on the telly, he remains instantly recognisable. The photo shoot is twice interrupted by passers-by stopping to say: 'Hello, didn't you used to be John Harvey-Jones?'

Ironically enough for a man who would become a TV star, sartorial brio was never really his style - he certainly couldn't be accused of being a grey man in a grey suit. And that trademark barnet remains impressively chewed and unkempt today. It's a style he has attributed to being far too mean to get it professionally cut.

'I once went to Trumpers, the gentlemen's hairdressers on Curzon Street who do Prince Philip, and they charged me £40. I was horrified. Horrified! I didn't even like it. I always look a mess, and I still looked a mess. So now I just get my wife to snip at it from time to time.'

But Harvey-Jones was always something of an oddity in the corporate arena.

The ICI of the '60s and '70s was as imperial as its name suggests, a vast manufacturing behemoth producing everything from paints and artificial fibres to bulk chemicals, explosives and pharmaceuticals. With divisions and subsidiary companies all over the world (as well as huge UK chemical plants at Wilton and Billingham, on Teesside), it was run on lines more suited to the Foreign Office than to a modern commercial concern.

It was a quiet and highly collegiate world where too much ambition was treated with suspicion. The colourful, go-ahead Harvey-Jones, with his man-of-the-people manner and Navy-bred penchant for calling a spade a bloody shovel, was always going to stand out.

His career progressed rapidly after he joined in 1956, thanks to an eager facility for getting things done - 'Making It Happen', to use one of his pet phrases. But the same can-do attitude meant that run-ins with authority were inevitable. 'In those days every division - even if it was only knee-high to a piss pot - had to have its chairman, three deputy chairmen, a dozen or so directors, just like head office. And it was considered a cardinal sin for a junior officer to argue with a director. I remember a complaint that I had argued with the commercial director of a supplier division. I said: "Of course I did, he was wrong." And he was. But it was frowned on all the same that I did it.'

The civil service atmosphere persisted even at the close of the '70s, despite a dramatic reversal in ICI's fortunes as the economic climate took a decidedly arctic turn. In 1980 ICI posted its first full-year loss - £20 million - since its formation in 1926. That sort of thing was supposed to happen only to others, not to supremely confident ICI, then the bluest of British blue-chips with well over 100,000 on the payroll at the time.

By his own account, Harvey-Jones was the rank outsider for the top job, 'a high-risk choice', as he told MT back in 1987, shortly after his retirement. But the shock of those recent losses plus his obvious desire to shake things up did the trick; he won the day and took office in 1982.

In those days the chairman's powers were limited. At best, he was primus inter pares - first among equals - at board meetings. The organisation guarded its collectivist culture jealously - there was certainly nothing so vulgar as a chief executive who overrode due process with a swift, decisive 'Just do it'.

All that changed under Harvey-Jones's leadership; as well as chairman, he took the title of principal executive officer, and with it the final say became his. There followed what in hindsight looks like a glorious Indian summer for ICI, as Harvey-Jones streamlined the board, simplified the organisational structure, dumped prescriptive control procedures and gave people the space they needed to do a good job.

'You have to give your people headroom and power and really trust them. The first thing I did after halving the size of the board was to cut out the controls. We used 21 key performance indicators - worse than the bloody government.'

Shorn of red tape and wasteful protocol, the numerous divisions of ICI - fibres, pharmaceuticals, paints, bulk chemicals, explosives - were in theory free to do their own thing and make the most of changes in their own markets without undue interference from head office. 'My aim the whole time was to increase the number of people who could say yes and decrease the number of people who could say no. It didn't matter so much if they were right or wrong, so long as they did something and did it fast.'

It seemed to work: in 1985 ICI became the first British industrial company to post a profit of over £1 billion. As the person responsible for this turnaround, Harvey-Jones got his first taste of the celebrity that would become so familiar.

His upbringing was colourful. Harvey-Jones was an only child born into the Indian colonial service, where his father Mervyn was, according to his son, 'a kind of self-employed prime minister. He hired himself out to Indian states when they were short of a good administrator.'

At the time of John's birth, H-J senior was guardian to the boy maharajah of Udaipur. On John's sixth birthday there was a parade of elephants, including John's own pet pachyderm, and a four-gun salute. But all was not as jolly as it sounds - he has elsewhere recalled his father as 'very repressed. Very rigidly controlled. Never showed feelings. How on earth I was conceived, I can't imagine, as he and my mother lived very separate lives. He was 100% macho, shot anything that blinked, played rugby football.'

Father once threw son into the deep end of an Indian swimming pool in an attempt to teach the boy to swim. After six years of Raj-style splendour, it all went horribly wrong when young Harvey-Jones was sent back to a boarding school near Deal in Kent. He was beaten, bullied, 'weedy, underweight and a wimp'.

All his mother could do was 'weep buckets' on the station platform when she saw him off to school. He once even tried to slit his wrists in the lavatory with a blunt penknife.

Salvation came at the age of 12, when he was dispatched to Dartmouth Naval College - which he immediately loved. (The tucker looked up, as well: 'Marvellous food - rissoles as big as eagle's balls.') There then followed a full 20 years in the Navy. He served on two destroyers sunk by torpedoes during the second world war, then went into submarines before spending a while in intelligence (for which he got an MBE). The Navy sent him to Cambridge in 1945, where he learned Russian. At the age of 22 he found himself in the German dockyard of Wilhelmshaven supervising its shipment back to the USSR as reparations. The hatred between the Russians and Germans was such that they refused to communicate. Harvey-Jones was in the middle - 'This rather unpromising background,' he wrote in his memoirs, 'was my first introduction to the complexities of industrial problems and industrial leadership.'

He would probably have finished his working life in the Senior Service had it not been for another twist of fate that befell his four-year-old daughter and only child Gabby. While Harvey-Jones was in the UK on home leave she contracted what her parents thought was a cold. Next morning, the little girl was unable to stand up. It was polio and left her disabled.

When lieutenant commander Harvey-Jones was refused compassionate leave from the Navy, he resigned his commission and found a job as a trainee work study officer for ICI in Middlesbrough. He claims that his naivety as far as the world of business was concerned was so complete at the time that he took the job on a salary so low he didn't make up the difference until he became chairman more than two decades later.

For all his red-blooded capitalist Wienerite credentials, Harvey-Jones' politics have always been tempered by a social conscience. He was a founder-member of the SDP back in 1981 and it is notable that even during ICI's darkest days he never turned to financial engineering or Hanson-style asset-stripping to solve the firm's fiscal troubles. So it's little wonder that 'The Admiral' - as he became known - didn't see eye to eye with the 'Iron Lady', Margaret Thatcher, despite her business-friendly reputation.

'She called me her least favourite businessman,' he beams. 'She would call these meetings for the top FTSE bosses, and we'd all sit there while she told us how things were. All my mates kept quiet because they thought Thatcher 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: "Well, Mrs Thatcher, that's not right".'

He doesn't have much time for another institution that rose to power during the Thatcher years - the City. 'The City is in no position to judge good businessmen, nor is the stock market. Everything is far too short-term these days. The market does what is good for itself, not for business; as long as there is movement they will make money, doesn't matter if it's up or down.

'We were all brainwashed years ago into thinking that the City of London existed to allocate money in a cleverer way, to make sure that the country's businesses would succeed in the longer term. Well, where do we live now? We live in a country where every fucking thing is up for sale. The means has become the end. I still believe money is how you measure the effectiveness of a business, not the end in itself.'

He goes on to say that he has subsequently advised several of the firms he covered in Troubleshooter not to go for a stock market listing. 'The moment you are on the stock market you lose control of your own business; you can't manage it the way you want. Everything gets compressed into the short term, and the chances of persuading the majority of shareholders that playing long is sensible are minimal.'

What does he think about the most pressing management challenge facing the UK at present, the continuing saga of the NHS, the largest employer in Europe? 'It seems to me the NHS has the same problems now as it did when I looked at it: vastly over-managed, over-administered, its people under-trusted. Back then, they were grossly underpaid, but they aren't now. There is just far too much micro-management. The idea that you can manage the NHS as a single unit is barmy. Everything is done defensively - they're all scared of risk and responsibility.'

But if he was back in 1947 as part of that bright new future, knowing what he does now, would he invent the NHS as it was and is? 'I have personal reasons to be very grateful to the NHS. When my daughter got polio, as a naval officer I hadn't got any money and yet she got the best treatment she could have received. There's no question that the NHS was an unbelievable advance, but it was on the back of a culture where doctors believed their job was only to care for people and the money side was almost an irrelevance.

Most of the many billions that have recently been pumped in seem to have gone on increased rewards, paying a vast administrative organisation that can't even do the accounts properly. It's mindblowing!

'But I'm now at the age where bits fall off and the sharp end of the NHS is still very good. The sharp end performs but the whole thing labours.'

Like any high-profile figure, Harvey-Jones has had his fair share of detractors. MT's own profile writer Chris Blackhurst (writing in the Independent on Sunday in 1992) suggested that former senior colleagues at ICI complained that he was hard to work with and wasn't above taking credit for other people's decisions. When he wrote his memoirs several refused to co-operate, causing a longstanding rift.

More serious, though, than these internal gripes was the suspicion that Harvey-Jones the man didn't quite measure up to the myth. 'He should have left a booming company behind him,' said another from the anti camp, 'and he didn't.' A Times article quoted two unnamed top industrialists as writing him off as 'bogus'.

The fate of ICI after his retirement certainly provides ammunition for critics. By the end of the '80s, ICI's long-term decline in core markets such as fibres and chemicals had come home to roost. Only the pharmaceuticals business - growing at nearly 30% annually - was thriving. After a Hanson-led takeover scare (the famous corporate raider's bid was scotched), the 1993 Zeneca demerger (the pharmaceuticals, biotech and speciality chemicals divisions were sold off) became inevitable. Investors got their windfall but it didn't do much for ICI, left as it was with an unappetising collection of old-fashioned, underperforming businesses. Even his supporters recognised he had limitations. 'He was much more of a leader than a strategist,' said one former senior ICI manager.

And his own post-retirement career wasn't all plain sailing - he chaired a financial services company called Burns-Anderson that went into liquidation, and he sat on the board of Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) with Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair. GPA suffered a disastrous rebuff when it tried to float on the stock market.

How much, if anything, he could have done to give ICI a more secure future, to save Burns-Anderson or to float GPA successfully are matters of conjecture, but the incidents certainly make his antipathy to the City and financial markets easier to understand.

So, what's now left for the grand old man of British business? Even if he had the time and energy he would not do any more television. He doesn't like what it has turned into and didn't approve of what Gerry Robinson did when he took up the Troubleshooter baton. 'It's now very difficult to get any media that will give you the headroom and the time to do things properly. You need a year to turn a business around and the TV machine won't wait that long.'

He also hates the Faustian pact of reality TV's 15 minutes of fame. 'If you are privileged to do TV, I believe you have an absolute responsibility not to use that unrecognised power to harm people. You have to be positive. Negativity makes wonderful TV but I never cared about that.'

While there were those who were wounded by him as Troubleshooter, his criticism was always constructive, never the mindless am-dram of The Apprentice's 'You're fired!'.

With age, they say, comes wisdom and he is certainly philosophical about his place in the world today. 'I'm 82 and I have given up my wish or belief that I could change the world. The best I can do now is to change with it and maybe sometimes to be a bit ahead.

'I do think one has to have a very open mind - I've more or less given up on most of the things I really valued, like the importance of manufacturing. Everything except my basic belief in people, in treating them right and giving them the right incentives. And those incentives are bugger all to do with money, they are almost all to do with recognition and trust.'

He still does work for MS and polio charities for his daughter's sake, and answers the letters from small-business people seeking help (some addressed to: 'Sir John Harvey-Jones, Wales'), although the days when it took four secretaries to handle his postbag are long gone.

Does he have regrets about the way his career panned out? 'I'd do more than half of what I did the same again. I never regretted being a regular Naval officer; it gave me my fundamental belief that our troubles stem from not asking enough of people rather than asking too much.

'One of the luxuries I have seen go is the knowledge that you have a job for as long as you want it. When I started at ICI, the personnel officer said: "Well, John, you've got a job for life." I was shocked and said: "I don't want a job for life." But because I felt totally secure I could take all sorts of risks that nowadays I wouldn't. All I was risking was my promotion, and what did that matter? I could live on what I was getting!

'ICI was a wonderful place to be in terms of the chances it gave you, but I wouldn't have stayed so long. I would have left in the early '60s and set up my own business. I would like to have been more of an entrepreneur and less of a manager - it's my only real regret.' And off into the Herefordshire countryside sailed the nation's best-loved captain of industry, piloting nothing more corporate than his Lexus SUV.


1. Being the first chairman in UK corporate history to post profits of more than £1 billion for his company

2. Putting business into popular consciousness through his Troubleshooter TV series

3. Making a tricky work/life balance call when he could have finished a comfortable and successful career in the Navy.

One issue on which the jury is still out

1. The unhappy fate and eventual dismemberment of ICI after his departure from the top job



1924: Born 16 April, London. Educated Royal Naval College, Dartmouth

1937: Joins Royal Navy. Sees active war service as midshipman on
destroyers and submarines

1945: Learns Russian and German, then works in intelligence and for the
Cabinet Office

1952: Awarded MBE for Naval Intelligence work

1956: Quits Navy and takes a traineeship at ICI, follwed by a succession
of executive posts

1973: Appointed to the ICI board

1982: Unexpectedly wins chairmanship of ICI

1986: Installed as Chancellor of the University of Bradford. Board roles
at the Economist, Grand Metropolitan, the Wild Fowl Trust, Royal Society
of Arts and elsewhere

1987: Retires from ICI

1989: Presents the first of the BBC TV's Troubleshooter series

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