Profile: Sir John Harvey Jones

He may be better known for his elegant ties, but one of the first things you notice about Sir John Harvey Jones are his cufflinks. The theatrical skull and crossbones motif seems to fit his character precisely.

That’s not to say he is piratical. When he boards ships, they tend to be of the sinking variety and in need of help rather than laden with riches ready to be pilfered.

But Sir John is every inch the swashbuckler, a loveable maverick that UK plc needs even today as much as still he needs it.

The cufflinks, he says, are a throwback to his days in the Royal Navy.

‘I’ve always had a great feeling for the skull and crossbones,’ he says.

It was the flag raised by the submarines on which he served after they had completed missions. And it was on these vessels that Sir John started his long career, a career he soon abandoned for civilian – and business – life.

Business life
Sir John may no longer be the Troubleshooter of TV legend and his chairmanship of ICI is also very much in the past, but he has not stopped thinking about British business.

He is every bit as forthright in his views and the man voted Britain’s most impressive industrialist for three years in a row has plenty to say about the current crop of finance directors working today and the training that will deliver the next generation. He does not mince his words.

In an address to 300 FDs at the Finance Directors’ Forum last month, Sir John laid the blame for British business failures very much at their door. But addressing an audience that he described as a collection of ‘rare and largely untamed beasts’ he also credited them with delivering much that is sound with British business today.

Sir John is in little doubt about the importance of FDs today.

‘The survival of business in Britain depends on two people – the chief executive and the finance director,’ he says. ‘It should be a partnership.’

But he sees – and fears – complacency. Increasingly, FDs are becoming chief executives, but any suggestion that finance directors have a vested interest in the status quo is met with short shrift. Unless they change, says Sir John, ‘they won’t have companies to go to. They need to fight for their lives’.

Technology will continue to change the role of the finance department and FDs must change the way they work. ‘I guess that within a couple of years time at the present rate of progress everyone will know the financial position of the company at every level in real time,’ he says. ‘FDs could be the key gatekeepers making that happen or they could be the abominable snowman preventing that from happening. They need an IT strategy as well as a financial strategy as well as a business strategy.’

The FD
A good FD, says Sir John, must be able to measure innovation, reinforce everything that is working well within a company and be willing and able to cut out everything that is not. And to do it quickly. But, he warns, FDs who are going to have a lasting impact on their business must do more.

They must, he says, be visionaries and persuasive ones at that. ‘That vision needs to be shared by every single person,’ he insists. And he doesn’t shy away from Machiavellian tactics. Settling for a vision less than your ideal is worth it if you can get others to share it. ‘You can get them to buy into a higher vision later,’ he says.

‘In the finance function it’s all about risk and if you don’t take risks that’s the most dangerous position of all. It almost doesn’t matter what you do as long as you are constantly trying something new.’

But why does a man who started out in industry 45 years ago still care when he could be enjoying a relaxing retirement? Doesn’t he have better things to worry about? Sir John says his motives have neither changed nor waned.

‘I joined ICI wanting to do something to contribute to the national picture. I wanted to do something at the sharp end contributing to our ability to make our way in the world.’

Even today, he says, ‘my motive is the competitiveness of the UK, my grandson’s future and things like that.’

And it is the finance director who has the power to influence that future more than any other business figure. His message to those embarking on a career in accountancy is take a different view of a business to that of their predecessors.

‘They have got to have a dream of where they might be in future,’ he says. ‘It’s not that they might have a 20% chance of becoming chief executive, it’s that they have a 60/70% chance of being the main agent for change in the business in which they working. That ought to be the ambition of the young accountant.’

And he urges the accountancy institutes to make their training more relevant to modern business needs. He welcomes the changes the English ICA, in particular, has made to its syllabus but urges them to do more.

‘The pressure on the training of young accountants is to buy into that change. My message to them is that it is bloody good that you have started but please hurry. You haven’t got much time.’

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