UK: Sir Denys Henderson - the nucleus of ICI. (1 of 3)

UK: Sir Denys Henderson - the nucleus of ICI. (1 of 3) - A team leader is how Sir Denys Henderson of ICI sees his role, he tells Malcolm Brown.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A team leader is how Sir Denys Henderson of ICI sees his role, he tells Malcolm Brown.

When Denys Henderson joined ICI in 1957 he was paid £900 a year. Today he makes more than that in a single day. Even allowing for inflation that is quite a leap.

He does not apologise for his enormous pay packet. "There are a hell of a lot of people paid a great deal more for running much less complex companies," he says. On the other hand he does not take it for granted either. When last year's profits slump was announced a few weeks ago (down 36% to £977 million) Sir Denys took a sizeable cut in remuneration. For a man with few known extravagances - his one luxury is an indoor swimming pool at his Beaconsfield home and he is said, like a good Scot, to put a fair bit in the bank each month - the drop may not be too painful, but even if it were he would not complain. He firmly believes that his pay should reflect his performance.

It will be interesting to see what next year's annual report says about his emoluments. He has just announced a major streamlining of the company to help it ride out the recession and face up to the tough competition of the '90s. If by 1992 the policy is beginning to work, Sir Denys's bank manager should have a smile on his face again. If not, the Henderson family may have to tighten their belts another notch or two.

Sir Denys is 58. He was born in Sri Lanka, where his father was a tea planter. He can remember little of those days except for his mother's story of how, when the rains came, she and his father used to walk round their remote bungalow in opposite directions "to break the monotony".

The family soon returned to Scotland and Denys went to school and university in Aberdeen. He trained as a solicitor but never practised. He says that it was his National Service which finally convinced him, by showing him a side of the law which he could never aspire to in civvy street. He was a captain in the directorate of army legal services and for 18 months acted as a prosecuting attorney handling everything from fraud, assault and attempted murder to what he describes, with great delicacy, as "various unnatural offences".

After that kind of drama there was no way that he could face the tedium of a provincial solicitor's office where wills and small debt summonses would be the highlights of life.

The company secretary's department of ICI, which was always on the lookout for young lawyers, provided an escape route - and, to begin with at least, serious under-employment and unutterable boredom. "I found the change from having a huge amount of personal initiative and personal responsibility as a prosecuting officer to being a 'scrubber' in the secretary's department not very stimulating," he says. "I made one or two attempts to leave but never did."

He did not really find his metier until 1966 when, out of the blue, he was offered his first wholly commercial job, as new ventures manager for the Nobel explosives division. He never looked at another law book after that.

He left the law behind, but occasionally the ghost of it comes back, at the most inappropriate moments, to haunt him. He recalls, in the late 1960s, negotiating with a very tough cookie called Howie Pilat from the American Celanese Corporation. "At one point it got a bit hairy and we were almost stuck," says Sir Denys. "He turned to me and said: 'You know, Denys, you and I can work it out. It's these goddam lawyers who screw it up.'"

Henderson kept his own counsel.

He actually still has the demeanour of a lawyer. He dresses conservatively and well - unlike his predecessor, the hirsute, baggy-suited, kipper-tied Sir John Harvey-Jones - and his manner is forthright, but never overbearing. He describes his personal style in negatives. He is "not a screamer and bawler and shouter" and most definitely not a "macho manager", an American invention which he deplores.

"The idea of the macho chief executive who makes every single decision from what should be the price of coffee for the troops to whether we invest £100 million in a new plant in Taiwan is not the ICI way," he says. "We're a company of 135,000 people and if you really believed that you had to make every single decision you'd go quietly nuts."

Instead he depends on a decentralised organisation with a lot of authority delegated to the chief executives who run the individual businesses. "A lot of these businesses - paints, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals - are huge corporate equivalents with turnovers of well over £1 billion and the people who run them are extremely competent."

Competent and, he might have added, extremely covetous of ICI's scarce resources, he calls the chief executives his "robber barons" and says that they keep knocking on his door with heart-rending stories about how they need money and what a terrific job they will do with it. "And you can be absolutely certain", he says, "that whatever they want is at least 200% of what we can afford to spend."

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

I ran Iceland's central bank in 2009. Here's what I learned about crisis ...

And you thought your turnaround was tricky.

"It's easy to write a cheque you don't have to cash for 30 ...

But BP's new CEO has staked his legacy on going green.

AI opens up an ethical minefield for businesses

There will inevitably be unintended consequences from blindly adopting new technology.

The strange curse of No 11 Downing Street

As Sajid Javid has just discovered, “chancellors come and go… the Treasury endures forever”.

Men are better at self-promotion than women

Research shows women under-rate their performance even when they have an objective measure of how...

When doing the right thing gets you in trouble

Concern with appearances can distort behaviour, as this research shows.