THE resignation of Nigel Rich as managing director of Jardine Matheson Holdings has caused surprise in many corporate circles in Hong Kong and in Britain, where it is expected he might go next. His reasons for retiring from one of the largest and most successful business empires Hong Kong has ever seen were uncannily similar to those given by Simon Murray, managing director of Hutchison Whampoa. After more than five years in the hot seat and more than 20 years at or near the centre of Hong Kong corporate affairs, it was time for a change. In November 1988 when Mr Rich was taking up his post as managing director of Jardine Matheson, a comment was made in the press about him saying: ''Nigel is a very respectable man but he is an accountant, and he does not have a particularly aggressive reputation.'' And so it seems Mr Rich was summed up. In many respects, Mr Rich's solid successes and steady management at the top of Jardines have been overshadowed by the chairmanship and political agenda of Henry Keswick. Many of Mr Rich's quiet little victories in sustaining the Jardines group have been dwarfed by the group's headline-grabbing initiatives to minimise its legal jurisdiction exposure to the territory ahead of 1997, starting in 1984 with a redomicile to Bermuda and continuing last year with its achievement of a primary listing in London. Many will try to make bland connections between these two high-profile departures. Mr Murray is a former Jardines man. But in many respects the similarities are only superficial. Mr Murray hit the road to make the way for Mr Li Ka-shing's son and heir to Hutchison, Richard, while his eldest son, Victor, lies in wait to take on Cheung Kong (Holdings). Hutchison faces an interesting future with huge costs ahead and potential losses in developing telecommunication networks in Britain, having only just taken huge knocks from losses at Husky Oil of Canada. At Jardines, things could not be more different. With a low gearing, very steady cash flow-oriented business in diverse markets across the globe, the group is on course to follow a steady, but not spectacular, period of growth. In many respects, to describe Mr Rich's time in Hong Kong from 1974 is to describe the transformation of domestic corporate culture with the rise of Chinese business influence. His career path was just one of many that saw many providential events. Born in Somerset, the son of a wholesaler read law at New College Oxford, was an article clerk with Deloitte Plender Griffiths and lived with his wife Cynthia in Manhattan before joining Jardine Matheson in 1974 in an accounts department ''book office''. Over the next 19 years Mr Rich was to work for a group which was to fall almost into bankruptcy in the 1983-84 property crash. From the precipice of disaster Mr Rich was to survive a Keswick-led coup which pushed out the old and brought in a new team with a strategic goal that was to reincarnate Jardines' fortunes. Some observers made unfavourable comparisons between the relative steady period of growth at Jardines and the mammoth-like rise of the Kwoks at Sun Hung Kai Properties, Mr Li Ka-shing at Cheung Kong and the Chengs at New World Development. But the group, with Mr Rich at the helm since 1988 as group managing director, now controls six listed vehicles, five of which make up some 10 per cent of the Hang Seng Index. Mr Rich's survival of the bloodless coup that removed David Newbigging from the top seat at Jardines was his relative youth at the time - he is only 48 now - and his working with Simon Keswick in 1975, who was then finance director of the group. In this time, he saw the acquisition of Zung Fu, the Mercedes-Benz distributor, and Gammon Construction in a joint venture with Trafalgar House, a company he was later to engage in an acquisition of a significant interest by Jardines. Mr Rich worked under Trevor Bedford at Hongkong Land, became its financial director in 1983 and then chief executive in 1986, before taking up his current post in 1988. Hongkong Land was at the centre of the group's nightmares in this period, having bought a significant lot of land at the top of the market and then gone virtually broke in the collapse. As its director of finance, Mr Rich was credited as one of the people who nursed the group back to health, cutting out debt while increasing revenues through steady, but not drastic management. The actual reincarnation of the group was to come to life in a restructuring led by Mr Rich's predecessor as Jardines managing director, Brian Powers. During the late 1970s and early 1980s when old hongs including Hutchison, Wheelock Marden and Wharf succumbed to local control, Jardines spent millions defending itself from takeover. Under the corporate restructure the group was to become almost invulnerable to takeover through centralising control of Dairy Farm International, Hongkong Land and Mandarin Oriental under Jardine Matheson through investment holding company Jardine Strategic. Since then the group has steadily lifted profits and earnings to shareholders.