British Industry's `Hercule Poirot'

TV audiences watched Sir John Harvey-Jones sleuth out how to fix failing businesses. TROUBLESHOOTER

SIR JOHN HARVEY-JONES does not look like a captain of industry. Bustling onto the shop floor of the ailing Tri-ang toy factory in Manchester, long and half-combed hair curling over his collar, he seemed more like a cross between a swashbuckling pirate and a country squire with a weakness for loud ties. Both impressions hold grains of truth. The burly 66-year-old industrialist who has become a media star advising trouble-prone British companies how to restore their fortunes, began his career with a 20-year stint as a Royal Navy officer. Nowadays he spends the little spare time he can find relaxing on a 10-acre estate in Wales, tending geese, swans, and donkeys, and driving a pony and trap.

But as his highly successful BBC-TV series ``Troubleshooter'' demonstrated, Sir John Harvey-Jones at heart is a ruthless analyst of industrial weakness.

``I believe that by far the most common reason why companies fail, or fail to prosper,'' he says, ``is poor leadership.'' Sir John's maxim is: Cherchez le manager.

At Tri-ang, one of six industrial concerns that were given a going-over by Sir John in the TV series, management came in for blistering criticism.

The company became famous for its toys after World War I but, for the past 20 years, had been languishing. Why?

According to Sir John: ``Management at Tri-ang was chaotic. The company was trying to do too many things - such as make garden furniture - without adequate investment. The chairman was acting like the proprietor of a small family concern.''

TV publicity also helps sales

Even before the Troubleshooter series ended, the chairman had resigned. The company's new head reports a near-doubling of sales, partly as a result of the TV publicity it received. Tri-ang is on the road to recovery.

In the programs, which enjoyed a peak-hour viewing slot, Sir John ploughed his way through company balance sheets and interviewed everyone from top bosses to office boys. A middle manager at one company said afterward: ``It was like having a visit from Hercule Poirot,'' Agatha Christie's famous sleuth.

In the second half of each program Sir John said bluntly what he thought was wrong, and what needed to be done.

Other concerns given the Harvey-Jones ``treatment'' were a fruit juice company, a maker of hand-crafted sports cars, a tableware manufacturer, a computer company, and the Shropshire district health authority.

``My primary aim was to help the organizations I visited. I am extremely happy that in most cases the programs have resulted in better performance,'' Sir John says. ``I am sorry if I have hurt some feelings, but in each case I was invited in. The management knew what to expect.''

If they did not, they had spent the past few years ignoring one of the most spectacular success stories in British industry. Sir John took over the chairmanship of Imperial Chemical Industries, Britain's most powerful company, in 1982 when it had just recorded its first-ever quarterly loss.

Within two years he had gotten rid of a third of the ICI management, halved the size of the boardroom to make discussion more informal, shortened lines of command, reduced the company's commitment to petrochemicals - and turned a 16 million loss into a 1 billion profit.

Sir John describes himself as ``a taker of acceptable risks'' and ``an absolute believer in the individual.'' He is sympathetic to trade unions and does not count himself a supporter of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

``I mastered nine jobs at ICI in the 18 years it took me to reach the top. They were all jobs in which I had to sort out problems and succeed. I am now using what I learned then to analyze reasons for poor company performance and come up with solutions,'' says Sir John.

Without his career in the Royal Navy, he might not have become such a believer in the need to liberate managers from routine thinking and encourage initiative. ``The constraints on individuality were Draconian,'' he says. ``They even told us what clothes to wear off duty.''

The remarkable thing is that such a restless character was able to accept service discipline for so long. His early life seemed tailor-made to produce an exotic, extrovert personality.

Sir John's father was an Indian Army officer who in the 1920s was ordered to guard the infant Maharajah of Dhar. This meant that little John lived in a palace. ``I even had my own elephant. It was a life of absolute luxury.''

Eventually it had to end, and after boarding school in England Harvey-Jones joined the Navy and saw service in World War II. He was decorated for his work in naval intelligence.

It was only in 1956, when his young daughter Gabrielle fell ill, that Sir John decided to hang up his Royal Navy cap and opt for life on shore. He took a job with ICI as a work-study officer.

Sir John's media image as an energetic Mr. Fixit began to burgeon when, after retiring from ICI in 1987, he published a best-selling book called ``Making it Happen.'' His TV series developed out of the forthright arguments deployed in the book.

One of his most controversial broadsides in the Troubleshooter series was directed at Apricot Computers, a British company launched in the 1970s with initial success. By 1986, Apricot's profits had begun to fall - the company had made a strategic error in not making its hardware compatible with IBM's.

When Sir John descended upon it, Apricot seemed ripe for takeover. ``I found the company was making computers at a loss, but its software sales were profitable. Roger Foster, the founder, was managing the company the same way he had ten years earlier. He seemed to involve himself in quite trivial matters.'' The Harvey-Jones prescription: Get out of hardware; sell at least one factory; redefine company goals.

Apricot took the advice, sold its manufacturing arm to Mitsubishi, and concentrated on software sales, which now are booming.

Some don't accept advice

Not all companies taking part in Troubleshooter were happy to accept Sir John's advice, however. The Morgan Motor Company makes only 430 cars a year, and when Sir John arrived to look the plant over, customers were having to wait five years.

Sir John recommended less hand-building, a sharp increase in production, and a higher selling price. ``If Morgan ignores my advice,'' he said, ``I think the car will disappear in maybe 10 to 15 years.''

Most of the advice was politely rejected. Peter Morgan, the company chairman, says: ``With us, he was out of his depth.''

But because of the publicity, Morgan orders have increased three-fold - and now customers have to wait eight years.

Sir John shrugs off Morgan's negative reaction. ``One key thing I learned making the series is that many companies do not set their sights high enough,'' he says. ``In the future, the best of British will only be good enough if it is also the best in Europe. ...Lack of belief in our own abilities and lack of ambition to achieve are holding Britain back. That must change.''

Sir John, who travels widely around Britain giving seminars and lectures and works a 100-hour week, intends to help it change. When he left ICI he turned down 160 job offers but decided to accept a few directorships. He is chairman of the weekly Economist newspaper.

One unexpected byproduct of the Troubleshooter series was an invitation from the BBC, which aired it, to offer advice on how the corporation could improve its position and performance. Sir John happily obliged.

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