Sir Robert Malpas (1927-2023)

Sir Robert Malpas was a prominent business leader and engineer. Notably, he served as a main board director of ICI and a managing director of BP before his ‘retirement’ in 1989. At BP, he was the first managing director to join the main board direct from outside the company. In retirement, Sir Robert chaired PowerGen during the privatisation of the electricity industry, then the Cookson group, and finally Eurotunnel. He died aged 95 on 18 June 2023.

Robert was born on 9 August 1927 to Cheshyre and Louise Malpas. Although born and partially educated in England, he was brought up largely in Brazil and Argentina where his parents lived. His interest in engineering started early. In an interview for the BP Shield magazine in spring 1983, Robert said: “I knew at 14 that I wanted to be an engineer. But it was the war, so I pursued my education at an English school in Buenos Aires. I remember having to do the exams with carbon paper in case one batch got sunk by U-boats on the way to England to be corrected”.

In 1945, armed with a couple of letters of introduction, he arrived in England from Brazil to embark upon a career. He was advised to go the university rather than night school so he went to King’s College, Newcastle, a part of Durham University at the time, where he graduated with first-class honours in mechanical engineering in 1948. Although his dream was to design and make diesel engines and turbines, a visit to ICI at Billingham led him to join at the chemicals company where he stayed for the next 30 years. Robert had a distinguished career in the organic chemicals side of ICI climaxing in his appointment as the company’s youngest main board director and a CBE for exports in 1975.

Robert left ICI and the country three years later to become president of Halcon International in the US. However, in 1983 he returned to the UK and became a managing director at BP at the personal invitation of the chairman, Sir Peter Walters. Robert had first met Peter when he joined the Society of Chemical Industry in 1969 when Peter was SCI President.

At BP, Robert was responsible for Chemicals, Research and Development and the Engineering and Technical Centre. In the interview with BP Shield in 1983 shortly after taking up his appointment, Robert described his role as acting “as a bridge builder between tomorrow and today, to stimulate research and technology and relate it to today’s world”.

The year before Robert joined BP, Chemicals had made a £200 million loss, but in 1988 the profit was more than £500 million. In an interview for BP Shield magazine in 1989, just prior to his retirement, Robert modestly said that he had come in when all the hard work had been done – rationalisation, restructuring, job cuts, but then there had been the merger with Standard Oil giving BP a world position in acetyls and solvents, petrochemicals and polymers – particularly polyethylene.

Looking back on his time at BP, Robert said: “I have fought as hard as I could for two things for which I have been responsible: to get chemicals fully accepted into core thinking, and to get technology into BP’s bloodstream. BP has outstanding capability in research and engineering. It’s a question of harnessing these skills to best effect.”

Upon retiring from BP in 1989 after six and a half years, Robert assumed the chair of PowerGen. He also chaired Cookson and served as co-chairman of Eurotunnel.

Throughout his life, he held various directorships and received honours for his contributions. He was awarded SCI’s prestigious SCI Society Medal in 1979 and served as President of SCI from 1988-89.

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