Marcus Evans Group | Worldwide Headquarters | American Offices | Latin America | European Offices | African / Asian Offices

Sir Robert Horton obituary

Outspoken businessman who chaired BP and Railtrack and left both in disarray

Sir Bob Horton, who has died aged 72, was an energetic, outspoken and ambitious business manager whose successful industrial career took him to the chairmanship of two major British institutions: BP and Railtrack. He left both in disarray.

He won his reputation as an effective troubleshooter at BP, where he reorganised loss-making businesses. But his time as chairman ended after just two years when the oil price slumped and his management reorganisation floundered as he alienated colleagues. In his ascent at BP, few had any doubts that his sights were set on the top job, and he behaved accordingly. He conceded that “the two words people used about me were arrogant and abrasive. I don’t think that I am. I tend to say what I think and I don’t intend to disguise it.”

However, his colleagues were less than impressed when he told Forbes magazine: “Because I am blessed by my good brain, I tend to get the answer rather quicker and more often than most people. That will sound frightfully arrogant.” Nonetheless, those of us who interviewed him found him accessible and almost touchingly frank at a time when businessmen were notoriously unavailable.

Born in London, he was the son of William and Dorothy Horton. The family had a timber business, but Horton, impressed by the possibilities of oil in the years following the Suez crisis, took BP sponsorship to read engineering at St Andrews University. He flirted with politics, chairing the Unionist Society and debating with opponents who included the future Labour party leader John Smith. But Horton’s divided ambitions, to be either prime minister or chairman of BP, were resolved by his wife, Sally Wells, a maths teacher, whom he married in 1962. She told him she could not stand a political career.

Horton’s abilities were recognised in BP, and, in 1975 he was given the job of sorting out its tanker fleet, in trouble because of overbuilding during the oil slump and the increase in directly piped North Sea oil. Horton cut almost two-thirds of the ships.

Next came chemicals. In 1980 he was appointed chief executive and concentrated on products in which BP had a technical edge and sites that benefited from cheap North Sea oil. Thousands of jobs went, and Horton gained the nickname, which he hated, of “Hatchet” Horton.

This reputation preceded him when, in 1986, he was sent across the Atlantic to chair Standard Oil of Ohio, BP’s problematic US subsidiary, based in Cleveland. It was a difficult start, since BP, with 55% of the equity, had just sacked its American bosses. The company, nicknamed “the mistake on the lake”, was losing money after unsuccessful exploration and expensive diversification. Horton unexpectedly succeeded in charming Cleveland, investing in regeneration projects, refusing to move the company’s headquarters and being held up to the mayor as the example for other foreign companies. It was his most successful period. He believed the Americans appreciated his direct style. As the company became profitable, BP bought out what was now the US’s largest oil producer.

Returning to London in 1988, widely seen as heir apparent, he was appointed chairman in 1990. By now the company had been changed for ever, by effectively a privatisation – the sale of the government’s 32% share in 1987. Traditionally BP had been almost a branch of the civil service with its bureaucracy and stately ways of proceeding. Horton initiated “Project 1990″ to make BP “the most successful oil company in the world”.

Managers attended empowerment workshops; the company promised to listen; new performance appraisals allowed employees to suggest to managers what to do. The headquarters was reduced from 2,000 people to 350. Management layers were flattened. But Horton’s brusque implementation alienated many, complaining that though he “talked the talk”, he remained autocratic. As a successor, Lord Browne of Madingley, put it: “BP needed to change, but Bob’s energetic style became out of step with the organisation.”

Horton might still have survived had it not been for his determination to keep on investing when the oil price collapsed after the Gulf war of 1991, betting that it would improve. Shareholders, increasingly important, and the BP board, conscious of rising losses, prevailed on Horton to resign in 1992.

He took time to recover and considered returning to the US. But later in the year he took on another challenge – joining British Rail to facilitate the government’s planned privatisation as deputy chairman. Successfully lobbying the government to privatise track as well as train operations, in 1993 he became chairman of Railtrack, before flotation the following year.

Horton concentrated on maximising returns from the company’s large property portfolio and redeveloping stations, with the regulator increasing charges on rail operators. It was initially successful, and shares doubled in price in the four years following the flotation. But experienced engineering staff were leaving and maintenance was privatised. Just after Horton’s departure in the summer of 1999, a series of dreadful rail crashes, at Ladbroke Grove, to the west of Paddington station, and in Potters Bar and Hatfield, to the north of London, demonstrated the failure of the company’s safety culture.

Horton’s other business activities included chairing the insurance company Chubb and Sporting Exchange (Betfair). He chaired the Tate Foundation, having previously inaugurated BP’s major sponsorship of the Tate, and Business in the Arts, From 1990 to 1995 he was chancellor of the University of Kent, and in 1997 he was knighted.

He is survived by Sally, a son and daughter.

Christian Wolmar writes: Robert Horton played a crucial and controversial role in the privatisation of Britain’s railways in the mid-1990s. The largely “back of an envelope” privatisation scheme put forward hastily by the Tories after their 1992 election victory envisaged Railtrack, responsible for the track and infrastructure of the railways, remaining in public ownership at least until after the following election, to give the railways some stability while the rest was sold off.

After he was made chairman of Railtrack in February 1993, Horton set about changing that. I met him soon after and he was adamant he wanted Railtrack to be privatised. He was charming and open about his aims. His argument was that keeping the company under state control would mean that it would always be subject to spending restrictions and the vagaries of Treasury policy. In an interview for my book Broken Rails, he said: “I always felt that the long-term funding requirements were for infrastructure and we would not get these amounts of money unless we were privatised. I started lobbying ministers, strongly pointing out that it was likely there would be a change of government and that would leave Railtrack in the public sector.”

Horton found allies among senior civil servants, such as Steve Robson at the Treasury and Nick Montagu at the Department for Transport, and they persuaded the chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, that the privatisation would be advantageous by bringing in a large capital receipt. In the event, the privatisation of the infrastructure company proved disastrous as it was totally unsuited to the short-term requirements of a shareholder controlled company, and ultimately, after the near collapse of the railways following the Hatfield train accident in 2000, very costly for the Treasury.

• Robert Baynes Horton, businessman, born 18 August 1939; died 30 December 2011 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds