UK: PROFILE - PATRICK RICH - BOC.

UK: PROFILE - PATRICK RICH - BOC. - This music-loving, frontierless Frenchman knows the global score. His well-orchestrated, dynamic strategy is widening BOC's horizons.

by Judith Oliver.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This music-loving, frontierless Frenchman knows the global score. His well-orchestrated, dynamic strategy is widening BOC's horizons.

The BOC Group chauffeur who collected me from Woking station could have been on day-release from his PR department. Our 20-minute drive through the leafy Surrey lanes to the head office of the world's second largest industrial gases company was rich with positive reinforcement. 'So, you're going to interview our chairman then?' 'Yes, I am.' 'Well, you'll enjoy that. He's very interesting, you know, and nice. Different too.' 'In what way, different? Different from whom?' 'Ah, just different.'

One obvious difference between Pat Rich and his predecessor Dick Giordano is pay. Rich earns a lot less than Giordano, which is a shame since Rich would have so suited his predecessor's oft-quoted qualifier of 'Britain's highest-paid businessman'. Finding a pigeonhole for Rich, appointed a non-executive director of BOC in 1983, deputy chairman in 1990, chief executive in 1991 and chairman one year later, is more difficult. He is not your normal British senior executive. He is not even British. When he jumps up from his chair, full of charm, energy and warm greetings, I feel the chauffeur may not have been speaking with forked PR tongue after all.

Rich is a dynamic, youthful-looking 62-year-old. He is a native of Strasbourg in Alsace-Lorraine which partly explains his enviable facility with languages. He speaks six - French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese - and understands several more including Dutch and Swedish. One imagines he would not be boring in any of them. He is embarrassingly fluent in English and has plenty of tales to tell, all related with enthusiastic eloquence in a light Gallic lilt.

We are suddenly on a childhood cycle trip to the Rhine. It is 1938. He and a friend are watching men across the river building fortifications: the Siegfried line. Behind him, another line looms: the Maginot. Perched between the two rising structures stands a little riverside restaurant. People dance as an accordianist plays. 'Dancing', says Rich 'into the Second World War'.

By 1940 both lines are redundant and Rich's home town has gained a German occupying army. By 1945 he has gained fluency in German, tasted deprivation and developed a 'frontier mentality'. 'One of the things the war sure did for me was to make me a European. After the war I said, "Never again". It fuelled a commitment to European union very difficult for people who have never lived on a frontier to understand.'

When the war ended, the linguistically adept Rich, by now intrigued by differing cultures and disabused of the idea of frontiers, began globe-trotting. The first stop was Harvard University where, as a Fulbright scholar, he brought his English up to scratch (thereafter laced with distinctive American expressions). He had gained his academic spurs at Strasbourg University where he studied political science, European studies and law. But none of this prepared him for three years' hard labour as a French para in the Algerian war. His medal gained and the war over, he went to Canada to become a project analyst with Aluminium Limited (now Alcan Aluminium Limited).

From there the internationalisation of Rich proceeded apace. In 1961, after 18 months in Alcan's financial department in Montreal, he moved to Guinea as finance director. He arrived in the country with two suitcases and Louise, his Canadian bride of 15 days. The hasty move was prompted by Alcan's fears that the incoming Guinean government was planning to nationalise its business. Reflecting on that time, the ex-para says, 'Guns pointed at you when you haven't got any yourself is really rather disagreeable.' He smiles, remembering, too, the cockroaches running around corporate HQ and the absence of running water, apart from that which cascaded through the ceiling onto his paperwork.

In 1963 la famille Rich departed for London, as his next task was to get to grips with semi-fabricating operations. Two years later he transferred to South America as vice president of Alcan Argentina. He then went to Madrid, followed by two years in Milan. In 1971 he moved back to Latin America - this time as Alcan's area general manager in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Uruguay. He returned to Canada as an Alcan board director in 1976 with his wife and three children. He enjoyed a six-month sabbatical at Harvard Business School in 1982 and moved to Geneva in 1983. In 1986 he left Alcan to become chief executive of SGS, a Geneva-based multinational. Three years later our frontierless Frenchman returned to BOC in London, where he took up a full-time executive post.

Rich is proud of his global qualifications. 'I hope I am one of the best qualified people to run a multinational organisation. I think there is a great difference between understanding intellectually what the international business of a company is and living through it and organising it as I have done.'

But where on earth does this expatriate consider home to be? 'Multinational managers have no home. They have portable lives and portable roots. Roots are where you feel at ease, where you have friends and children and if you move around the world, as we have, then you spread those roots around. Rather like a tree in the Amazon forest, you have shallow roots but very wide ones and what you lose, I guess, in depth, you gain in your diversity of perception.'

Rich's diversity of perception and truly global view is what he brings to BOC: a prerequisite perhaps for an industrial gases, healthcare, vacuum technology and distribution group, which operates in 60 countries. Rich feels he has a wider perspective than most managers who 'like to work in a field which is theirs, who like to till their field, put fences round it and say this is mine and that is yours'. Rich thinks that today's global business must be about 'sharing, moving around, gaining experience around the globe, finding people of different cultures and, if they are good, promoting them.' Once you have experienced many different cultures, he says, 'you start to feel that if you were to see someone walking on his or her head then you would say, "Well, that's a legitimate way to live". You no longer have those prejudices nor that sense of property which those with very deep roots often have.'

Rich encourages diversity of experience among his staff and has French, British, American, Indian Australian, South African and Chinese managers occupying the company's 30 top-level posts. His aim is to make BOC 'global-locally'.This way, he says, 'we can bring all the knowledge and resources which we have available around the world together in each local situation. Then we want to be local-globally - meaning that on a global scale we are very responsive and fast on our feet and understand local conditions as well as local businesses do. Next we want to be globally-global (he is getting carried away with Gallic enthusiasm) whereby we understand that there are new ideas, new techniques and new best practices sprouting up all over the world and that we must find that wisdom wherever it is, develop it and transfer it globally.' He halts only for a moment. His global plans excite him. Thoughtful, erudite, patient. He has plenty to tell you. Not just about his corporate plans.

Was this global vision a childhood dream? No, not at all. German occupation limited his horizons. 'We lived from one day to the next.' An accomplished pianist and a music lover, he thought of becoming a musician, then decided he lacked the talent to succeed at the highest level. 'I was too ambitious to be happy playing piano in a ballet school for my whole life.' Big business beckoned when, after qualifying as a lawyer, he spent a year in banking. He found he liked decision-making. 'I like to take decisions and it's quite clear to me that there are very few fields of endeavour in this world where you can better take them than in business.'

Deprivations (he uses this word often) of war, army life and those ramshackle offices in far-flung places have left Rich ambivalent about opulent trappings. He is not entirely enamoured of the luxurious BOC Group head office he has inherited in Surrey. However, he says, 'At least I can work unencumbered by the daily lunches in the City. They never add that much to your understanding. Ninety per cent of the discussion is about Britain and Mr Major. We are a world business, we have 80% of our activities outside Britain and Ireland. I am much more interested in using the extra time to read about what's happening in Brazil or China.'

Rich defines his managerial style as trouble-shooting macro-strategist - flavoured perhaps by three years as a paratrooper. He was a conscript officer, so lacked 'an orderly to clean my shoes and a walking stick under my arm. If a man got tired carrying his machine gun, you took it yourself.' Rich still has that hands-on style. 'I get a much better feel about what is needed by seeing it in the flesh. I suppose I lead from the front by working hard or harder than anybody else. Perhaps that's a defect because I should be able to stand back a bit and let things unfold.' For once he sounds unconvinced.

Rich likens his leadership role to that of an orchestra conductor. 'First I talk with my soloists and say, "Here is the score and this is how I interpret it. This is where I see the BOC of the future". Then I make sure that everyone understands the score and works to make it happen. Then I help people to do their own tuning and practise until they are all first class. Then I raise my baton and, with a light touch, I lead so that everyone can express himself while maintaining the same rhythm. At the same time I must keep a sharp eye out to see who are the best players, who are the stimulants and catalysts, so I can begin to pick out who will be the next orchestra leader.' He pauses, pleased with his picture. 'And, finally, when we come to the end of that score, we must move onto the next tune.'

The BOC corporate concert never ends but Rich is firm about his own length of tenure. One of his aims has been to keep costs down in a recession, to 'get down on my knees to look for the pennies under BOC's table'. Another is to ensure that the group benefits from the 'collaborative possibilities and synergies' that its global presence provides. When he has identified the young tiger who will succeed him, he will leave. 'It's very difficult for a leader not to think he is indispensable and kill his successors because he finds it too difficult to let go.'

And when Rich lets go? Running a charitable foundation would be interesting, he thinks. Or perhaps a return to academia. Playing the piano, opera-going, reading Latin American literature, skiing and sailing - all beckon.

On the way back to Woking station the conversation runs along familiar lines - but in reverse. 'Mr Rich. He's very interesting, you know, and eloquent. Nice. Approachable too. Rather different from the average British businessman.' By the time we reached the station, I could have sworn my chauffeur looked bored.

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