Obituary : John Barber 1919-2004

John Barker with Lord Stokes and George Turnbull (Pic: Keystone Press/Alamy)
John Barber (centre) with Lord Stokes and George Turnbull (Pic: Keystone Press/Alamy)

From The Times

Executive who was handed the poison chalice of trying to run British Leyland at a time when its affairs were irredeemable.

WHEN appointed managing director and deputy chairman of British Leyland in April 1974, John Barber knew that he faced a near-impossible task. Weak management, continuous industrial strife, inflation, the oil crisis and a flood of cheap Japanese imports had all combined to bring the car giant close to financial collapse. What he did not know was that he would be given just months to find the cure.

In April 1975 Barber was criticised in a government report that set out a fresh blueprint for the company’s future. Though he received strong support from a House of Commons committee, he was dismissed from British Leyland in August the same year.

John Norman Romney Barber was born in 1919 at Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. After attending school at nearby Westcliff-on-Sea, he read economics at London University. At the outbreak of the Second Word War, he quit his studies to join the Army and went on to serve as an officers’ training instructor in Wales and Dorset and completed the war as a captain. In 1946 he began a nine-year spell at the Ministry of Supply. He then joined the finance department of Ford, becoming finance director in 1962 and chairman of its consumer credit wing a year later.

With his bosses in America assuming ever-greater control of Ford UK’s financial affairs, he found himself on a short leash. Frustrated, he quit Ford in 1965 to become finance director of Associated Electrical Industries and chairman of its subsidiary, Telephone Cables. He chose to move on once more after AEI was acquired by General Electric Company in 1967.

Barber joined British Leyland as its director of finance and planning in 1968, soon after its formation through the merger of Leyland, which owned Triumph and Rover, and British Motor Corporation, which owned Austin-Morris. He became deputy managing director in 1971 and moved up the ladder when the managing director, George Turnbull, quit over a dispute with the chairman, Lord Stokes.

Never the strongest of organisations, British Leyland now faced a deepening crisis. Rivalry between the company’s numerous brands had resulted in an incoherent product range that was full of duplication. Poor design and build quality had further damaged its reputation. With manufacturing plants scattered across the country, the company was at the mercy of the increasingly combative trade unions. In 1974 alone, strikes and stoppages at the Coventry, Cowley and Longbridge works resulted in the loss of more than 150,000 cars.

British Leyland’s financial backers persuaded Stokes to approach Tony Benn, the Industry Minister, for financial assistance. The Government agreed to guarantee the company’s overdraft but demanded that it be given a say in its operation through the National Enterprise Board. The NEB’s newly appointed chairman, Sir Don Ryder, was asked to mount an investigation and produce recommendations for British Leyland’s future.

Even though the issues were numerous, complex and deep-rooted, Ryder and his team delivered their report within just 14 weeks. It painted a wildly optimistic picture, claiming that British Leyland would be able to maintain a one-third share of the British car market and achieve large increases in exports to Europe. Just as remarkably, Ryder made no recommendations for plant closures but merely advocated changes to the management structure.

Given the huge sums required to effect the Ryder report’s recommendations, the Government had little choice but to take the company into the public sector. Had it not bailed out Britain’s biggest car manufacturer, around a million jobs would have been lost and British industry’s reputation would have suffered a further knock.

John Barber found a somewhat less powerful champion in the House of Commons Expenditure Committee, which declared that ‘we do not think the British motor industry can afford to lose the able managers it possesses’. The committee also came down in favour of Barber’s recommendation that British Leyland’s future lay in building specialist cars at higher margins.

Though stung by the Ryder report’s criticism that he ‘undermined the authority and responsibility of line management’ by having ‘too many people reporting to him’, Barber refused to resign. When formally dismissed in August 1975, he launched legal proceedings against the Government for breach of contract.

The next September, Barber wrote to The Times in defence of his record at British Leyland. Complaining that he had been appointed managing director less than nine months before the Ryder investigation was announced, he claimed that his management team had not been as big as Ryder had suggested and had been established on purely a temporary basis.

British Leyland’s problems continued despite the injection of £1.4 billion of taxpayers’ money. His report thoroughly discredited, the newly ennobled Lord Ryder soon withdrew from public life.

Barber went on to be chairman of Pullmaflex, Aberhurst, AC Engineering and Cox & Kings Financial Services. He served as a director of numerous companies, including Spear & Jackson, Acrow, John E. Wiltshier and the Communications Group.

John Barber’s wife Babette died last year. He is survived by their son.

John Barber, businessman, was born on 22 April 1919. He died on 21 October 2004, aged 85.

Keith Adams

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