Sir Richard Sykes has already overseen one big merger. As chief executive of pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoWellcome, he managed its union with SmithKline Beecham on December 2000.
Now Sir Richard, 60, hopes to oversee the merger of Imperial College, London, with University College London to create the nation's biggest research university.
Sir Richard combines a solid research record - he was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1997 - with business acumen. Until becoming rector of Imperial in 2001, he had spent his entire career in industry - a characteristic he shares with the provost of UCL, Sir Derek Roberts.
Sir Richard joined Glaxo in 1972 after completing his PhD in microbial biochemistry at the University of Bristol. He then spent nine years working at the Squibb Institute for Medical Research, just outside Princeton, New Jersey, in the US. He returned to Glaxo in the late 1980s and became chairman and chief executive on its acquisition of Wellcome in 1995.
He once said: "I remember making the decision, in my early 30s, over whether to stay in academia or go into business. It was not really a difficult decision. I went into business for the money and the opportunities." Sir Richard earned millions of pounds a year in salary, share options and other benefits during his industrial career. But he has described his lifestyle as "reasonable, not excessive".
Sir Richard, who was this week appointed to the board of the Higher Education funding Council for England, is incredibly influential. He is rumoured to pick up the phone and call the prime minister when he wants a word. Earlier this year, he persuaded Tony Blair to launch a £1 million scheme funded by GlaxoSmithKline to get postdocs into secondary schools to teach.