John Rutley

Doctor of Laws John Rutley

Tuesday 29 January 2013 at 11.15 am - Orator: Mr Bob Reeves

A Guild of Merchants was founded in Bristol by the 13th century. It became active in civic life and funded John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland. Over the centuries many Bristolians became synonymous with the venturer spirit, travelling the world, returning with the spoils of their travels, and helping to make Bristol and themselves all the richer.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I will tell you today of a modern day venturer, a Bristolian, who over the years, while creating his own success, has indeed contributed in many ways to Bristol becoming a ‘richer’ place.

John Rutley is an entrepeneur and businessman, who established from scratch a hugely successful company with a global reputation. A-GAS International began in Bristol and for all its development around the world, remains firmly based in Bristol. John’s office is no more than three hundred metres from here. In addition, John has become a major supporter of worthy causes in Bristol, most particularly those benefitting children and involving sport.

So, how did it all happen?

As a child, John lived on a council estate in Henbury, North Bristol. His father was a tank commander at El Alamein, spending most of the second world war overseas. A butcher by trade, but with war experience behind him, he wanted change. He joined Bristol Siddley later Rolls Royce, as an engineer, becoming an inspector. A frustrated entrepeneur, he set up with a friend a business making rotating turntables for car showrooms, working in his own time. It did not make him a fortune, but he followed his dream.  John’s own drive and willingness to pursue his dreams he attributes to his father. His values he derives from his mother, foremost of these to always do his best and to treat people right, which he was told would always reap rewards. It has.

When John was two years old, his elder brother was run over by a lorry and killed. His parents could have been more protective of their new number one son, but they were not. They encouraged John to be independent and free-spirited.  

Another inspiration for young John Rutley was an ex-Navy man, Tom Banham, a scoutmaster in the sea scouts, where John, from the age of seven, began to nurture thoughts of a maritime life.  At the age of 14, he paddled the length of the River Wye in a canoe he had built with his father in his bedroom. How they extracted the canoe from the bedroom and out of the house is another story.

John did well at Henbury School, but his father thought that an apprenticeship would be better for him than university, so he left before taking his ‘A’ levels. He intended to join the Fleet Air Arm and eventually become a helicopter pilot. Unfortunately Harold Wilson scrapped the FAA, so when John saw a BP advertisement for a navigating officer cadet, he applied and was taken on.  Sadly, after six months of constant sea-sickness, both John and BP decided that a life on the ocean wave was not for him, so he was transferred to a post in London, which was not in his original plans.

His father saw an advertisement for a commercial trainee at the Imperial Smelting Company in Bristol, for which John successfully applied. Ten years later, with ISC now a member of the Rio Tinto Zinc Corporation, John was the company’s youngest director! He was in charge of fluorines and was given a great deal of autonomy.

He learned much about International business, travelling extensively, and spending six months in New York. In Canada, he met Barbara, and was attracted, it is said, by her legs. According to John, he imported her in 1976 and is still paying the duty! They married in 1979.

After RTZ merged with Rhone Poulenc, John was unhappy with the way things were going, despite personal success as Business Director and General Manager, so having established a strong reputation and good contacts, he decided to start his own company. A-GAS commenced trading in 1993. His office was a fax machine in the drawing room of his Clifton home.

Within three years, subsidiaries in Australia and South Africa had been established, followed later by developments and acquisitions in Singapore, the USA, Mexico, Thailand and most recently, China. A-GAS International distributes speciality chemicals- refrigerants, industrial gases, propellants and solvents- for use in a variety of industries. It works closely with leading manufacturers, and is involved in finding solutions to combat environmental challenges facing the industry, an example being the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons and the reduction of emissions of fluorocarbon products.

A-GAS International now has a turnover of over £150 million. The company was placed in the top 50 in the Sunday Times and BuyOut track in 2011, and was in the top 200 growing International businesses in the United Kingdom.

Developing A-GAS, John never veered from a ‘can do’ mentality, his advice to others often being ‘Don’t say ‘NO’. Say ‘YES’ and then find a way. Colleagues, friends and family all admire his positive optimistic outlook on business and life. This certainly helped him a few years ago as he recovered from serious illness.

Within A-GAS, his role has been likened to that of a general, his function being that of a long-term strategist. He is not into micro-management, trusting colleagues to run the day-to-day business. This requires the right people. John’s success in life can probably be attributed to his understanding of people. Having appointed well, he encourages colleagues to grow. His ‘distributed’ leadership style supports the development of accountable and responsible leaders at different organisational levels. It has worked.

Astute selection of colleagues can be likened to that of building a sports team, as John has recognised the need for different qualities and ‘positional’ strengths, underpinned by loyalty and mutual support. The stated ‘core values’ at A-GAS are  ‘Openness, Honesty, Sense of Purpose, Trust and Respect.’ These permeate the whole business.

John’s philosophy is to employ people who are considerate and versatile. An example is Sally Fairman, a laboratory technician at RTZ when John first came across her. She applied internally for a post heading up the sales office, way beyond her qualifications and experience at the time. John saw something in her. Later, she moved to A-GAS, where she is now Corporate Development Director.

Cognizant of his own humble beginnings, John wanted to find a way to help young people in Bristol, chiefly by enhancing sporting opportunity. The ‘John Rutley Sports Fund’ was established six years ago. Managed by the University of Bristol, this charity, personally funded by John, underpins the University Community Sport and Public Engagement Sport Strategy. This benefits over 20 Bristol schools. More than 6,000 children have taken part in the annual Bristol Festival of School Sport, this being for the majority their first contact with the University.

Supporting this programme, the John Rutley Fund has helped more than 400 University of Bristol students to qualify for the nationally recognised ‘Community Sports Leader Award’. They have volunteered over 8,000 hours to community sports projects.

In addition to John’s personal philanthropy, A-GAS has provided considerable support to University Rugby and Rowing for many years, enabling them to stay at the forefront of student sport in the United Kingdom.

John has not forgotten his own roots, and Henbury School has also benefitted from his personal generosity in a variety of ways, not least recently, when he asked the Headteacher if he could again provide any help. Courtesy of John, the school shortly afterwards took delivery of a new minibus to enable sports teams travel to matches.

Sport has indeed been a significant feature of John’s life. At school, he was a runner and played rugby, later joining Stokes Croft Old Boys. He went on to give significant financial backing to Bristol Rugby Club in the early days of professional rugby. He still derives pleasure from cricket and rugby, never more so than when treating fortunate friends to a day out with him at a Lord’s Test Match.

The merging of sport and business is evident when one checks through the credentials of John’s senior colleagues throughout the world. Is it a coincidence that in Australia there is an ex-International oarsman, and here in Bristol, the

A-GAS Managing Director is a former Bristol University Rugby Captain. Jon Masters? I doubt it.

The family joke is that John is now supposed to be largely retired and concentrating on his latest sporting passion, shooting, which he recently took up with Barbara.  In reality though, there is a danger that Barbara will soon be far better at the sport than John, whose commitment to work – rather than shooting practice – continues to dominate. He remains company Chairman of A-Gas International. If not overseas pursuing another acquisition, he is likely to be in his Clifton office, spending the first hour or so of the day doing what he has always done, reading the papers from cover to cover, ensuring he knows all that is going on in the world, not only in business. We have here a well-read man, who has studied all the great military and political leaders, and whose own thirst for knowledge is unquenchable. It has made him a most interesting person and excellent company. 

Life for John Rutley is to be enjoyed, at work and play, with as many people as possible deriving something positive and beneficial on the way.

John’s family means most to him, and he is proud that his children, Sam and Rhiannon, are each meeting with great success in their own diverse fields.

St Matthew wrote ‘A prophet is not honoured in his own town’. It is certainly sometimes the case that achievements are not recognised locally, but this University is delighted, in John’s case, to be able to redress that today.

Missing the opportunity to go to University as a young man, our graduand, a largely self-educated and self-made man, who has done so much for sport and young people in this city, stands here on this special occasion, in the Great Hall of his home town University.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you John Rutley- businessman, sportsman, family man, supporter of deserving causes, a modern day venturer- as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


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