Sir John Harvey-Jones

John Harvey-Jones was an industrialist, business executive and former chairman of ICI (1982-7).

He was born in 1924 and educated at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. He spent nearly twenty years in the navy (1937-56), specialising in submarines and naval intelligence, and rising to the rank of lieutenant-commander.

He joined ICI as a work-study officer and held a number of senior posts before joining the main board in 1973 and becoming deputy chairman in 1978.

He presented the Troubleshooter series on television and is the author of several books on leadership in business, including Making it Happen (1987) and Managing to Survive (1993). He died on January 9th 2008.

I interviewed Sir John in 1998 – I thought he had his way with words, could be blunt at times but always worth listening to. Having been a businessman myself and the CEO of a public company, I found his analysis of business and his integrity rather appealing.

His wisdom and obvious love of women was something I really appreciated, for I found common ground with him on that score.

You have spent most of your life trying to improve the profile of business and businessmen, to promote the idea that we need to put our best people into business and that such a world is interesting, demanding and rewarding. Would you say you have been successful in changing people’s attitudes? 

Only partly, if at all. It’s something I care about desperately. I believe it is the foundation of the whole of our futures and those of our children, and therefore I feel compelled to keep on trying to do something.  But I think the changes have been absolutely marginal. The problem is that as a country we perform far below our capability, and yet we lack the push to make the changes which are within our grasp. Our aspirations are too low, both for ourselves and for our people.

Are we likely to change now that we are more integrated with Europe? 

No, I don’t think so. The only thing that will change us is a period of greater suffering than we have had so far. It is a characteristic of British people – though I’m very proud to be a Brit – that we will only do things when we are forced to. We somehow lack the ability to see the inevitable and to take action while there is still time. The consequence is that when we eventually do something it is much more painful than if we had done it earlier on. We are totally different from the Americans who see and diagnose a problem and start working on it before it’s taken hold. In Britain we wait till the problem has almost overcome us, and then we have to take extreme action.

Why is it, do you think, that the British have traditionally been suspicious of business and industry … does it have class origins, do you think? 

I’m sure that it does have class origins, but I also think to some degree it is the fault of those in business and industry themselves. If we do not speak for ourselves, we cannot expect anybody else to speak for us. There’s still an inherited image of what makes a successful Brit, and getting dirty hands or being involved with commerce are not seen as being proper ways of life for a successful man in Britain. I think this stems both from the days of the British Empire, from our educational system, and also from literature. When I joined the Royal Navy in 1937 my recruiting forces were the boys’ books of the time, in which the culmination of a man’s life was service to his country. These images are inculcated very early on. The other factor in this country, which in my experience is unique and very sad, is the lack of self-belief. This is the only country I know where people are convinced that they are born to a particular position. The reality is that there’s been an absolute transformation in social mobility during my lifetime, and we are to a greater degree than ever before a meritocracy. But if people still think that the key is where you’re born and what you’re born to, then this is still a real factor holding us back.

Your own childhood was spent in India with all the trappings and lifestyle of the Raj … you even had your own elephant … when did you become uncomfortable with this background? 

I’m sure I wasn’t uncomfortable when I was in India because there was a curious acceptance there, and the fact that I had immense privilege didn’t stop me playing with the sons of the groom or the mechanic. But I felt uneasy from the time I got back to England where I just didn’t fit. My father didn’t have a job I could describe to anybody – how the hell could I say he was guardian to a maharajah? And I didn’t live in a describable house. So I never really found a place in the traditional pecking order in the United Kingdom, and I suffered immeasurably at my prep school because of this. Young kids everywhere are pretty unkind to those who are different, but in this country they need to know that you are from No.13 Acacia Avenue and what you had for lunch on Sunday. I didn’t fit then, and I still don’t fit. I remember the exact day when I realized what a privileged life I’d had. It was in Wallsend-on-Tyne in 1942, when I was standing by my first submarine which was being built. I used to walk out of the yard at lunchtime, and there were kids all around with no shoes, ragged clothing, literally waiting for a bit of a sandwich or anything they might be given. These were the kids of the shipyard workers at Swan Hunter’s, who were working on my submarine, and that really shocked me. I’d not seen poverty in that way; I’d been isolated from it, as one was before the war. I knew what absolutely first-class people their parents were, and I could see no reason then and I can see no reason now why there should have been these vast differences between people. That is what made me a socialist – that much derided term. I’ve never believed in socialism as a way of creating wealth, but I have always had a deep belief that a decent society gives opportunities to everybody and looks after those who can’t look after themselves. And I find, I must say, that the society I live in today has in some ways moved backwards.

You have sometimes said that there was a complete absence of love in your childhood, and many people have linked this with your drive, your need to prove yourself. Is that psychologically too simplistic? 

It is one factor without question. In my early years I was driven to try and achieve what I thought my father regarded as success because I believed that by doing so I would gain his approval and I would create some sort of relationship with him. That was the starting force. After that something else happened. I went to Dartmouth when I was twelve. The Royal Navy is a remarkable institution which believes you can always do better, and there’s no such thing as a job really well done. They are not hot on encouragement, but my God they are hot on continuously asking more of you. So I think the key to my drive is a combination of that wish to gain my father’s approval plus a very early indoctrination that you had to give whatever job you had absolutely everything.

You describe your prep school as ‘ferocious’ and the navy as ‘draconian’. Some men who describe their experience in that way still feel that deep down it was character-building and that it was good for them, and a great many inflict the same experience on their own sons. Is there anything of that in you? If you had had sons, would you have sent them away to boarding school? 

No, I wouldn’t. Quite the reverse. Even if one accepts that it is the absence of love which drives you, I couldn’t do that to a son or daughter of mine. One of the fruits of reasonable financial success has been that I can help my daughter and my granddaughter to avoid some of these things. In fact my granddaughter did go to a boarding school, a pretty gentle girls’ boarding school which she enjoyed very much, but that was not because of any doctrinaire views on my part. I would never subject my kids to that sort of Spartan upbringing just because it might turn them into men or women, and there’s quite enough misery without seeking additional miseries.

I gather you are extremely fond of your granddaughter… 

Grandfathers and granddaughters are always very close anyway, but I think I have been particularly close to mine. My daughter is handicapped and also has multiple sclerosis, so she has unbelievable problems which she fights with breathtaking courage. She left her husband fourteen years ago, and came to live with us, which gave me a second chance to be a father, and I think I’ve made a rather better job of it the second time round than I did the first. I’ve been able to help my granddaughter start in life in a way which seems to suit her personality and her wishes. It is a great pleasure to me that she became a teacher, and I think she’s a marvellous teacher. You’re never going to be rich in teaching, but it is such a fantastic opportunity to do something really worthwhile in life.

I read somewhere that you were so unhappy at school that you even contemplated suicide. How did you get through? 

My parents were in India, which was in letter terms three months away. So I was effectively totally on my own. What you do is you just survive. I also took refuge in books which gave me an escape route. I still read two or three books a week. The whole time I was chairman of ICI I never read fewer than two books a week.

You are known to have an extremely close family life. Do you think that has come about because of, or in spite of, your own early experience of family life? 

Probably in spite of. I’m extraordinarily lucky, and when one becomes older one realizes that. As well as loving my wife, I like my wife. There are an extraordinary number of people who may love their wives but have never particularly liked them. We’ve been together now since 1947, and we still never run out of things we want to talk about or argue about. I phone twice a day wherever I am, and she is my anchor. She understands me and supports me, but her interests are in very different things, and this is marvellous.

Did the fact that you spent such a long time in all-male environments affect your attitude towards women? 

Yes, adversely at first. It took me years before I could look upon women as people in their own right as opposed to sex objects. This is an appalling thing to say, but nevertheless it’s true. Like large numbers of British public-school educated people I was uneasy with women, I was so obsessed with them as sources of potential sexual gratification, and I was unable to relate to them as people. Nowadays, not only am I a feminist, but I far prefer the company of women to the company of men. I do believe – and this absolutely infuriates women – that women have different inbuilt values, and that the right solutions to most problems come from a combination of the masculine and the feminine, which is very difficult to achieve. It’s one of the reasons perhaps why homosexuals are extraordinarily successful in all sorts of areas of life, because they combine the two aspects of thinking. I hasten to say, I myself am madly heterosexual. Women are a constant delight and a constant surprise to me.

You have always seemed very wary of power. You once said that nobody is improved by a position of power. Do you think power is invariably corrupting? 

I’m afraid I do. I said then and I’ve said many times since that the best you can do is to withstand the corrupting influence of power, but I think you can only do that by constant attention to the problem. Power is very seductive but you have to realize that in most cases it’s elusive, it’s ephemeral. People who have built their lives on power who suddenly find themselves without it are the most pathetic sight.

Yes, look what’s happened to Mrs Thatcher.

Your time as head of ICI earned you a mixed reputation. Do you think the fact that you had worked there for some thirty years before you were appointed chief made for particular problems? What I mean is that you sacked a third of the management, but you were not an executioner brought in from outside but someone who had worked alongside those you were getting rid of. 

The task was more difficult but it wasn’t a task from which I withdrew. It affected my personal enjoyment of the job but in many ways it is better if you are somebody who knows the people and who cares about them, as I did very desperately. You have to do your best to preserve their self-respect, to help them to get into other jobs, to do all the things that have to be done. I believe personally that although it made the job much more unpleasant, it also enabled me to behave more sympathetically and more decently.

But did you agonize over decisions to get rid of people you had worked with for a long time? 

Agonize is not quite the right work. I think very carefully before I take a decision and I turn the problem in every way and look at it from every angle. Once I’m clear I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances, I go ahead and do it. Agonizing would occur only if one hadn’t thought about it carefully and one had omitted to do something which would have made for a better decision. There may be cases where that’s happened, but I’m not aware of them. The majority of cases where that’s happened, but I’m not aware of them. The majority of cases I worked my way through until I was absolutely certain in my own mind. But you mustn’t take the decision too late. If I look at the mistakes I’ve made in life, by and large they’ve been through doing the right thing too late, or more slowly than I should have done, if you see what I mean.

ICI was recording losses when you took it over in 1982, and you managed with the help of fairly drastic procedures to halt the losses. And yet when you ask around, there still seems to be some doubt as to whether you ‘saved’ the company. There are those who say that, given the economic boom of the 1980s, the company ought to have been in far better health when you left it … what do you say to that?

Well, that has to be their judgement. The company was certainly in far better health when I left it than was subsequently the case, but it’s very difficult to judge whether it was the actions after I left or during my time which led to those results. There is no doubt that we made some mistakes. Some of the new businesses we set up were unsuccessful. But one of the things you do when you take over a company is to have a vision of what you think the company should do. Now of course you can always do better, but the company was still improving when I left and the share price – if you think share prices are important – only reached the same level as it was at when I left in the last year. Is that my fault or my successor’s fault? I don’t know.

Do you attribute that sort of criticism to professional jealousies? 

No, I don’t think so. And I don’t care either way. There may be professional jealousy, but I don’t think I’m a great anything; I’m the same mixed-up mutt as most people are, and I have the same fallibilities that most people have. I do seem to inspire jealousy in some people, and I’ve always been a bit surprised at that because I myself have never felt jealous of anybody else. It’s not an emotion I feel.

There are those who are mistrustful of what they describe as your showmanship, and your need to get your own way. Are you wounded by such remarks? 

No, not a bit. I don’t think it is showmanship; I think it’s down-to-earth straightforward plain speaking. People forget that the decision to take a high profile was one we took as a group. And when people talk about my need to get my own way, I can think of many occasions when I was chairman of ICI when I didn’t get my own way, where I gave way to the views of my colleagues.

One profile of you in the Independent said: ‘Sir John can be tart to the point of rudeness and his self-confidence approaches arrogance.’ Are you aware that you can give this impression? 

Yes, I am aware that I can give this impression, but I would like people to understand why I’m blunt. If you respect individuals, you owe it to them to be absolutely sure that they understand what you are saying. This country is a country where circumlocution is god, where the whole art is to say something unpleasant in a way where the person you are saying it to hasn’t even understood that you are being bloody rude. I can’t live that way. I’m perfectly prepared to put up with any amount of dissension, any amount of people thinking I’m a wally; but I do need to know that people understand what I’m saying. Otherwise I feel I’m treating them with contempt.

You have a reputation for grasping nettles, for not fudging issues, which is not the normal British approach to things. That has almost certainly contributed to you unpopularity in certain quarters. Would you agree? 

Yes. First of all, any businessman who gets his head above the parapet is almost automatically derogated by his peers as a showman, a rent-a-quote, a big mouth and so on. I don’t do this for personal reasons; I do it because I believe our country needs to have a different view and the only people who can change the view of business in Britain are businessmen. If that means that my head gets shot off, too bad. I don’t actually believe that the meek do inherit the earth.

But would you consider yourself to be ruthless? 

You have to be ruthless. If you have to get out of a business, or if you have to shut a business down, or if you have to reduce the number of employees, those are ruthless acts, but they have to be done. I believe that any business that can pay its way should be given its change, but you cannot be in business without doing things that are economically necessary. Nobody is big enough to be able to resist economic force.

Do you have any regrets about your time at ICI? 

Of course I have some regrets. I thought I was carrying my colleagues with me to a greater degree than I was, which was obviously self-deception on my part. I regret that the company didn’t continue on a soaring trajectory, but it is nonsense to say that I was there during a period of upturn. The first year I was there one third of all of my bloody customers disappeared. People are rewriting history to fit in with their own theories.

Qualities like decency and courage and personal integrity come very high on your list, yet they are not the qualities which spring to mind when we think of the business world… 

Well, they should be. I have never had my courage tested more than in the business world. People don’t realize how extraordinarily lonely it is. And you are visible for everybody to see and for everybody to criticize, you cannot duck the responsibility. Decency should be an endemic part of business leadership. Nothing in business is done except through and with people. Of course I can think of some business shits, and I’m sure you can think of a few as well, but business shits don’t lead people and people don’t respect shits. They may be frightened of them, but they don’t respect them.

Isn’t there always going to be a built-in conflict between management and non-management in any organization? Those who manage have the impulse to control and direct, and the workforce often instinctively tries to resist control. How do you get round that? 

You get round that by leadership. You actually cannot force anybody, least of all in this country, to do things against their will. Business leadership is a matter of enlisting hearts and minds, and unless you can get the hearts and minds with you, you won’t win. You can be the finest management in the bloody world, but unless you are actually working in harmony with your workforce your business will not prosper. You depend on each other.

You were an active supporter of the SDP Liberal Alliance at the last election. What was it that attracted you to the party? 

For many years I had been a supporter of the Labour party, but then I became a founder member of the SDP because I was increasingly worried by what I saw as being a lurch to the right by the Conservative party, and an apparent lurch to the left by the Labour party. I believe very much that the country needed a centrist, slightly left of centre, party. This is an odd statement, but I do think the centre of Britain is slightly to the left, if you see what I mean. We accept all sorts of social responsibilities in this country which would be considered to be left wing in America, for example. It was a belief that we needed to have an alternative to these two extremes which led me to support the SDP, but it showed yet again that business people really shouldn’t meddle in politics.

You must have been disappointed. 

Basically I was naïve and stupid. What I failed to appreciate was that by setting up a third force we divided the opposition, and so there’s little doubt that what was a well-meaning action on my part helped to preserve Mrs Thatcher for her last period in power. The first period contained quite a number of dangerous actions, which we’re still paying for, and the last one also would have been best avoided.

You have sometimes crossed swords with members of the government. Do you think that may have robbed you of a peerage? 

I have no idea. I couldn’t care a fig if it has. I would rather be my own man, accepted or not accepted, on my own terms.

You would seem on the face of it to be a natural socialist. What is your view of New Labour … do you think they have the answer to the country’s problems? 

I don’t think any political party has the answer to the country’s problems. The country’s problems are largely economic and have to be resolved by businessmen. Having said that, I’ve never believed that the country should be run for the benefit of business people. Our job is to create the wealth; the politicians’ job is then to decide how that wealth is used for the greater good of the electorate as a whole. What one would hope is that they would use that wealth in ways which do not preclude making more wealth. I just don’t know about New Labour. I find most of the things they say very attractive and very much in line with my own thinking, but as always it’s not what you intend but what you do that matters.

What view do you take of huge salaries at the top and the provocative increase for the chairmen of privatized companies? 

The gap has grown far too large. I believe one of the privileges of leadership is that you should set an example. I do not think you can have one rule for the fat cats and another for the chaps down the line. This doesn’t mean to say that everybody has to get paid exactly the same, but for example the first two years when I was chairman of ICI I got no pay rise, and I actually gave some of my pay back. In the third year the company did well and I got a large rise. I’ve a good deal of evidence that my people understood that and didn’t resent it. That was a result of not having got my trotters into the trough when there wasn’t a trough to get my trotters into.

We mentioned your daughter who contracted polio in 1956. You have described that period as the turning point in your life, and you left the navy to spend more time with your family. Was it a turning point in other ways also, do you think? 

It was a turning point in every single way. An event like that makes you rethink and recast your values. I was too atypical for a really successful naval career, except perhaps in wartime, but Gabby’s illness was what made me leave. It caused me to look differently at almost everything in my life and still does.

How did you and your wife cope with all the stress and strains … did they perhaps strengthen you in your marriage? 

I’m not sure that anybody wins palms for this sort of experience, but my wife was an absolute heroine. I have limitless admiration for both the way she handled the situation then and for the way she has dealt with the problems of a handicapped daughter as Gabby’s life has gone on. She was forever finding things that Gabby could do and helping her to do them. My daughter is a most unbelievably well-balanced decent caring concerned human being. She is without a trace of self-pity; she is always doing things for other people; she is a really marvellous person, and that is very largely due to my wife rather than to me.

Looking back on those years, what are the moments which stand out in your memory? 

I just can’t begin to relive the experience; it was absolutely terrible. And to add to everything else, my wife and I knew we couldn’t have any more children. You live to a large degree after your death by the influence you’ve had on your children, so it was like watching everything being extinguished. There were some mind-bogglingly bad times – for example, we now recognize that much of the medical treatment and intrusive surgery she was given actually made things worse rather than better. But you do the best you can at the time, and I think some of the decisions we took were absolutely right, again largely because of my wife. My daughter was brought up in normal schools with normal people and had a normal life to the greatest degree possible. We have been guilty of spoiling our daughter in terms of physical and financial things, but she’s not a spoilt brat.

Do you believe in God? 

I believe in God as a kind of force for good rather than a particular doctrine of a sect. I’ve always found it rather unpleasant to think that only one minority group of the world’s inhabitants have the opportunity and privilege of having a particular god. I believe in the force of ultimate goodness, and also in evil, I’m afraid. I envy people who have a very strong religious faith; I’ve never quite been able to manage that. I’m a churchgoer, I pray, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a convinced Christian. I am not in the slightest frightened of dying. I just hope the good bits, if there are good bits, will remain here after me.

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