Opinion : Michael Edwardes’ toughest gig 45 years on

And there it was – 45 years ago this month, Michael Edwardes officially became Chairman and Chief Executive of British Leyland. It was 9.25am when the new Chairman arrived in a chauffeur-driven car outside his new office at Nuffield House, 41 Piccadilly, Mayfair in London. Edwardes would be using the office of British Leyland’s Honorary President, Lord Stokes.

He had been expected to clock in at 8.30am. Waiting reporters asked him what he thought about being head of the Government-owned car firm, and he said: ‘It will be a formidable task. I hope to enjoy it.’

Edwardes also said that the vote by British Leyland car workers in favour of a new pay bargaining system was encouraging. ‘I think it’s good news. It shows a lot of people want to get things sorted out. If a few more people buy British and Leyland it would help.’

On the day Michael Edwardes took up his new post, Leyland Cars was hit by another stoppage

Michael Edwardes was also asked if he could bring about the recovery of British Leyland. He replied: ‘Yes, if I have to stand on my head to do it.’

Edwardes brought three staff members from Chloride: John McKay, Communications Director; Sheila Witts, his personal assistant and Margaret Evans, his secretary. By 2013, Michael Edwardes’ original British Leyland office was a Pret à Manger restaurant.

Strikes ahoy at British Leyland

On the day Michael Edwardes took up his new post, British Leyland was hit by another stoppage. Some 1500 workers at the Triumph Speke No.2 plant on Merseyside, which produced the Triumph TR7, walked out only a few hours after they had resumed work. They had been laid off for over three weeks by a strike since settled at Triumph, Coventry.

The trouble centred on management plans based on studies by industrial engineers to introduce new manning scales and work levels to improve productivity. Shop Stewards claimed that the company had broken a local agreement by taking a unilateral decision to implement these new arrangements.

However, the company maintained that the decision to go ahead with the plans was taken only after national negotiating procedures had been followed when it became clear that no progress towards agreement could be made at plant level. It would set the pattern for the next five years in the industry’s toughest gig.

Let the good work begin

He was a master tactician and stood up to the Trades Unions at a time when such a feat was considered impossible and was responsible for both saving the company from closure and ushering in a product-led recovery, with the Austin Metro leading the way.

He needed to overcome the Trades Unions’ militancy in order to increase productivity and quality.

It helped his case that that his actions were sanctioned by the then Labour Government. Such was the strength of his position, he even managed to persuade the Government to accept his appointment to British Leyland on the basis that it was on a three-year secondment from Chloride Batteries, his then-current employer. That’s what happens when you earn a reputation for tough talking and turning around companies.

He knew where the problems lay and he felt that, in order to save BL, he had to employ ‘management’s right to manage’. There would be a plan to overhaul the model range and produce cars people actually wanted, and he signed that off. Then he needed to overcome the Trades Unions’ militancy in order to increase productivity and quality.

Fighting the bitter fight

There were bloody fights and factory closures but, by the time Union Convenor Derek Robinson was sacked in 1979, some sanity was returning to a slimmer and fitter BL. Once Canley, Speke and Solihull had ceased making cars by the end of 1981, around 90,000 jobs had been shed.

But the Austin Metro and the Triumph Acclaim had been launched and its all-important deal with Honda were bearing fruit. British Leyland would live on – although it had been close. When Margaret Thatcher became PM in 1979, most of her cabinet wanted to see the company disposed of – but Edwardes persuaded her that closure wasn’t a viable option and privatisation would be the better path to follow.

He also ensured that BL stayed together (at least until 1984) because without Jaguar, MG and Rover – the high image parts of the company – there would be the ‘unsaleable rump’ of Austin-Morris left over. That he managed to persuade her not to carve up and privatise the profit-making parts of BL would later become a bone of contention between the two and would sow the seeds of the end of his tenure at the top of BL in 1982.

What was the Edwardes legacy?

Reflecting on the big job Edwardes candidly said in an interview with the BBC at the time of his appointment: ‘One of the decisions I had to make was whether the job was doable at all. I came to the conclusion that somebody could do it, and maybe I could do it.’ He certainly proved he could.

‘One of the decisions I had to make was whether the job was doable at all. I came to the conclusion that somebody could do it, and maybe I could do it.’

Two years on and having taken control of the company by getting the workers on-side via a secret ballot, he said: ‘If any manager, if any shop steward, or any employee doesn’t like the heat of the kitchen, now’s a good time to get out. If being healthy means slimming it down as we have, then so be it… it’s survival we’re concerned with!’

Firstly, he survived the toughest gig in the industry for five years. Secondly, he left was a leaner, fitter car producing company, and one with a bright future thanks to its partnership with Honda. He really did bring the firm ‘back from the brink’ and allowed it to live on and prosper in a way that no one thought possible before he took the reins on that fateful day in November 1977.

Keith Adams

1 Comment

  1. Currently reading “Back from the brink” found in the local charity shop for 50p! Gives a fascinating insight to the situation at the time!

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