Sir Maurice Hodgson obituary

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Sir Maurice Hodgson, who has died aged 94, was a reforming chairman of ICI during the 1970s and 80s, despite a serious eye complaint that left him close to blindness.

In 1981 he shocked the City by cutting the ICI dividend when the company was the flagship of British industry, but he laid the foundations for its renaissance later in the decade under his successors. Later he mounted a brief but unsuccessful attempt to revive Dunlop as an independent company, and was chairman of British Home Stores (now BHS) for five years.

Hodgson became chairman in 1978, after a decade in which ICI had variously tried a “dash for growth”, expensive and ultimately futile downstream investments in the textile industry, and significant international expansion. His predecessor, Sir Rowland Wright, had been a stop-gap. But as general manager and then director responsible for planning, Hodgson had started to bring the rival investment demands of competing ICI baronies under better control.

As chairman, as well as attacking costs determinedly and stressing return on capital, he started to review the areas in which ICI should be involved, from the then almost heretical viewpoint that it was too widely spread. A token of his new realism was the decision to abandon ICI’s inefficient production of polyethylene (polythene) even though it had been one of the company’s proudest inventions.

Events buffeted him – the lorry drivers’ strike and the winter of discontent – and in the first few years of Thatcherism, ICI saw a third of its UK customers vanish. The strong pound made things even worse. In 1981, with profits disappearing out of the door, Hodgson and his board decided to cut the dividend. It was unheard of, a dramatic warning signal of British industry’s distress. The shock waves were not forgotten in the City for 20 years; the government was not pleased.

In the midst of the storm, his colleagues admired Hodgson’s courage, determination and unflappability. He continued to take the long view, forecasting in the Guardian in the dark days of 1981 a resurgence of interest in chemicals in the mid-80s, from which his successors duly benefited. Later chairmen acknowledged that it was Hodgson’s rethinking that lay behind the big changes ICI soon made, and even contributed to the demerger of Zeneca in 1993. He accepted the shift of emphasis away from heavy chemicals towards the lighter end and pharmaceuticals, which vested interests on the ICI board had blocked in the 70s.

The public kudos went to his successor, John Harvey-Jones, picked in 1982 as an agent of change after a board decision so tight that Hodgson, against previous ICI practice, had been called upon to take conclusive soundings. Harvey-Jones’s flamboyant style, combined with an upturn in the business cycle, helped ICI to post the first billion-pound profit, but he always credited Hodgson : “For sheer calculated courage, I have never known his equal.”

His achievements were more remarkable considering his failing sight. Hodgson had been a possible candidate for the chairmanship in 1975, but ruled himself out because of eye problems. As that worsened, he had resorted to increasingly ingenious devices to compensate. His secretary read the endless board papers aloud, extra lights and projectors were brought in and he taught himself to listen to a tape at two and a half times speed.

But surgery could not be avoided. The first operation left the eye blind; he was faced with a similar operation on his remaining good eye. A keen horse-racing man, he described the choice as “double or quits”. This time the operation succeeded.

While chairman, he fulfilled an ambition and bought a share in a horse, Double Florin. At an annual consultative meeting he was asked by shop stewards about its chances in the afternoon race. His reply – “It might be worth a bob or two” – brought a rush of union money, and undying respect when it came home at long odds.

Hodgson was born in Bradford and took a well-trodden path into ICI by way of the local grammar school and first-class honours in chemistry at Merton College, Oxford. In 1942 he joined ICI’s fertiliser and synthetic products group at Billingham on Teesside, one of the company’s power centres. He progressed from research to plant management until, in 1955, his qualities of clear thinking were recognised by his selection for the company’s small US subsidiary, ICI (New York) Ltd, then pondering expansion in the US after its pre-war global partnership with Dupont had been ruled as anti-trust.

After two years as head of ICI’s technical department, with the formative responsibility of scrutinising capital expenditure proposals, in 1960 Hodgson became a director of the heavy organics division, which ran the key petrochemicals business, becoming a deputy chairman in 1964. Two years later he was back at Millbank as the first general manager, company planning, a move reflecting both the increasing complexity of ICI and his analytical capabilities. In 1970 he joined the board as planning and commercial director, and two years later was a deputy chairman.

Hodgson was knighted in 1979, but had less success after ICI. He joined British Home Stores as chairman in 1982 and also did the chief executive job for three difficult years until 1985. In 1984 he took over as chairman of the failing Dunlop company, but his attempt to revive it, bringing in Michael Edwardes, fresh from British Leyland, were swept away when it was rapidly taken over and dismembered by BTR.

In spite of his partial blindness, Hodgson enjoyed swimming, fishing and his horse racing. He also pursued a range of business interests and showed a continuing interest in ICI, which for years included a pilgrimage to the annual Wilton smoking concert on Teesside – at which junior staff took off the company’s management.

His wife, Norma (nee Fawcett), whom he married in 1945, died in 2002. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

• Maurice Arthur Eric Hodgson, industrialist, born 21 October 1919; died 1 October 2014

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Martin Adeney, for The Guardian on Sunday 9th November 2014 17.42 Europe/London

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