Back in its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, ICI was as imperial as its name suggests, a vast manufacturing behemoth producing everything from paints to bulk chemicals explosives and pharmaceuticals, and was a pioneer in plastics. It was the benchmark for British industry. In 1984, John Harvey-Jones steered it to become the first British company to report pre-tax profits of £1bn. And if there were any doubts about its status as a national treasure, look at the uproar over the Hanson Trust approach in 1991. After buying a 2.8% stake, the conglomerate hinted it was thinking of buying the whole company; that these dealmakers could even consider handing the fortunes of a British institution to the interest of shareholders was met with outrage.
Now, however, that’s all a distant memory. ICI soon became just another British company, battling spiralling debt by shaving off its various different interests to create a slimmer but ultimately less powerful operation. The company has made 50 disposals in the past 10 years. It’s an all-too familiar story, and the end for ICI was always going to be less than glorious. But it’s still a poignant day for many in British business.
For memories of better days at ICI read MT’s interview
with its legendary leader, John Harvey-Jones.