Sir John Harvey-Jones: Celebrity Business Leader


Sir John Harvey-Jones was one of Britain’s first celebrity business leaders, first as a reforming chairman of ICI, and then as a successful television performer as a trouble-shooter. He combined the romantic flamboyance of a larger-than life charismatic with a hint of his earlier experiences as a Royal Navy officer

Sir John Harvey-Jones (April 16th 1924-January 9th 2008) was both a one-off, and yet a near-perfect illustration of the buccaneering businessman-cum-entrepreneur lauded in the 1980s for his charisma and dynamism. He was without doubt in style, and arguably in substantive results, a remarkable contrast to those who attained leadership at ICI for much of its history, both before and since his watch (1982-1987).

ICI was one of the great old British Institutions. It was the twentieth century heir to the East India Company for ambitious young men (and eventually women) seeking life-time careers carrying considerable professional status. It some ways it retained the culture of its earlier name Imperial Chemical Industries, which predated notions of branding and corporate identity, and even notions of modern management and marketing.

It was somehow typical that the company accepted the need to move away from the old label of Empire and Imperialism, while retaining the acronym for it which it had already become well-known industrially.

When the business theorist Andrew Pettigrew studied the company in The Awakening Giant, he portrayed a complex technocracy espousing modernist views, and yet preparing for momumental changes.

ICI was at the time perceived as the IBM of British manufacturing. Even its technical professionals appeared in public dressed in sober business suits. Its culture was explained to me by a senior execuive in the following anecdote.

A new recruit, a chemist (what else?), was about to set off for a meeting with other technical executives at a production plant of a customer. He had turned up in what would later be called casual clothes, and was sent home to get into what he then probably regarded as his best suit. ICI people (like IBMers) in the 1980s did not appear in public in sports jackets. Nor did they wear flamboyant ties.

Jones the tie

Especially ICI chairmen. Except for Harvey-Jones who tended to appear rather like an extra for M in the Bond films of the day. His appearance was even more in contrast with the leaders of the company.

ICI chairmen were internally promoted, and typically safe pairs of hands. Harvey-Jones although an insider, was neither an accountant nor a technical professional. His experiences of leadership derived from his early days as naval officer after his training at The Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, and had served in the Navy from 1937 to 1956. He was fond of recounting his leadership experiences in active service. As a sub-mariner

‘the aim was painfully apparent: sink [the enemy] or be sunk’,

he wrote in the introduction to his autobiographical book Making it Happen.

Making it Happen

The book throws much light on the professional influences that helped shape his leadership approach. Its title came from his ‘flimsy’, the hand-written and supposedly confidential report made of an officer leaving command or a ship. His commanding officer had once rated him ‘an able officer who knows how to make things happen, albeit tactfully’. He remained aware of the description, and tried to live up to it throughout his illustrious business career, although his public persona hardly signalled a man noted for tactfulness.

The book made compelling reading for students of leadership. It still leaves me to suspect that he was able to apply a vast store of experience (which was later to be called tacit knowledge) but was unable to integrate it into a coherent leadership approach. He was indeed an intuitive trouble-shooter, the apt title for his subsequent TV series.

The BBC summed up his early achievements

After leaving the Royal Navy as a lieutenant-commander in 1956 … he joined ICI on Teesside as a junior manager. By 1973 he was on the main board, eventually becoming chairman in 1982 when the company was struggling to emerge from a recession. …When he stepped down, profits had trebled, even though he later wrote that he had not made much difference and that he wished he had left the company earlier to start his own business … In fact, Sir John had stripped away many of the company’s peripheral businesses and concentrated on its core strengths. He also reformed its lumbering bureaucracy.

A Personal Recollection

I knew Sir John only slightly, but learned much from others who knew him better, within and beyond ICI. He had a suspicion of Business Schools, but had acknowledged the advice received from Professor Tom Lupton, who was to become head of Manchester Business School.

In a Vital Topics lecture at that institute in the 1980s, Sir John defended ICI’s refusal to seek out MBAs for special treatment. We hire people for what they can do, not for paper qualifications, he had insisted. I had the impression he rather liked taking the unpopular view for that particular audience. It may have been one of his characteristics. There certainly seemed to be genuine enthusiasm, warmth, and enjoyment at saying it as he saw it, in his televised encounters with business people.

Leaders make a difference, and in the long run …

John Harvey-Jones made an impact on people he met. His story is in some ways an unfashionable one of the heroic individualist, contrasting with views of the corrosive effects of high office and power, or the modest dedication of the fifth level leader.

He probably accelerated necessary changes within a great international company. Those changes demonstrate how a leader can make a difference. The ultimate fate of ICI demonstrates the longer term economic factors which were to have even more significant impact.

The heavy chemicals on which ICI built its empire declined in economic importance. The more dynamic specialties chemicals became the profitable part of the company, and ultimately were spun off into what became as part of a multi-national pharmaceuticals company, Astra Zeneca.

7 Responses to Sir John Harvey-Jones: Celebrity Business Leader

  1. Tudor,

    He was in the navy for nearly 20 years, but left a meer Lt. Commander! So, was it really a successful naval career? Did the Navy actually hinder his development? Was he a much better businessman than naval officer?


  2. Tudor says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Nice point. I hope my military contacts offer some insights.

    I assumed he was gainfully employed in the navy at a rather critical time (1939-45). He certainly felt his time there gave him invaluable experience for his future career.

    But I need to check my sources. He would have been 13 years of age in 1937, and left at the ripe old age of 32.


  3. Steve Tappin says:

    Very nice piece Tudor. He was a great man.

    Please find attach a tribute I did on John for the Sunday Telegraph.
    I have also set up a facebook group “tribute to Sir John Harvey Jones” which you and others may want to make a contribution to.

    All the best

    John Harvey-Jones: My mentor and friend
    By Steve Tappin
    Last Updated: 12:47am GMT 14/01/2008

    I had the privilege of knowing John Harvey-Jones in the later stages of his life as my personal mentor for many years and a dear friend.

    I originally got to know him when I was chief executive of a young company. He had been a business hero of mine since my time at ICI and I sent him a letter asking if he would be the guest speaker at a chief executive event because I knew he would be a big draw for other chief executives – there wasn’t really another business figure in the 1990s with the success track record and charismatic personality.

    I closed the letter by adding that, taking his advice from his Troubleshooter TV programme, as a small company we shouldn’t spend money until we had it and so would only pay him his substantial appearance fee three years from now. The following morning a call back “Steve, Harvey-Jones here. Of course I will do it, you cheeky bugger,” he joked, ” but, to be fair, you will have to pick up my travel expenses. Now who is coming and what do you want me to talk about?” That was typical John.

    When we met up with him I had not seen him for a number of years since leaving ICI. My initial reaction meeting him at his favourite hotel in Piccadilly was slight shock. He walked slowly and his speech was slightly slurred, after the mini strokes. However, chatting over a tea, it was clear his mind and spirit were still 100 per cent as I saw the sparkle of genuine excitement in his eyes as we talked about my young business and he assimilated the business issues and fundamentals at an amazing rate between bouts of roaring laughter.

    One of his special gifts was as a communicator. At events, he could capture an audience on virtually any business topic through a combination of strength of commercial view, practical advice and great self-deprecating humour. He was Mr Soundbite and, amazingly, continued to speak publicly into his early 80s – and loved doing it.

    John also had crystal clarity on what should be done and an innate ability to sense when people were not pulling in the same direction. He was a strong but caring character and would often advise management on the right path of action when they didn’t want to hear it, as he did to me and my management team in a Morgan Car-style troubleshooting visit. However, his judgment and intuition on these calls were typically on the mark – and in my case painfully right. Regardless of whether his advice was followed, he would always make sure he was around if things went wrong and at a personal level always stressed that “friendship is not just fair weather in calmer waters – true friends are there in tough times and forever.”

    Another memory is the importance he always placed on doing the right thing and taking care of your family as a cornerstone. Although he remained passionate about business to the end, he was always more focused on being a totally devoted and loving husband to Betty, and a father and a grandparent. His family was more important to him than his business legacy.

    John leaves behind an amazing legacy of business achievements: he was a brilliant businessman. Many commentators will focus on the corporate transformation of performance at ICI – an amazing achievement. Arguably even bigger is how he made business accessible to a previously disinterested Joe Public by fronting Troubleshooter. He made business compelling, brought it to life and spawned a decade of business programmes and variants such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice today.

    Outside the limelight he was the same man with everyone and nothing made him happier than inspiring others to do their best. Be it Marjorie Scardino or Carol, his former assistant who went on to become chief executive of a highly successful professional service business, it didn’t matter – although the common thread was everyone loved John.

    It is very sad that John has passed away. But don’t worry: his spirit lives on within those who were touched by him and will be passed on for many generations as we share stories about him and how he inspired us with our colleagues and our children and grandchildren.

    For me, John was an inspiration and taught me lessons about integrity, commercial wisdom, lifelong friendship and how not to take yourself too seriously but to go live life to the full.

    Steve Tappin is managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles

  4. Tudor says:


    A warm tribute, and one consistent with those from others who knew JHJ. The obits this week (as well as your own, there were similar views expressed in The Independent and the FT ). I find myself often looking for the dark side of succesful leaders, but the personal anedotes here suggest at worse the view that the criticisms were mostly around the impact of a healthy ego which triggered adverse reactions from boardroom colleagues.

    I’ll be compiling a few of these thoughts which celebrate such a zestful life.


  5. Ian Mayes says:

    I remember Sir John Harvey-Jones. Although we never met, his charasmatic flamboyant style, understanding excellence, depth of experience, leadership, and complete approachability and down to earth straight talking qualities always touched me as remarkable. Anyone from director to shop floor worker could feel at ease with him. How many CEO’s can say that today? How many CEO’s are in touch with their grass roots level workers as Sir John was at ICI?

    I recall the Richard Dimbleby Lecture entitled, ‘Does Industry Matter?’ It was aired on my birthday, 3rd April 1986. In 35 minutes Sir John spoke more truth and common sense than I had heard for years. So inspirational was this speech, that from that point on he was my business hero. To this day, despite Sir Johns sad passing, that has not changed.

    He was a man who by his own admission had made every business mistake in the book. But look how bright his qualities shined. A man, at last, by experience, who knew what the hell he was talking about, and what the hell he was doing. A man who was so far ahead of the game, that it was sometimes almost unbelievable. How refreshingly good that felt, even to the common person.

    What qualities are the measure of a true leader? Those that inspire others to follow in their footsteps to strive for their standards of excellence and higher. Sir John Harvey-Jones was a great leader. I was always inspired by him, and always will be.

    A true man, a family man, an honest person, talking straight, telling it always as it is, whether that is good or bad, and always spot on the mark. A good solid person of integrity, honesty, and drive to get things done right, avoid catastrophies, and carry his workforces loyalty with him by distinguished leadership. Truly legendary.

    Much of the mess, which Sir John saw coming on the horizon for Britain and was outspoken about, has already arrived. People of his calibre are sorely missed. It is people of Sir Johns calibre who will be required to pull Britain out of the mire it is in. For Britains sake, it is only to be hoped that they still exist.

  6. Dear Ian

    Thank you for your personal insights about JHJ. They add to a coherent picture of albeit a complex personality. When I started studying charismatic leadership he was one of the people I always thought about. I had many frinds at ICI from those days.

    Warmest regards,

    Tudor Rickards

  7. […] Sir John Harvey-Jones was a maverick thinker, Britain’s first ‘reality TV entrepreneur’ (BBC Troubleshooter) and former chairman of industry giant ICI. In 1988, his first book ‘Making it Happen’ was published to high acclaim. […]

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