People : The Forgotten Chairmen – Sir Austin Bide

Every BMC/BL/Rover fan has heard of Lord Stokes, Sir Michael Edwardes and Sir Graham Day. They were the most famous chairmen of British Leyland.

However, three other men occupied the post after Lord Stokes: Professor Sir Ronald Edwards, Sir Richard Dobson and Sir Austin Bide. Here’s the story of the last. By Ian Nicholls.

Sir Austin Bide

Sir Austin Bide
Sir Austin Bide, non-executive chairman of British Leyland taking over from Sir Michael Edwardes (Pic: Alamy)

Sir Austin Bide was the man principally responsible for the transformation of Glaxo from a company best known for its baby foods into a world force in the pharmaceutical industry. During a 40-year career at Glaxo, he created a coherent group from a disorganised collection of companies and, vitally, doubled its expenditure on research.

Bide’s route to the top was neither easy nor straightforward. He was born in on 11 September 1915, the son of an artillery officer, Ernest Bide, who was killed at the Third Battle of Ypres two years later. The family lived in Kensington where regular trips to the Science Museum kindled in the young Bide an early interest in science.

As the child of a relatively humble background, university was not an option and, at the age of 17, he went to work as a government scientist. But he spent his evenings and weekends studying for a degree in chemistry at Birkbeck College and Chelsea Polytechnic, and in 1939 he was awarded first-class honours, an unusual achievement for a part-time student. In 1940 he tried to join the Royal Air Force, but was seconded to work for Glaxo as a research chemist at its laboratories in Greenford, west London, where he worked on the synthesis of vitamin B1 and then on the development of penicillin.

By 1947, at the age of 32, he had risen to be head of technical research. Four years later, he was entrusted with supervising the construction of a new factory at Montrose in Angus to produce penicillin, where he showed foresight in acquiring an additional 33 acres of land to cope with future extensions. His career took a curious turn when he was appointed first Deputy Company Secretary and then, in 1959, Company Secretary, in what would normally have been a peaceful corporate backwater.

However, in that post, Bide saw the company’s activities from a head office that was lacking in any coherent control. His reputation was greatly enhanced by being one of a small group which successfully fought a takeover bid by Beecham, then best known for its pills and products such as Brylcreem, but which also had a flourishing penicillin business. By that time, Glaxo’s Chairman was Sir Alan Wilson, a former director of Courtaulds, who had helped fend off an unwelcome bid by ICI.

Unfortunately, Wilson simply could not cope with the situation and had a nervous breakdown, so the defence was left to a small group of younger executives, among whom Bide played a prominent role. Fortunately for Glaxo, in 1972 the Monopolies Commission ruled that the takeover would damage Britain’s research efforts into new drugs (though Bide lived long enough to see his company merged not only with Beecham, but also with the American firm Smith Klein).

The Commission also ruled against a proposed merger with Boots, at the time Glaxo had a substantial wholesale drugs business that it could have brought to the joint group. As Deputy Chairman (from 1971), Bide had already started planning the transformation of the group. His first step had been to merge the group’s numerous wholesalers into a single company and he planned to sell some of Glaxo’s unprofitable subsidiaries.

Bide was the natural candidate for the chairmanship when Wilson retired in 1973. He had worked for the company for more than 30 years, and had wide experience as a research chemist, factory manager and Company Secretary. He also took over as Chief Executive, serving in the post until 1980, and as Chairman until 1985. Bide believed in sound administration and disliked the general corporate disorder of Glaxo’s UK subsidiaries, chaos which Wilson had done nothing to sort out.

He had already started a process of structural reform by rationalising Glaxo’s technical divisions which followed on from the creation of Glaxo Holdings the previous year. He then implemented the so-called ‘Orange Book’ in which he had set out his plans, and transformed the structure of a group that had expanded rather haphazardly over several decades into that of a normal business, involving a Group Management Committee with directors responsible for different parts of the group. But he was tactful enough to ensure that the process of centralisation and the instillation of a group culture was not overly brutal so that the goodwill of such well-known subsidiaries as Allen & Hanbury was not dissipated.

Bide could be ruthless, but he was also one of the rare British executives to practise ‘management by wandering’, notably by informal visits to laboratories to meet the young researchers who were following in his footsteps. The year before Bide took  over as Chairman, Glaxo had opened a new pharmacology laboratory which led to the discovery of its most profitable drug, the anti-ulcer treatment Zantac. But during his chairmanship he greatly expanded Glaxo’s research activities, in the 10 years to 1982 they went from 3.8 to 5.8 per cent of the group’s turnover, and produced a steady flow of new drugs.

Bide’s other major contribution lay in instigating Glaxo’s expansion in the United States, where it had previously had only a small sales and marketing organisation. In early 1978, Glaxo took over Meyer’s, a modest family-owned pharmaceutical company based in Florida, at a cost of just £18 million. This modest purchase was greeted in the British financial press ‘with a sigh of disappointment’, but Bide revealed his strategy, and indeed his whole attitude to business, in a rare interview with The Times: ‘We thought it sensible to start with a business that was viable ab initio. We did not have the right to be over-venturesome. The US market can be a dangerous place for the unwary.’

And indeed, the purchase led to an unimagined expansion in the years following Bide’s chairmanship, largely due to the success of Zantac. Even before Bide retired as Chief Executive he had started to take on some outside roles. The first was rather unfortunate, as a director of J Lyons, formerly Britain’s leading caterer, which was in freefall after taking out a disastrous loan in Swiss francs in the early 1970s just as sterling was starting its precipitate descent.

But he was best known as a director and then, from 1984 to 1986, Chairman, of Britain’s most expensive industrial casualty, the nationalised vehicle manufacturer British Leyland (BL). He arrived in 1977 as part of the clean sweep that brought in Michael Edwardes to try to rescue a group on the verge of meltdown.

Following his success at Glaxo, by then one of Britain’s most successful industrial concerns, Bide was justified, though unwise, in claiming that ‘my expertise in management is total.’ It wasn’t. He was totally unused to coping with the tangled mess of competing trade unions, which were such a feature of life at BL. Indeed, at Glaxo, Bide had tried to avoid recognising unions by giving the existing ‘advisory committees’ negotiating rights.

A private, generally unobtrusive personality, he was also unused to the unrelenting glare of publicity, which accompanied anyone involved with British Leyland. Edwardes himself was unstinting in his praise of Bide, writing that he ‘proved to be a tower of strength as we hit problem after problem’, particularly in providing support during Edwardes’ early confrontations with the unions and shop stewards like Derek Robinson. The history of the Edwardes era is cast in stone in the 1983 book Back From The Brink in which Sir Michael left his version of events for posterity, claiming that, by the time he left British Leyland in late 1982, he had greatly improved the situation, albeit at the cost of substantial Government support.

Even Mrs Thatcher admitted in her memoirs that ‘there had certainly been improvements. Productivity was up, days lost by  strikes were down, losses were down. But the management was still poor. Moreover, the same old bromides were used to justify failure. Next year or the year after was always the time when losses would be turned to profit as long as new  investment was provided by the taxpayer today… Forecasts were always being revised downwards and then not met.’

When Sir Michael Edwardes joined British Leyland in 1977 its UK market share was 24.3 per cent and it produced 651,069 cars. When he left its market share was 17.8 per cent and it produced 383,074 cars. Was this success?

Sir Austin Bides appointment to the top job at British Leyland, succeeding the ebullient Sir Michael Edwardes (whose  contract had not been renewed by the Conservative Government), was not a public relations triumph. In the company reorganisation that accompanied his appointment the chairmanship was made non-executive, and the press had a field day  with the man who was allegedly being paid £65,000 a year for a two-day week.

Press profiles dwelt on Bide’s unobtrusiveness, a portrayal he lived up to by going to ground. ‘Characteristically,’ said the FT, when it came to commenting on his new position ‘Sir Austin was unavailable.’ But Patrick Jenkin, the Industry Secretary, was said to feel that he had found the right man to take BL, or profitable parts of it, into the private sector, a key pledge in the Conservative Party’s 1983 manifesto.

As someone who had spent the best part of a decade with one foot in BL and the other in Glaxo, one of Britain’s most profitable and go-ahead industrial companies, Bide was said to have a unique perspective on industrial management and was well respected for his strategic sense and financial acumen. Sir Austin Bide inherited Michael Edwardes management team minus the man himself, who would not be around when the full fruits of his five year tenure at the helm of BL reached the showrooms.

Bide believed that his role was ‘getting BL to the point where someone may want to buy it.’ But he was recorded as saying: ‘I do not believe that the technological change on which the country’s future depends is any better managed in the private  rather than the public sector. I am not sure that BL will attract better workers or managers if it were out of the government’s hands.’

At the end of 1985 he succeeded in persuading General Motors to buy Land Rover and Ford to buy Austin Rover, and to take them off the hands of the long suffering British taxpayer. But the timing proved fatal. In early 1986, Thatcher was battered by the resignation of Michael Heseltine over selling Westland to the Americans and was unprepared to allow a much larger British group to be sold.

In 1984, British Leyland had managed to sell off Jaguar, but a vicious price war between Ford and GM ensured that Austin Rover’s lacklustre mid-range cars, the Maestro and Montego, struggled and BL’s target of 20 per cent market share was never reached. Unfortunately, Margaret Thatcher’s gloomy assessment of British Leyland was on the money. The much-vaunted Metro appears to have been bought by and large by former Mini owners, and talk of manufacturing 350,000 Metros a year, which had been mooted in 1977, was now pie in the sky as consumers increasing turned towards the Mk2 Ford Fiesta.

The early Maestros and Montegos were unreliable and badly built, and the effective Austin Rover PR machine could not hide this fact from the fleet buyers, who had the running costs of the competing cars at their fingertips. Repeat orders dried up and British Leyland’s recovery programme not only stalled, but seemed to go backwards. To make matters worse, the Maestro  and Montego were launched into a rapidly expanding car market. The UK-based car manufacturers had screamed for decades for a buoyant expanding car market. When it finally arrived in 1983 and for the rest of the decade, by and large the customers bypassed the Austin Rover showrooms.

Sir Austin Bide’s fate was sealed when BL applied for £1.5 billion more aid in 1985 to compete with General Motors’ impressive range of front-wheel-drive cars. This was not what Mrs Thatcher wanted to hear. The Maestro and Montego had been approved and signed off for production by the Edwardes era management team and they ultimately carried the can for it.

In March 1986 a Thatcher favourite, Graham Day, was brought in from British Shipbuilders to replace Bide as full-time Chairman, later to succeed in selling BL to British Aerospace in 1988. Also clearing their British Leyland desks were Ray Horrocks, Harold Musgrove and Mark Snowdon. Ray Horrocks had hoped to succeed Sir Austin Bide as Chairman.

Until his late eighties, Bide was involved in a wide variety of activities: he was a member of the Adam Smith Institute and had an active role at the National Aids Trust. He was also a staunch early supporter of the Open University. His other major concern was the restoration of Salisbury Cathedral, a cause dear to the heart of his friend Edward Heath. He married Irene Ward in 1941. She and their three daughters survived him.

Sir Austin Bide died on 11 May 2008.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Yet another strong, experienced, successful leader founders on the rocks of British Leyland! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this trio of biographies.

  2. The A Bide jokes were rife in Car magazine in the mid eighties. Some wit sent in a letter entitled Don’t Abide in an Austin after a bad experience with a Metro.
    However, don’t blame Bide for the Maestro and Montego, he didn’t develop them. Also during his tenure he has to be praised for handling the sell off of Jaguar successfully and for improving industrial relations, which were still tense when he took over.

  3. Ian, might be an idea revising your Scottish geography,the residents of Montrose may well object to being called Fifers. Montrose is in Angus.

    Might not matter much to the English, but if we Scots said Southampton was in Warwickshire folk would be quick enough to jump on it…..

  4. Could we say that under Bide at least things didn’t get any worse. Market share more or less stayed the same, the Honda engined Rover 200 was a success and the unions stopped being a problem, with the last major strike in 1984. It was just the company was standing still and the revival that seemed likely earlier on in the eighties wasn’t happening.

  5. The Edwardes era management boasted about reducing the stoppages and introducing modern working practices, but they hopelessly neglected the new model programme with the Maestro and Montego and that was their downfall.
    No one seems to have got a grip on the cars programme until Roy Axe joined and pointed out what was wrong, but it was too late by then.
    ‘Back From The Brink’ has distorted our view of the time. Ultimately Edwardes and his team failed and thats why they had to go. Michael Edwardes, Ray Horrocks and Harold Musgrove were harsh managers, and their departure ushered in the more humane approach of Graham Day.

    • I think that had more to do with them being business people with a background in non automotive companies therefore not bein gv car people, I assumed they thought the engineers and designers would be capable of getting on with the job in hand without having to worry about the bothersome day to day bureaucratic side of things instead of the careful oversight and critiquing necessary.

  6. Julian @1
    ” Yet another strong, experienced, successful leader founders on the rocks of British Leyland! ”

    Yes, a similar thought very much crossed my mind too!

    The title “Forgotten Chairman” is very suitable – I wasn’t familiar with these names but Edwardes, Day very much so.

    Ian @ 8
    ” No one seems to have got a grip on the cars programme until Roy Axe joined and pointed out what was wrong, but it was too late by then. ”

    Yes, how on earth was the company going to recover on the back of the three M’s – ultimately, only two and a half new cars and all hitting the market too late. To recover, BL needed a FULL new range of bang up to date cars.

    I think a continued Honda link was probably the best chance of survival but one that stayed ‘joint venture’ as opposed to ‘Roverised Honda’. If you think back to the days of R8, Rover Metro, new 800. It was 1990, 91, 92. At this point, the turn-around in image and fortune seemed almost hard to believe.
    Then again, I’m sure BMW could have been encouraged to stay at the helm leading to a different success story.

  7. Much enjoyed all three of these articles – many thanks. Bide is the only one I recall, and mainly because of his lack of presence! car Magazine (Gordon Kent I think) once referred to him as ‘a man so opaque as to be barely visible at all’.

    The difference between these three and Stokes, Edwardes and Day was the lettr were all Chairman and MD, whereas the forgotten men were just Chairman (and all part time). It’s right that the Chairman should remain in the background, leaving most decision-making and all day-to-day running to the MD, or CEO in more modern times. The Chair is there, with his board, to hold the executive management to account. Where the posts are combined, you don’t get that check/balance and are very dependent on having an exceptional individual incharge. My feeling, from these articles, is that Stokes wasn’t of that calibre (although he had an impossible job), Day probably was (although after a short time he was capable of being held to account by the BAe board). Not sure about Edwardes. In some ways he did a magnificent job, rationalising the company and largely ending unrest; but his legacy was a company that was too small to survive unaided, and with an inferior model range.

  8. We could be politically correct and non sexist by calling them chairpersons or chairs. Harriet Harperson would have a field day correcting sexist use of the word chairman.
    Actually I did attend uni and the far left always used gender neutral language to the ridiculous point where a ploughman’s lunch was renamed a ploughperson’s lunch.

  9. Thanks for yet another hugely interesting article!
    Just one point (and I genuinely do not know the answer to this) but as a Michael Edwards supporter for most though not everything he did – you say that BL had approx 24 percent of the market and produced approx 650,000 cars but when M Edwards left the figures were approx 17 percent and 385,000 cars. Do we know what the gross or net profit (or mor likely the debt figure) was at this period. Business as we all know is about getting profitability – if they had dropped to 5 percent and 500 cars but actually made money – no doubt the bean counters would have been happy.

  10. #14 It’s the Michael Edwards supporter bit isn’t it? – that’s why no ones answering or even talking to me any more!

  11. My objection to Michael Edwardes is because he hoodwinked us and the government.
    Lord Stokes used Keith Hopkins as his PR man.
    Michael Edwardes in turn used a man call John McKay as his PR guru.Maybe McKay even ghost wrote ‘Back From the Brink.’
    Edwardes rationalised BL, but he did not improve quality and oversaw and rubber stamped the Maestro and Montego for production. In the end the company was only as good as the product it sold, and that was dire.

  12. Sorry Ian, clearly touched a nerve there.
    I admit my admiration does lie more in his handling of the unions. A lot of my vintage chums (referring to our mutual interest, not their age you understand) are ex B.L – tool designers, stylists, managers etc. They don’t have very much good to say about him either. I usually get away with being controversial after they’ve bought the round!

  13. More proof that Edwardes wasn’t some great saviour at British Leyland. Could producing 280,000 fewer cars after six years in charge and seeing market share fall by 6 per cent be classed as anything great? He might have dismissed Derek Robinson and reduced the number of strikes, but the company was still run by distant, autocratic managers and a five week strike at Cowley at the end of Edwardes tenure was caused by apparent aggressive management techniques. It seemed Edwardes was widely disliked by the company’s employees and also by the government as he seemed to believe in the subsidy culture that had existed since the mid seventies, and which his successor, Austin Bide, could not totally reject.
    However, we can’t blame Bide for inheriting the Maestro and Montego and he did realise the company had to improve its market share and improve quality. During his tenure there were some successes, the sale of Jaguar was a big success, the Honda based Rover 200 became a big seller for the company and strikes finally died out during his reign. However, it wasn’t until the arrival of Graham Day and a massive drive to improve quality that the company’s fortunes turned around.

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