John Barber: The businessman who tried to make British Leyland work
John Barber, who has died aged 85, was a key player in the government struggle to create a viable British-owned motor industry out of a tangle of underperforming companies in the 1960s and 1970s. He wrote the business plan for Leyland’s takeover of British Motor Holdings in a single afternoon. Later, he became British Leyland’s deputy chairman and managing director, until he was swept away by a fresh government reconstruction under Lord Ryder.
Born in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, and educated at Westcliff school, he served in the army in the second world war, ending as a captain.
After nine years in the ministry of supply, he joined the finance department of the Ford Motor Company in 1956 as assistant controller with a brief to modernise what was then a conservative manufacturing company in a traditional industry with virtually no graduates. He started a graduate scheme, recruiting a hundred in a year, initiating a process by which Ford’s finance department became a legendary nursery for business management talent.
Barber became finance director in 1962, but left three years later, uncomfortable at what he saw as the creeping Americanisation of Ford’s British operations. He joined the heavy electrical conglomerate AEI in 1965, but the company was soon taken over by Arnold Weinstock’s GEC. The takeover was one of two big industrial reorganisations encouraged by Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Barber was soon in the thick of the second. Refusing Weinstock’s offer of a job, in 1968 he was summoned back to the motor industry by Donald Stokes of Leyland, an industrialist favoured by Labour for his export success with buses and trucks. The idea was that Leyland should merge with the floundering British Motor Holdings, the agglomeration of brands such as Austin and Morris, and more recently Jaguar, to form a British company that could take on the world.
Years later, Barber would talk of the day Stokes had told Harold Wilson in Downing St of his ideas for the merger, only to be asked for the detail. “Stokes came back at eleven o’clock and said: ‘John, I have got to have a plan for taking over and rationalising BMH for four o’clock’.” Barber duly obliged.
The result was a motor company ranking 10th in the world. But impressive as it sounded, Barber, his cerebral manner off-set by boyish enthusiasm for cars, believed its relatively small size should limit its ambition. As a maze of working parties set out to establish consensus about anything from pensions to model programmes, he was horrified at what he found: “a mass of unrationalised production plants and products, umpteen engines, umpteen gearboxes, umpteen axles.”
Worse still, Barber found that the management, obsessed with manufacturing problems, was unaware of what its continental rivals were doing. He was horrified by the insularity of the Midlands managers.
Barber was one of two deputy managing directors; the other was George Turnbull, who was responsible for the key mass market Austin-Morris division. There were also powerful barons including George Farmer of Rover and Bill Lyons of Jaguar. Barber saw himself as a champion of coherent planning, but his Midlands colleagues criticised him for trying to impose a Fordist straitjacket, which restricted autonomy in a diversified company.
He struggled to rationalise as well as to focus on new models; on one occasion he lined up a selection of rival continental marques outside a top management meeting. Progress was made and new mass market cars, the Marina and Allegro, emerged, but their sales were lower than the models they replaced. A series of costly strikes caused further problems.
Barber saw long-term salvation in the upmarket Rovers and Jaguars, and battled with Turnbull to prevent him forming a cars’ division which included the specialist marques as well. Turnbull saw it as reducing the autonomy of his division.
Barber won that battle, and became deputy chairman, managing director and heir apparent in 1973 to Stokes. But time was running out, and Stokes’s consensual style failed to grip the merger in the way that Weinstock had welded GEC. At the same time, the oil shock in 1973 devastated the market and the group started to run out of working capital.
Barber’s view always remained that a relatively small injection of cash – perhaps Â£100 million – would have enabled them to pull through. But the Wilson government lost confidence, and in 1975 nationalised the company after inserting Lord Ryder from the National Enterprise Board to report on a new approach. Stokes and Barber were ignored, and a plan was prepared without their participation, which Barber saw as hopelessly optimistic.
Refusing to resign, he was dismissed in 1975, to bitter public complaints about his treatment from his wife, Babette. He spent the rest of his business life in a series of non-executive posts, investing in and helping run smaller companies. He retained his enthusiasm, particularly for motor cars and motor racing, happy to bend people’s ears in the 1980s on the engineering merits of his Honda, and taking as a badge of honour a comment from Lord Stokes that he had been the one car-nut on the Leyland board.
Babette predeceased him, and he is survived by his son.
John Norman Romney Barber, company director and business consultant, born April 22 1919; died October 21 2004