Eric Ellis

Whatever happened to Sir Richard Evans?

Eric Ellis tracks down the former chairman of BAE Systems amid the wintry steppes of Kazakhstan, where he is trying to introduce Western notions of corporate governance

I had read — admittedly in the Guardian — that one needed to count one’s fingers after shaking hands with Dick Evans. Anecdotes about the super-salesman who secured UK plc’s biggest and most controversial contract, the $80 billion Al-Yamamah arms deal with the Saudis that saved British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), suggested a crafty Lancastrian who has despots for breakfast, or at least to breakfast, while separating them from their defence budgets. In his 37 years at BAE and its state-owned predecessors, Sir Richard Evans — the knighthood came in John Major’s last year in office — built a prodigious contact book of warriors from Pretoria to Peoria, while staring down a succession of British campaigners and journalists who alleged corruption in BAE’s dealings under his watch. It’s said that his Saudi deal-clincher, by the way, was his banquet party-trick of swallowing sheep’s eyes as though they were cocktail canapés.

A Financial Times friend had met Evans in Beijing and warned me he could be combative and outspoken. ‘He’s a legend, but you’ve got to be on your toes,’ he counselled, another worrying reference to digital extremities. Though Evans had agreed to discuss his new job — said to be his most significant career move since he stepped down from the BAE chair in 2004, and a good deal more exciting than his other current post as chairman of United Utilities — the fact that the job was in deep-frozen Kazakhstan provided further pause for thought. This is the Central Asian Borat-stan where more than fingers have been known to go missing; and I’m not talking frostbite.

As it transpired, all my appendages survived the visit to the wintry steppes. Sir Richard — ‘call me Dick’ — was hail-fellow-well-met charm itself, even in 25˚-below-zero Astana, the futuristic, oil-rich Kazakh capital where he spends a week a month in a post he says is as formidable a challenge as any he’s taken on.

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