BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Friday, 11 January 2008, 00:00 GMT
Obituary: Sir John Harvey-Jones
Sir John Harvey-Jones
Sir John Harvey-Jones became a TV business guru
With his long unkempt hair, his colourful ties and ample figure, Sir John Harvey-Jones was hardly the traditional idea of a captain of industry.

Yet, as chairman of ICI from 1982 to 1987, he transformed the company from a loss-making outfit to one making a profit of more than 1 billion.

When he left the company, he built a whole new career communicating his ideas about business to a television audience of millions.

Though he was born in Hackney in 1924, John Harvey-Jones spent his early years in India, where his father, an Army officer, was guardian and tutor to a boy Maharajah.

Submarine service

But after getting used to a life of luxury, he was given a rude shock when, at the age of seven, he was sent to a prep school in Kent. Here, by his own account, he suffered bullying and was desperately unhappy.

However, the school's draconian discipline stood him in good stead when he joined the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and he went to sea as a midshipman in 1940 at the age of 16. He was torpedoed twice in the following two years.

Harvey-Jones at a tea cup factory
Harvey-Jones' style was not all his directors' cup of tea

In the later years of the war, he served in submarines, and carried out secret missions in the Baltic Sea.

Once the war was over, the navy sent him to Cambridge University to learn Russian and German for use in naval intelligence.

After leaving the Royal Navy as a lieutenant-commander in 1956 to spend more time with his wife and their daughter, who had contracted polio, 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.

Five years later 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.

Following his knighthood in 1985 for services to industry, he became increasingly well known after delivering his Dimbleby lecture in 1986. He also appeared often on the BBC's Question Time programme.

But it was the BBC's Troubleshooter series, first broadcast in 1990, that made him, according to one newspaper, the most famous industrialist since Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It also won him a Bafta award.

Harvey-Jones seated in car
Despite his confidence, Harvey-Jones had inner doubts

The series would see him visiting ailing companies, observing their practices, looking at their books and interrogating their directors.

Sir John would then outline proposals, often drastic in nature, that they needed to take in order to turn their businesses around.

After working on the programme, Sir John put forward a number of proposals for reforming the BBC. He said half the top management should go; some soaps should be dropped, and Radio One and local radio should be axed. He wanted the BBC to concentrate on quality programmes.

Sir John was Chancellor of Bradford University, chairman of The Economist and on the board of Grand Metropolitan, among many other interests. He also worked for several charities.

Throughout his career, he was always keen to blow industry's trumpet. He believed it was demanding, and did not like the way some graduates looked down their noses at it. He also favoured wider share ownership.

In his autobiography, Getting It Together, published in April 1991, Sir John described his inner motivation and an ongoing emotional struggle.

He wrote of the Jekyll and Hyde tension between the outwardly confident and charismatic leader, and the child within, all too aware of his inadequacies and longing for the respect of his father.

A look at the varied career of Sir John Harvey-Jones


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific