The small man with a big presence took on Leyland’s militant unions and won the battle, but lost the war. Words Delwyn Mallet.
On 1 November 1997, Michael Owen Edwardes was handed the poisoned chalice of British industry that was British Leyland. In the preceding year BL had lost production of a quarter of a million cars through industrial disputes. Previous chairmen had failed to rein in the power of the trades unions that were crippling the corporation, and to rationalise the sprawling behemoth of companies and brands that constituted the conglomerate. Given that Edwardes stood a diminutive 5ft 3in, this truly pitched a David against a Goliath.
‘RED ROBBO HAD CALLED WORKERS OUT ON 523 OCCASIONS. THE STRIKES HAD COST BL £200 MILLION’
Edwardes was born in 1930, in South Africa where his father ran a panel-beating and battery business in Port Elizabeth. The young Michael’s upbringing was one of tough love; his father ‘treated life as an obstacle course’ and ensured that his children did, too. At the age of 15 he was fishing with a friend on the Kromme river when their outboard motor fell off. His father said: ‘We’ll leave you some food; phone me when you find it.’ It took eight days to retrieve. As a keen rugby player, at scrum-half to suit his stature, he acquired the first of his many nicknames: Tickey, after a small coin. Later names were less affectionate: Little Moe, after his initials; Pinnochio; Torchy, when he was running Chloride Batteries; and Poison Dwarf when at BL.
After graduating from Rhodes University with a law degree, he eventually joined Chloride and worked his way up the management chain in South Africa and Britain, becoming chairman in 1974 and increasing profits five-fold. In 1975 he was presented with the Guardian newspaper’s Young Businessman of the Year award.
In the same year the struggling BLMC (British Leyland Motor Corporation) was in effect nationalised by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. The whole country was in dire financial straits, with inflation running as high as 20%, unemployment at its highest level since World War Two, and industrial output crippled by endless strikes called by militant left-wing unions. Despite being critical of Government policy, Edwardes was invited to join the National Enterprise Board. Two years later he agreed to accept the Leyland challenge on a three-year secondment from Chloride.
The Government was tired of pouring money into British Leyland and his brief was unequivocal: ‘Make Leyland work or close it.’ In his memoir, Back From The Brink, he wrote: ‘I relish a good challenge… you could say I’m a bit of a scrapper.’ And a scrap it was.
The first clash came with his decision to close the suicidally strike-ridden Triumph TR7 factory at Speke on Merseyside. Unfortunately this also meant that the promising and production-ready V8-powered Triumph Lynx – a credible Capri rival – was also canned.
The closure of 13 more plants was scheduled for 1979, along with 25,000 redundancies. All of this pitted Edwardes head-on against his foremost opponent, the Longbridge factory’s communist convener Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, who had called workers out on no fewer than 523 occasions. The strikes had cost the company £200 million in lost production.
Edwardes chose to present his case to the workers directly and gambled on putting his plans to a ballot. The gamble paid off, with overwhelming support from a workforce who clearly preferred working and job security to striking. Red Robbo’s authority was undermined and Edwardes fired him. The whole BL saga was carried out under the media spotlight; for much of the country Edwardes became a hero, congratulated for breaking the tyranny of the unions and knighted in 1979. In the middle of his tenure the Government changed. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and Edwardes had a new battle to fight. Thatcher wanted BL to be broken up and privatised as rapidly as possible and was not prepared to continue funding it. He argued successfully that if the good bits – Jaguar, MG and Rover – were sold, then the rest, in the shape of Austin-Morris, would be unsaleable. Edwardes won the battle, but lost the war.
The Government released more funds for production of the new Maestro to proceed, but the Iron Lady was not happy. When Edwardes’ contract came up for renewal in 1982 he was not invited to serve another term.
Edwardes’ five years as chairman of BL would, despite his other achievements, define his career and his legacy. Perhaps he was not a great ‘car man’, but he was a dynamic and pragmatic manager. He saved BL from total collapse by halving the workforce, streamlining the company, supervising the launch of the Mini Metro and negotiating a partnership with Honda. He is also credited with reinvigorating the confidence of British management.
Ultimately his efforts failed to save the corporation, but he did considerably extend its life, and the descendants of parts of it – Mini, JLR – prosper today under foreign ownership. And Sir Michael, who died on 15 September aged 88, had a fine parting gift from BL: a Jaguar XJ-S in British Racing Green.