Obituary : Alex Park 1926-2009

Alex Park

Alex Park: Chief Executive of British Leyland

Alex Park ran British Leyland during a controversial period of the motor manufacturer’s history in 1975-78. Park fought hard to revive the newly nationalised company’s fortunes by stemming the haemorraghing of its funds, restructuring its operations and attempting to raise productivity, but left before being able to fully realise these goals.

In May 1977 Park found himself at the centre of allegations in the Daily Mail that British Leyland had been engaged in corruption. The paper published correspondence purportedly between Park and Lord Ryder which provided details of how British Leyland was allegedly engaged in paying bribes through the operation of a slush fund based in Switzerland.

However, it transpired that the published letters had been forged by a disgruntled company executive. The next day the paper carried a front-page apology and Park ended up receiving considerable damages. A few years ago it was revealed through Freedom of Information documents that the company had indeed been paying bribes to overseas governments, and that the British Government had been aware of its slush fund.

Park was persuaded to join the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) as finance director in 1974 by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Walker. BLMC, formed in 1968 to bring together the British brands Rover, Jaguar, Triumph, Austin, Morris and MG, was the UK’s largest exporter of manufactured goods and was supported by the Heath and Wilson Governments. Park quickly discovered that BLMC was not a cohesive and well-integrated company but a cluster of companies which were operating separately with their own management styles and little attempt to share their manufacturing facilities, services or marketing practices.

Park’s undertook a financial review which established that BLMC had negative cash-flows and it would reach the limits of its loan arrangements and overdraft limits within weeks. He immediately informed the board and mapped out plans to cut costs by hundreds of millions of pounds through the closure of plants and by abandoning plans for increased manufacturing capacity and changes to models.

In December 1974 Sir Don Ryder was charged with leading a government review of BLMC. The conclusions of the Ryder Report were outlined in the House of Commons on April 23, 1975. That day Park received a phone call from the Walker’s successor, Tony Benn, telling him that at 2pm the House of Commons would ratify his appointment as chief executive.

His task was to implement the recommendations of the Ryder Report. The company was taken over by the Government and renamed British Leyland in June 1975. The Government injected £200 million of funding as recommended by Ryder, and committed to add a further £900 million over the following 15 months.

Despite the cash injection and internal restructuring, recovery for British Leyland was slow during 1975 because of a worldwide downturn in automotive markets. Its performance in 1976 showed encouraging signs of improvement with increases in profitability, but the company struggled to lift its productivity. Industrial relations were also severely strained. Ryder had stipulated that further funds would only be made available if certain objectives were met, including improvements in productivity and industrial relations. A series of shop-floor disputes and work stoppages early in 1977 made it impossible for Park to request further funds from Government.

He resigned as chief executive after the National Enterprise Board appointed Michael Edwardes as chairman and he was made executive vice-president. Park later said that he regarded his leading role at the company as the most challenging of his career, and the least enjoyable. He was particularly uncomfortable with the political nature of the work.

Alex Park was born in 1926 into a working class family in Grangetown on the banks of the River Tees. His father worked at the local authority. Park won a place at the local grammar school but the family could not afford to send him there so he attended a local comprehensive.

He left school at 14 to help support his family, working as an office boy in the local steelworks. He took night-school classes in maths, technical drawing and science. In 1944-47 he worked in a tank-landing craft unit in the Navy before settling in North Yorkshire and working in the accounts departments of small manufacturing companies. He continued to study accounting and financial management in the evenings.

In 1958 he moved to Coleraine, Northern Ireland, to join the financial management team of a new textiles factory being built by Chemstrand, a subsidiary of the US conglomerate Monsanto. He was rapidly promoted to head of information management and then in 1961 became the finance director of Chemstrand and relocated to London. He then worked as the finance director of Cummins Diesel Engines in the UK before moving in 1968 to Xerox as deputy director of finance in its Rank Xerox joint venture. He was promoted to group director for planning, information and financial control before taking up his position at British Leyland in 1974.

After British Leyland he took a 12-month contract with the miner Lonrho to review its commercial activities and subsequently became vice president of ITT (UK) based in its STC office in London. He retired in 1987.

While at British Leyland, Park put together a collection of historic vehicles which eventually became part of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust. The project came about after a routine visit to the Longbridge plant when he discovered a 1910 Austin 7 locked away in a room, prompting him to to seek out and restore other collectors’ items which were locked away in the company’s plants.

There was no space to display this collection of 60 cars, but Tom Wheatcroft, who became a good friend, offered use of a wing in his recently-opened motor museum at Donington Park. In 1980 the British Leyland Heritage collection was moved to Syon Park near London before moving again to the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon in Warwickshire. Park and his wife, Margaret, enjoyed driving Leyland heritage cars on the annual London to Brighton Run, starting in 1975 in a 1904 Thorneycroft.

Park’s wife predeceased him. He is survived by their four sons.

Alex Park, Chief Executive of British Leyland, 1975-78, was born on 16 November 1926. He died on 25 April 2009, aged 82.

Keith Adams

1 Comment

  1. Not a great name in the tangled history of the British car industry, but the Gaydon collection is an important legacy

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