People : The Forgotten Chairmen – Sir Ronald Edwards

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 first. By Ian Nicholls.

Professor Sir Ronald Edwards

Sir Ronald Edwards

Professor Sir Ronald Edwards had the misfortune to be the shortest serving, he died in office in January 1976. Sir Ronald was born on 1 May 1910, and educated at Southgate County School, in London. He began work at the age of 15 as an audit clerk in the gas industry, earning £1 a week. The foundations of his subsequent achievements were built a few years later, when he began studying bookkeeping at evening classes, joined a firm of chartered accountants, and embarked on a correspondence course.

The course led ultimately to a first class honours degree in commerce at the University of London. It also won for him the offer in 1935 of a post as assistant Lecturer in Accounting and Business Administration at the London School of Economics, and later he became Lecturer in the same subject.

He married in 1936 Myrtle Violet, daughter of John Poplar. They had two daughters. In 1940 he joined the Ministry of Aircraft Production, later becoming finance member and general secretary of the Birmingham War Factories Joint Committee, organizing the dispersal of war production establishments. He returned to London in 1942 as deputy director of labour at the MAP and from 1944 took charge of the Ministry’s post war planning division. With the war over, Edwards returned to the LSE as Reader in Commerce, and in 1949 he was appointed a professor in the University of London. Tuesday evening seminars on the problems of business management began at the LSE in 1946, and under Edwards’s stewardship some 500 leading industrialists and administrators presented papers on the practical aspects of their work.

Generally, these were attended by invited audiences of up to 100 people. After one of the seminars Henry Lazell, then Chairman of the Beecham Group, adjourned for drinks with Edwards at the latter’s London flat. Sir Ronald said later that the meeting led to nothing more significant at that time than the conversion by him to Lucozade, the Beecham drink which he subsequently drank ‘by the gallon’.

He became Chairman of the Electricity Council in 1962, after four years as Deputy Chairman, and stayed at the top of the state undertaking for six highly profitable years. While at the LSE he embarked with a colleague on the writing of a work called Business Enterprise, which contained two chapters of advice on running a nationalized industry. It is said that the job of steering electricity was offered to him after Lord Mills, Minister of Power in the Macmillan Government, had read these chapters. At Electricity Edwards was in charge of 200,000 workers.

One of his greatest achievements there was to hammer out staff status and productivity agreements, which gave recognition to manual workers and were to pave the way for the relatively painless shedding of about 50,000 people from the labour force over six or seven years.

As Chairman and Chief Executive of the Beecham Group, Edwards was to consolidate the reputation he had built in the state enterprise. Arguably, his most significant failure during this period was the group’s abortive attempt to take over Glaxo; several years later he was to declare, somewhat ruefully, that ‘nobody loves a multinational’ and ‘nobody loves a pharmaceuticals firm’. But while he was at its head, the Beecham group grew as never before. In his first year the undertaking recorded sales totalling £115 million and a trading profit of £21 million.

During his final year, the figures had jumped to £436.4 million and £61.2 million respectively. He invested something like £60 million in major acquisitions in the fields of pharmaceuticals and toiletries, covering companies like Badedas, S. A. Massingill and UHU Adhesives in countries as far apart as the United States, Brazil, Germany, France and Ireland. On reaching the retirement age of 65 on 1 May 1975, he handed over the chairmanship to George Wilkins, whom he had groomed for the post for some eighteen months, but remained as a very active president.

Edwards’s interests stretched far beyond the boundaries of electricity and pharmaceuticals. As Chairman of the Government committee of inquiry into the Civil Air Transport Industry, he prepared what was described as ‘one of the most thorough documents ever produced on the industry in ‘this country’. As chairman of the Electricity Council he served with distinction on the National Economic Development Council.

He presided over the Market Research Society and was an honorary president of the British Clock and Watch Manufacturers’ Association. He held doctorates in economics, science, law and letters at five universities. In his younger days he was an enthusiastic ballroom dancer and skater, and in his later life he took up- sailing. He served on the governing bodies of the London Graduate School of Business Studies and the Administrative Staff College at Henley. Despite all this, he never lost his unassuming approach to life.

Asked for the secret of his success, he replied: “Well, you need hard work; it’s the one thing you probably need most of all, and I have always been a slogger. I am sure that brighter chaps don’t have to work as long as I do to cover the same ground.” He was an unremitting worker, eschewing long lunch breaks and frequently taking work home with him either in the evenings or at weekends. Although regarded by some as a “waspish intellectual “, he had, in fact, a warm and an easy manner that made him a host of friends and sometimes tended to obscure the brightness of his intellect.

He never forgot his humble origins: there were times, for instance, when it was said that he stopped his chauffeur at a fish and chips shop in order to buy a meal; he was comfortable shopping for clothes in a chain store. And throughout his years of success, he took with him into his offices and boardrooms the old wooden kitchen chair picked up in a sale for a few pounds. This, he said, was the only chair, which enabled him to sit comfortably, following a back injury sustained many years earlier in a car accident.

The initial approach to head British Leyland was turned down. Edwards felt that his health was not good enough to permit him to accept. But elsewhere he was seen as the ideal man to nurse this particular lame duck back to health, and eventually he yielded to “friendly persuasion”.

Sir Ronald Edwards became Non-Executive Chairman of British Leyland on 3 October 1975, after the company had passed into state ownership. It was his task to implement the Ryder Report in co-operation with British Leyland Limited Managing Director Alex Park. He was in turn answerable to the head of the National Enterprise Board, Lord Ryder, who wrote the report he was supposed to implement.

Commenting on criticism by an all party Commons committee that the Government was throwing money away like confetti on British Leyland, Sir Ronald Edwards said on his appointment: “It was made clear in the Ryder Report that the additional tranches of money will only come along if we are increasing our productivity and efficiency. We have got to make a damn good showing to justify each tranche of money. It has got to he worked for and earned.”

This was at a time when British Leyland was suffering from never ending strikes. Sir Ronald did not have enough time left to him to make a difference.

On 18 January 1976 Professor Sir Ronald Edwards, KBE, Chairman of British Leyland and President of the Beecham Group, died in a London hospital. He was 65 years old, the same age as the first British Leyland Chairman, Sir George Harriman.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. A case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had he lived, and being from a working class background, he could have worked with the unions far better than Michael Edwards and turned the company round.

  2. As for the unions, there would have been far too many to deal with at that time but had he worked with them to try and consolidate, working with them could have been a lot more easier and more efficient.

    To be honest, it would have taken more than working with the unions to turn the company around – product rationalisation and UK plant closures should have happened much sooner and we should have pioneered modular chassis building in the same way VAG did during the 90’s. Small cars made abroad, high profit cars built here. Many more parts such as seats should have been outsourced and strict quality control procedures should have been brought in – i.e. If the parts ain’t right they don’t enter the factory… if the car isn’t right, it doesn’t leave the factory.

    Unfortunately he just wasn’t healthy enough to carry on and we’ll never really know what his plans could have produced.

  3. Yet another “nearly” moment in the BL saga! Sir Ronald does seem like a man we could have done business with…

  4. He was the non-executive Chairmen, and thus frankly would not have made the slightest difference

  5. I have never heard of him, but what an amazing C.V. He must have worked incredibly hard as many did in those days – literally worked himself to an early grave by the sound of it. No worries about todays top bosses doing the same. They do very little in comparison except make excuses and put prices up for lower service and quality levels – and of course lower the wages of the average worker even further.Its working great mind as all of us have so little money we have stopped spending!!

  6. The numerous changes in senior management after Stokes went can’t have helped stabilise the company. Tragic of course, but unfortunate too.

  7. Curious aside – Ronald Edwards went to the same school as LJK Setright, though somewhat earlier.

  8. Hi, I wonder if you would mind telling me if mr edwards lived in halesowen at any time and remarried. I have been told he had but i would like to be sure as he could have been my stepfather. He certainly looks like him!

  9. Most of the info is culled from the Times newspaper obituary, and that is the most complete set of facts we have.

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