Archive : The Aggressive Apprentice


Donald Gresham Stokes, of British Leyland, is the most successful product of a vanishing, British breed. He is the 4d.-an-hour engineering apprentice turned £45,000-a-year top executive. The twist in the Stokes story is that his own climb has pulled the company up as well. The apprentice’s rise has conjured up, out of a respected, middle-sized lorry-maker, the seventh largest private-enterprise company outside America.

On November 1, he formally becomes sole, undisputed boss—chairman, chief executive and managing director rolled into one — of the giant complex created out of the Leyland-BMC merger. Nobody who knows Sir Donald. Stokes is at all surprised by his achievements, or by his determination and ability to dominate a £900,000,000 a year colossus, although at 54 Stokes doesn’t look especially impressive, and doesn’t try to.

On the short side, he has a high, bald dome, wears glasses, and has deep facial lines which flash into an engaging, frequent smile. But his characteristic authority is instantly established by the heavy black eyebrows, the rapid, lucid, faintly accented speech, and the marked physical energy. However likeable he is, this is unequivocally a tough man tough enough for the firing of 300 senior executives at Standard-Triumph after the takeover which was a critical stage in Leyland’s transformation.

Stokes got no pleasure from the slaughter. But this unpretentious, unaffected executive has limitless confidence in his own judgment. According to Stokes, Standard was heading for bankruptcy at the time. Leyland wasted neither time nor tears in converting the industry’s worst problem child into a lean profitable unit. You can make a case (and perhaps future historians will) for seeing the whole episode as part of a Stokes master plan.

There was the one-by-one mopping up of Leyland’s major competitors in heavy trucks; broadening the base by moving into cars with Standard ; then, after a peaceful pick-up of Rover, the inevitable, long-awaited dropping of BMC (a distinctly over-ripe plum) into Leyland’s lap ; finally, the removal of BMC overlords and supreme power to Sir Donald.

That is exactly how Stokes has gained control of virtually the entire British-owned motor industry, but without a master plan, for Stokes is less a planner than an opportunist with foresight. What he is unquestionably is a master. Witness the speed with which Leyland men, a scant eight months after the merger, have moved into nearly all the key positions.

Stokes responds to men like himself, ex-apprentices, engineers who can sell, men who can take responsibility young, who can think quickly and instinctively—and be right. His methods spring naturally from what Stokes has been doing since trolley-bus days before the war—the highly personalised business of selling. His enthusiasm for sales made both Stokes and Leyland.

On September 13, 1945, while still a lieutenant-colonel in the Directorate of Mechanical Engineering at Allied Forces HQ, Stokes sent a historic letter and memo proposing a new export division for, his beloved Leyland. ‘The days of the whisky-soda salesman are over,’ he wrote. ‘ An operator will drink with anyone but he will only listen to a man who knows his subject… a Leyland salesman must never be unduly attached to the local social life to the detriment of business.’

Stokes would probably write much the same memo today, twenty-three years on. Then, as now, he loved everything about Leyland. down to its name — we could yet see a Leyland car — and its blunt, Lancastrian background. Stokes was born in the South (at Bexley), raised there (at Plymouth), schooled there (at Blundell’s), and lives there (in a St. James’s penthouse); but he is shot through with Northern prejudices. He wanted to go to Lancashire to work for Leyland from the age of twelve. It almost seems predestined.

His father was a transport manager on the tramways, and the boys at school, Stokes says, called him ‘ Motor-blokes.’
(Today, Levland men are said to call him ‘God.’) Stokes was only sixteen when he joined the illustrious band of ‘ Leyland apprentices,’ recruits for an industrial elite.

Its own training is still the foundation of Leyland’s strength, and of its innate sense of superiority. But today the apprentices include graduates and have a residential college. It is called Stokes Hall, after the most distinguished Old Apprentice. The technical expert who during a war in tanks, added to his engineering knowledge the overseas experience which crystallised in his export memo After demob, Stokes, then thirty-two, was told to practise what he preached as exports manager. He did so to the letter. Leyland’s overseas business, only £1,000,000 in 1945, had multiplied over 100 times, to half of all sales, when Stokes got his knighthood — for exports — twenty years later.

Most of the Stokes folklore surrounds the export coups which built his record—the brilliantly-seized opportunity to sell buses to Castro’s Cuba, the sudden dash (deserting the Motor Show) to clinch a £5,000,000 deal in Iran. His 100,000-miles-a-year life has often made Sir Donald’s London flats more a launching pad than a home. Laura Stokes (they married in 1939 and have one son) bears patiently with these facts of her husband’s life.

Can Stokes combine his perpetual motion with the daunting desk job of pulling British Leyland together ? That partly depends on how far Sir Donald intends to unify his empire. In a way, he can afford to leave British Le.yland’s final shape in the melting pot, simply because of the vast amount of turn-round work still to be done at the old, submerged BMC. After the merger, Sir Donald sent in his Leyland fire-brigade at once.

Top engineer Harry Webster, for instance, rapidly gave BMC the long-range new model programme it should have had all along. Few managers in the motor industry are better at putting out fires than Stokes and the men he has brought up in his image. By bringing down BMC’s production costs through solid Lancastrian engineering and commonsense, and by applying the Stokes super-salesmanship at home and abroad, the cash should in theory pour in to pay for the £200,000,000-worth of new models and machines which are sorely needed.

The catch, as Stokes knows better than anyone, is that Ford, Vauxhall and Rootes, let alone Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen, won’t stand still waiting for British Leyland to clobber them Ultimately, of course, he has the Government in his corner. The Industrial Reorganisation Corporation has already lent millions to the merged firm, and Stokes is on good terms with Harold Wilson’s men. Unlike the men who have turned round ailing motor giants like Chrysler, or electrical mammoths like GEC, Stokes isn’t one of the figures experts, with razor-sharp, balance-sheet minds and a sliderule in their pockets, who are the new managers.

He is an engineer with a salesman’s suitcase in his hand. He has to prove that sheer force of personality, immensely hard work, deep knowledge of his trade and power of intuitive management are enough for the biggest industrial task in Britain. The unassuming man in the Berkeley-square office, decorated by the export souvenirs and mini-models that testify to past successes, is still far more likely than anybody else to bring off the final triumph of the brilliant apprentice.

Keith Adams


  1. So that was his CV in 1968. Unfortunately that now also includes Marina, Maxi, Allegro, Princess, Bankruptcy and Nationalisation.

  2. The mood in British Leyland was quite bullish in the early days, they had 40% of the new car market, were one of the biggest vehicle producers in the world and could have been the British answer to General Motors. Instead we all knew what happened in the seventies and Stokes became arrogant and remote and somewhat complacent, thinking people would never buy foreign cars and couldn’t take any criticism.

    • Unfortunately that kind of attitude was endemic in the senior management of major British companies. Witness the demise of BSA Triumph for exactly the same reasons.

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