A former journalist, now a leading light in Margaret Thatcher’s Treasury, once coined the aphorism that “a company’s profits vary inversely with the height of the chairman.” By that yardstick, the omens looked promising in late 1977 when South African lawyer Michael Edwardes, a whiz-kid of British industry and a towering five feet, two inches in his socks, took over ailing British Leyland.
Profits may be as much a pipe dream as ever in strike-plagued, uncompetitive BL, which has swallowed $2.6 billion in
public money since 1977. But Edwardes, who has been called “the gamest man in British industry,” has recently scored some remarkable coups over his troublesome work force and last week seemed to be on the way to further justifying his media nickname: “Supermike.”
At stake was a pay-and-productivity deal which Edwardes, now Sir Michael, says is “vital if BL is to have a chance of reaching internationally accepted standards of efficiency and productivity.” Militant officials among BL’s 11 unions had urged the men not to return to work after the Easter break because management said that, if they did, they would be “deemed” to have accepted a package linking modest pay increases of between five and 10 per cent with new working practices. Among other things, the latter would dilute the hitherto rampant power of Leyland’s shop stewards.
In the event, by the weekend only 12,000 of Leyland’s 86,000 workers had obeyed the call to stay away, though a late decision by the powerful Transport Workers’ Union to make the strike official boded no good in the critical months leading up to the October launch of Leyland’s new-look mini, the Metro, representing a massive $687.5-million investment.
It was the third time in a year that the feisty Edwardes looked as if he was pulling the rug from under his shopfloor militants. Last autumn, he went over their heads and directly organized a ballot to seek worker support for his tough company strategy, involving plant closures, layoffs and the introduction of new technology. The men endorsed the plan by an overwhelming 7 to 1 and, when union officials, led by veteran convener Derek (Red Robbo) Robinson, were fired for organizing disruptive action, humiliated him by 90per-cent rejection of a planned protest strike.
“Supermike’s” progress is seen by insiders to have a lot to do with timing— the grim reality of recession is beginning to bite home—and a lot to do with personal style. Unlike many British chairmen, he gets down on the shop floor and is ruthless with inefficiency
in executive suites. He habitually works an 80-hour week, including Sundays, and is driven by a powerful desire to improve Britain’s industrial performance.
Leyland’s fourth chairman in two years since the car group came under state ownership in 1975, Edwardes was described by a cabinet minister as its “last chance” against foreign competitors. Many mass-market models were selling poorly and even the proud Jaguars, Daimlers and Rovers were getting a bad name for quality. Edwardes raised eyebrows by jettisoning a planned deal with Renault of France in favor of a more modest agreement to manufacture a new model—optimistically named the Bounty—with Honda.
On accepting the hottest seat in British industry, Edwardes said: “I believe in getting a consensus in any move we make—not just among management, but on the shop floor too.” Frail though it was, the promise of that consensus on his reorganization plans last week coincided with the best news Leyland has been able to boast in months: thanks in large measure to its punchy, price-cutting tactics, its share of the U.K. car market, a mere 15 per cent in January, had bounced back to almost 24 per cent by March, just four points behind Ford.
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