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.