From bullying to the top of industry
Jan 12 2008 icWales
SIR John Harvey-Jones, who has died aged 83, was one of Britain’s leading industrialists, renowned for his work as chairman of ICI during the 1980s, where he turned around the fortunes of the chemical giant.
When Sir John, who lived near Hay-on-Wye in Powys, took over ICI in 1982 when , ICI it was ailing and making huge losses. But, in less than five years, he turned it into a successful business and in 1984 it became the first British company to post more than £1billion in full-year pre-tax profits.
But it was his BBC television show Troubleshooter, in which he handed out straight-talking business advice to struggling companies, that made Sir John a household name.
With his flowing locks, moustache and sharp suits, Sir John cut a distinctive figure on the TV screens of the early 1990s, and the show was a huge success, running to five series.
Everyone from toy manufacturers and shirt makers to a police force were given the benefit of his advice in the award-winning show.
But, when he went to classic car-maker Morgan in 1992 to tell it where it was going wrong, he got more than he bargained for.
He said: “On one epic occasion I was out with my wife shopping and an angry bloke grabbed me by the throat and started jumping up and down because he thought I was screwing up the Morgan motor company.
“I tried to explain that it wasn’t me, they were doing it themselves and he got even more angry.
“But I believe there is no point in giving advice if people don’t listen.”
With its fly-on-the-wall documentary style and Sir John’s no-nonsense advice, Troubleshooter could be seen as a forerunner of current docu-dramas such as Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
But in 2006 he attacked the rising trend of aggressive managers, such as Sir Alan Sugar, Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell on TV, insisting the ethos behind his shows was always one of constructive guidance.
Born in London on April 16 1924, Sir John grew up in India, where his father was guardian and tutor to a young maharajah.
In an interview with The Sunday Times in 2002, Sir John described his early lifestyle as “ludicrous” and “no preparation for anything”.
Preparatory school in Kent came as a rude shock to the young Harvey-Jones as he was bullied to such an extent that he considered suicide.
He went on to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth and in 1940 joined the Royal Navy.
After the war, the Navy sent Sir John to Cambridge University to learn German and Russian and he then worked in Naval Intelligence as a German and Russian interpreter, eventually leaving the service in 1956 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel to spend more time with his daughter, who had polio.
He joined ICI as a junior manager on Teesside, and rose through the ranks to join the board in 1973 and eventually become chairman in 1982.
Sir John was knighted in 1985, and served as chancellor of Bradford University from 1986-91 and chairman of The Economist magazine from 1989-94.
Away from the business world, Sir John was a keen supporter of a number of good causes, including the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Advisory Council of the Prince’s Youth Business Trust and the MS Trust.
He won a Bafta for the Troubleshooter series, was named pipe smoker of the year in 1991 and even had a real ale named after him.
Sir John married Mary Bignell in 1947 and they had one daughter, Gabrielle.