Former Leyland Trucks executive
Profile: Aintree’s baron looks to the next hurdle: Sir Desmond Pitcher: In hi-tech or retail, Mr Merseyside has always seen the real task as managing people. He talks to David Bowen
SIR DESMOND PITCHER was in his element yesterday – mixing with the great and the good at Aintree. For the chairman of Merseyside Development Corporation, Aintree is his home turf. It is also his home turf as deputy chairman of Everton Football Club, chairman of North West Water, and vice-chairman of the Littlewoods Group. Sir Des is the chief business baron of Liverpool: his nickname is Mr Merseyside.
Britain has many regional barons. They are such men as Sir John Hall, Owen Oyston, the Richardson twins: people not so well known in London, but who would be instantly recognised by the man on the Newcastle, Preston or Black Country omnibus. Or in the case of Sir Des, knighted two years ago for his role in regenerating the area, by the man on the Mersey ferry.
This is perhaps strange. He is a Liverpudlian born and bred, but has been based in the city for less than half his working life. He left in 1960 and settled back there only in 1983, when he became chief executive of Littlewoods, the retail and pools group owned by the Moores dynasty. He certainly does not despise the South. He has a house in Surrey, and spends much of his time furthering the interests of North West Water in the City and Westminster: he even admits enjoying the company of politicians.
He was born in Liverpool in 1935. He remembers enjoying the display as 49,000 bombs fell on the city in a week when he was six, but otherwise he had an unremarkable childhood. His father was away from home much of the time (executive-producing the film Genevieve among other things), and after a state education he went to Liverpool College of Technology to study electrical engineering.
He also became involved in the embryonic world of computers, and in 1958 joined Univac Remington Rand (now Sperry Rand), where he found himself working with some of the great names in computer development. He quickly rose to become head of systems engineering in the UK, because – he says – he was in the right place at the right time. ‘I arrived on the doorstep and the doorstep was moving,’ he says. ‘The company was expanding at 25 per cent a year: you had to be a real misfit not to progress.’
If his technical skill was in computers, Sperry also allowed him to unearth his real interest – managing people.
‘The first step is to be put in charge of six or eight people: you find out very quickly if you can or can’t do the job, and either want more or go back to what you were doing before,’ he says. ‘I found it remarkable that people did what I asked them to do: it was stimulating and very surprising.’
An early acid test came when he had to demote a friend, who assumed he would be given preferential treatment. ‘He wasn’t performing, so I couldn’t do that,’ he says. ‘But we didn’t fall out.’
This interest distanced him from pure engineers who, he feels, tend to complain that they are undervalued. ‘If they became commercial and reacted to public views, their value would be recognised,’ he says. ‘They seldom talk in commercial terms, or in terms of their value to society.’
By 1974, he was Sperry’s first non-American vice-president. ‘I was four steps from the top and was given a clear message that there was progress in front of me. But Sperry was the second largest US defence contractor, and I was told that I would have to become an American citizen.’
He decided to stay in Britain, because he had just got divorced and wanted to stay near his daughters. ‘Strangely, divorced men are less portable than married people unless they don’t give a damn about their children,’ he says.
He was soon offered a very different job at home, to run British Leyland’s truck and bus division. He accepted it, and in 1976 moved back to the North-west.
Although British Leyland Motor Corporation had only recently been rescued by the government and was a byword for appalling industrial relations, the truck operation was a comparative oasis of calm. Its factories were out of date, it had too many product lines, but at least there was a market for them, which allowed the new boss to make changes. ‘It was a time of great activity: my division made its highest-ever profit in 1976.’ He was responsible for the T45, the truck that came to the company’s rescue in the 1980s, and also for the new factory at Leyland, still acknowledged as Europe’s most modern lorry plant. Both these achievements have been attributed to Michael Edwardes, later Sir Michael, who was put in charge of the group in 1977. This irks Sir Des. The South African’s brief was not to run a business, he believes, but to destroy the unions. ‘I would be cynical and say that the government was happy to see one company take on the unions.’
He believed the Edwardes head-on approach was destructive, told him so, and left in 1978. He still thinks he was right. ‘There had to be changes, but they should not have destroyed the whole thing in the process.’
He moved back to high technology, joining Plessey as managing director of its telecommunications division and persuading the group to concentrate System X production at its Liverpool factory. Once again, he found himself presiding over retrenchment, and could do little to turn System X into a commercial success.
‘The main reason we failed was because we were late in the game,’ he says.
He knew he would never reach the top of Plessey, because Sir John Clark was too firmly entrenched, so in 1983 he accepted an offer to become chief executive of Littlewoods. The move from telecoms to retailing was not as bizarre as it sounds, he says. ‘I could see my systems background being applicable to mail-order.’
Littlewoods needed radical restructuring, and Sir Des admits it was a tough process. The group was not ready to ride the 1980s consumer boom, but he regards his time there as a success. By staying downmarket, it survived the recent recession, he says, ‘which was vital for Liverpool’. Others are less convinced of his contribution. ‘He banged on very hard about his ability,’ one industry observer says. ‘A lot of people felt he was pretty ineffectual.’
What his reign did prove was that he was a survivor. Littlewoods is a notoriously political company, which has seen many outsiders’ heads displayed on Moores family pikestaffs. Sir Des lasted for 10 years, and was made non-executive vice-chairman when he left a year ago. He was also paid a chunky pounds 800,000 a year towards the end.
Despite his journey through a great range of industry – from computers to lorries to shops – he puts his success down to the narrowness of his vision. ‘It seems to me that successful people are determined to achieve in a very narrow sphere of activity,’ he says. For him, that does not mean a particular business, but management itself. ‘My real interest is in how people work,’ he says.
A few years ago, he was on the shortlist to run British Rail. One day, he will probably be offered another high-profile job. He will then leave Liverpool, which will be a shame for the city. A Liverpudlian who likes rubbing shoulders with national politicians is a rare beast, and one that the famously insular city needs to keep.