Diplomatic Businessman Sir John Buchanan

Sir John Buchanan, who has died aged 72, was an Auckland-born scientist who rose to be finance director at BP before taking on prominent non-executive board roles in sectors ranging from mining, most recently at BHP Billiton, to healthcare and telecoms.

By 2009 he had an unparalleled four directorships of FTSE 100 companies on the go. After serving as chairman of Smith & Nephew for eight years and more briefly in the same role at Arm Holdings, he retained a seat on the board of BHP Billiton until his death.

But Lord Browne, who promoted Buchanan to chief financial officer a year after he became BP’s chief executive, says: “The single most important thing is that he was very clear and very outspoken about what he believed in … He could argue his corner very well.”

Witty and down to earth, he was seen as having acted as a diplomat, amiably seeking agreement among various directors who had entered a meeting with opposing points of view.

Born in 1943 in poor circumstances, after attending Auckland Grammar School he defied his father’s wish to send him out to work, instead going on to earn a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Auckland. After funding his own way with a job on the side in a sheep slaughterhouse, he moved to the UK for post-doctoral studies at Oxford and later attended Harvard Business School.

An unexpected role in helping his homeland emerged when Christchurch was struck by an earthquake in 2011, killing nearly 200 people and laying swaths of New Zealand’s second city to waste. Buchanan quickly agreed to head the UK end of a charitable appeal in aid of families there. He was knighted the following year for services to industry.

“He enjoyed seeing people do better,” says one business leader with whom he worked closely in a board role. It was a perspective that also led Buchanan in his later years to become a discreet mentor to a number of current CEOs. “His strong view was that you teach and learn at the same time.”

Original article by Gordon Cramb, Financial Times, July 14, 2015.

Tags: BHP Billiton  BP  Christchurch earthquake  Financial Times  Sir John Buchanan  

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