Michael Edwardes, a household name throughout the 1970’s & 80’s during his tenure in charge of British Leyland, has died aged 88.
Forceful, difficult, abrasive and charming were just some of the different words used to describe Edwardes from friend and foe alike. Born in South Africa after his grandparents emigrated from the UK, many say he was destined to be a huge figure in the motor car industry. He recounts an experience in his own autobiography “Back from the Brink”. His father, who owned a garage business, left him and a friend marooned alone on the banks of the remote River Kroome after they lost an outboard motor from their boat. Eight days later the boys retrieved the valuable motor and returned home. It was a lesson learned.
Edwardes is often linked to the Thatcher reforms of the unions during a time of great turbulence. However, Edwardes was appointed in 1977 well before Thatcher came to office in ’79. It was in fact Labour leader Jim Callaghan who asked Edwardes to spearhead a turnaround of the ailing car giant, via what was then the National Enterprise Board, an organisation set up by Harold Wilson to run state owned companies.
Leyland, as it was then, was a miss-mash of brands in some disarray. Already partially state owned, the Group included marques such as Austin, Triumph, Jaguar, Morris and Rover.
Edwardes’ first day did not augur well. The workers at the Triumph plant in Speke, Liverpool producing the classic TR7, downed tools and walked out. It was to be a sign of things to come. Edwardes resolve stiffened, driven by the knowledge that Leyland was deep in trouble. The Company had lost production of around 250,000 cars due to industrial disputes the previous year. His small team of advisors, brought with him from the car battery giant Chloride where he’d previously been Managing Director, told him the Company was burning cash at an alarming rate and would very soon run out of it completely. As he noted in his memoirs, these were not his only problems. The stark reality was that the organisation had, “an unattainable Business Plan; an inadequate product range; serious design defects in a number of new models and a lack of quality linked to poor reliability.”
A radical plan was needed. He renamed the business British Leyland along with closing what he saw as the troublesome Speke plant, moving production of the iconic TR7 to Canley. The bold recovery plan included a reduction in the workforce of 12,000 jobs. The unions went ballistic. He met them head on. He told managers who had long felt powerless and undermined, “act firmly and you will be backed. I give you my word you will not be let down”. In an age before social-media he appealed over the heads of union leaders directly” to the workforce. Quoting a lack of British stiff upper lip-ness, the South African explained, “I’m not weighed down by all that class nonsense, I find it quite easy to walk on the factory floor and talk directly to people”. The unions opposed the cuts. In an employee ballot the workers voted 87% in favour of the restructuring. Edwardes felt a sense of vindication. However there remained a considerable issue in the shape of the Longbridge Plant union convener, Dereck “Red Robbo” Robinson.
Robinson became a household name, calling numerous unofficial strikes. He forcefully argued that he prevented far more strikes than he called. The Management argued with equal vigour. Robinson was a barrier to the modernisation needed to save the business. Something had to give. In a documentary aired in 2002, the well-respected journalist Peter Taylor revealed the Government were so concerned about “Red Robbo” they asked the Security Services to intervene. MI5 dispatched an agent to the plant to spy on and undermine Robinson. The disruption continued. In 1979, after refusing to remove his name from a pamphlet criticising Management, Robinson was sacked by BL. He received luke warm support from union chiefs. More importantly in a ballot to workers, Robinson lost heavily, 14,000 voted to support the dismissal, just 600 voted against.
It was a turning point. In 1980 the Austin Metro was launched to critical acclaim. Autocar reported, “At last. A British car we don’t need to apologise for”. And critically, without disruption. Edwardes pushed on with a strategic alliance with Honda to build a medium sized car. Some industry observers raised an eyebrow. But looking back today, it was a bold move that has since been followed by many motor manufacturers.
He turned his attention to cost cutting, halving the workforce over a five year period and closing a number of factories, including the MG plant that was producing cars at a loss of £1,000 per car. He knew he needed to invest to survive and, along with huge redundancy costs the company never got its head above water and made a profit.
By late 1982 the new Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, was finding her stride. Despite a huge turnaround in fortunes, Mrs Thatcher disliked the whole idea of state-owned industries. She urged the Board to sell-off BL. Insisting the future was bright, the Board urged the government to invest in Britain’s manufacturing base. Exasperated, Mrs Thatcher and her government were having none of it. Edwardes argued, with a good deal of reason and accuracy, “analyse the chunks of what I took on, a lot is profitable and not linked with BL in people’s minds today. I saw this as 40 different businesses and the more that could be saved the better.”
The survival of Jaguar, Land Rover and the new Mini under different ownership were to bear him out, but the decline of the mass car business, which he had slowed, was inexorable. For the time being, Edwardes had saved BL.
Mrs Thatcher saw things differently. She saw him as someone remorselessly begging for more tax-payers’ money which she was doggedly opposed to. Michael Edwardes stepped down in 1982 when his contract ended. During his tenure he was credited with changing the fortunes of BL. Moreover he fundamentally changed industrial relations in Britain. Given the on-going success of current manufacturers such as Jaguar, Land Rover and Mini, along with the enduring appeal of now classics such as Morris, Rover, Triumph and Austin, the question has to be put – was Thatcher or Edwardes correct?
In his later career, he had mixed success as Chairman of Mercury, a telecoms company at the forefront of the explosion of mobile telephony as well as computer hardware company ICL. Afterwards he moved on to head up tyre maker Dunlop before a very successful buy-out by BTR Ltd.
In 1958 he married Mary Finaly, the daughter of the Managing Director of Safmarine, a South African shipping company. They had three daughters, Susan, Judy and Penni. The marriage ended in divorce in 1988. He subsequently married his long time business assistant, Sheila Witts (nee Guy). She, his daughters and five grandchildren survive him.
Michael Owen Edwardes, businessman, born 11 October 1930; died 15 September 2019.