Room at the top for a maverick

Ex-lorry driver's mate and banker, the head of the Industrial Society has broken every management rule, writes Rachelle Thackray
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THERE is a myth that if you want to reach the top in business, you have to be single-minded in your pursuit of power.

It's a myth which Tony Morgan, head of the Industrial Society, can refute by citing every step of his working life. His own unconventional route to the top, which started in an insurance office, took a diversion while he competed at the Tokyo Olympic Games, and has included the headship of several large companies, has been unique, and for the most part, unplanned.

Not only that; he retired before he was 50 then decided four years later to go back into business because he missed the cut and thrust of working life. "I have always just done what's showed up," says Morgan, now 66, with modest conviction. "Anything that makes a difference turns me on. So many people work for the wrong reasons. There are more things in life than business, and there are so many causes that need your energy." While these days his aim is to eliminate self-interest, that individualistic drive enabled him to escape a lowly Essex background after encountering wealthier contemporaries during RAF National Service.

His father was mortified when 20-year-old Morgan junior left his job at Sun Life Assurance to dredge sea-moss - at the time in vogue as interior decoration - in a fishing boat, but it was only when he got married that he sold it and became a truck driver's mate, the first step on the ladder to career respectability.

From there, he rose to become head of an industrial waste company, which he floated on the stock exchange at about the same time as he was sailing in the Tokyo Olympics in the mid-1960s. He won a silver medal as his stock was rising in value, and when the team flew back, ministers met them at a champagne reception.

By the mid-1970s, Morgan had forged global business links and created his own bank, was a BBC governor, and had founded the Campaign for Social Democracy. He was also instrumental in building Britain's first industrial incinerator, at Ellesmere Port.

His wealth paid for a luxury home, complete with airstrip and private plane. Inevitably, the bubbles of success began to go to his head. "I never had to ring up a client for an appointment; they would call and say 'Can Tony come?' I had articles about the company and profiles in magazines, and that becomes the reality of your life." He became a victim of his own PR, he says. "I'm afraid few handle success well."

Fortunately his friend Sir John Whitmore pulled him up short on a walk. "He just stopped and said: 'I can't keep reaching back for you'. I suppose he could have said: 'I'm fed up with casting pearls before swine'. After I got over my anger, I thought: 'What's he trying to tell me?' He made the most enormous contribution to my life. He was a hair shirt."

The answers came slowly; Morgan left for San Francisco with his wife and three children in the early 1980s, ostensibly to "retire", and met management gurus such as former tennis pro Tim Gallwey, ex-secretary of state Fernando Flores, Warren Bennis and Peter Drucker. It was also in the US that he came across Youth At Risk, a charity which aims to change the habits of teenage tearaways and which he now heads in the UK.

"I had this crazy notion that I had to retire before I was 50. In late 1983, we asked: 'Are we going to live the rest of our lives here or go back to England?' My eldest son said: 'It's as easy to drown in a pot of honey as it is in water'. That's a bit what California is like; they are relatively, on a broad scale, unworldly." Within hours of returning to the UK, he was involved in a management buyout, and became chair of Wistech plc.

He became an executive coach with the Alexander Corporation, and joined The Industrial Society in 1994, initially for six months. The society had rather lost its way. Founded in 1918 by Robert Hyde as the Boys' Welfare Association with the aim of helping boys avoid dead-end jobs and improving working relationships, it was guided until 1986 by ICI's John Garnett. When Tony came along, its glory days had long since vanished; it was given six months to recoup a crippling loss.

"They were incredibly demoralised," recalls Tony, who relished the challenge. "The executive committee asked me to stay and it was an easy decision. My mandate was to raise morale and restore the bottom line." He says there is now enormous excitement as it becomes, in his words, "a serious player and campaigner and a beacon of excellence".

He began by consulting experts: John Monks, Howard Davies and Melville Ross, at the Institute of Directors. He says: "I know chief executives who would barbecue their children before admitting their company had suffered problems. But with every instinct screaming for a business plan, we chucked the rulebook out of the window. It's the increasingly accepted idea that chaos, managed chaos, is a liberating way to change an organisation." Dividing the society's "corporate goal" into manageable chunks, society employees were told: "Achieve your part of the big goal." And so they did, surpassing all expectations. "Agility is the strategy of the future," says Morgan. "What the future of the organisation looks like is going to depend on one thing above everything else: the rate of learning of the people in it - in other words, how fast you can adapt to change."

One initiative which emerged was 20/20 Vision, launched with the aim of giving young people a voice in the world of work, with feedback from around 10,000 teenagers.

Tony says: "We live in a bauble society, where everyone is looking for acknowledgment in a public way; people are driven by that." His own success is in part due, he believes, to his Socratic style - asking the searching questions - combined with "a Calvinistic work ethic".

He plans to stay in his present job until the millennium, and is already looking for someone to succeed him; the ideal candidate will be under 50, with international experience, a futuristic thinker, and someone who understands "a female-dominated culture": self-assured but not arrogant, good with the media, not an academic, independent-minded, and with entrepreneurial experience at grass-roots level and a "spiritual" element.

But the question is, what will he do once he's handed in his notice? He can't retire again. Something, you can bet, will show up.