George Buckley: From Yorkshire slum to American Dream

Born to Sheffield poverty, he made his fortune in the US. Now he’s back in the old country with a lesson to teach, says Margareta Pagano

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The Independent Online

Sir George Buckley has a new, third, wife, eight children, and homes in Minnesota, Chicago, Florida and Derbyshire. He also has around 1,000 Dinky toy cars, some 150 miniature railway engines, three classic cars – including two Jaguar E-types and an Austin Healey Mk III – and is about to buy the latest Jaguar F-type, in metallic black with black trimmings.

Sir George tells me all this within minutes of our meeting. Then he reads out a text that he sent recently to his American wife, Donna.  It goes something like this: “I’ve fallen in love again; she has the most wonderful and curvaceous body ...”

You get the drift? If you are wondering who on earth is this Flash Harry with a taste for the fast life, then stop; no more assumptions. There’s an explanation for his apparent extravagance; as Sir George the engineer might say, there is a cause and effect. The new passion in his life is the F-type and the text to Donna was a teasing warning that he is going to splash out on another car. He has had several wives not because of a roguish eye but because his first wife died, leaving him with five young children. Then came the second blow when his second wife, with whom he had twin girls, asked him for a divorce and told him he was boring. “Actually, she didn’t say boring but that I was uninteresting, which I guess means the same thing.

“Once I got over the heartbreak, I took a hard look at myself: I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t gamble, I don’t look at another woman unless I’m with her. I don’t do any crazy things – I love history, fly-fishing and cars. Maybe she was right, I am boring,” he says, laughing at himself now.

She must have got the wrong guy. For the Yorkshireman eating his English breakfast in front of me has had the sort of fairytale life the Brothers Grimm would have struggled to conjure. He’s also unlike any industrialist I’ve met – funny, self-deprecating and kind.

 Born in poverty, abandoned as a baby by his mother and beset with health problems, he left his Sheffield school for the physically handicapped at 15 without a single qualification and no job to go to. Fast forward a few decades and he had become one of the UK’s most successful exports to the US and the only Brit to run an American Fortune 500 company.  With a reputation for turnarounds, he was hired to be chairman, chief executive and president of 3M, one of the most innovative industrial companies in the world, the maker of Post-it and Scotch tape. Today 3M has sales of $30bn (£19bn) and employs 88,000 people. Sir George retired last summer after seven years and is a millionaire many times over.

The reason we are here at Simpson’s restaurant on the Strand in central London is that Sir George  is crossing the Atlantic to do “something good for the old country”. He is the new chairman of Smiths Group, one of the UK’s few engineering companies of world-class status. Next to 3M, Smiths is a tiddler, with sales of £3.1bn and 23,000 workers, yet they are both conglomerate in style and have technological innovation at their core.

Smiths, he says, has great potential for growth, which is something he also sees in the wider British economy, though he worries it will remain unfulfilled. “The government is well meaning but tinkering at the edges. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a socialist, but we need big, Roosevelt-style, investment in infrastructure: parks, highways, schools, hospitals – even dry walls. There are three ways to achieve wealth: manufacturing, digging it out of the ground and growing it. More effort needs to be put into our manufacturing and engineering base.

“It’s a big problem. Sadly, engineering is not sexy; the industry doesn’t have a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett. So we need to find other ways to excite the young about innovation.”

For Sir George, the biggest priority is to get youth unemployment down, apprenticeships up and the young trained in new skills.

Learning was his escape: “Endeavour, curiosity and a fear of not being able to survive and compete was what drove me. Once I had the chance to study, I loved the maths, the science and finding out how things work.” 

His turning point came by chance. Soon after leaving school he became an apprentice to a local electrician and one day went to work on a site where he was introduced to an electrical punch list. The foreman asked him if he understood how the strength of cabling required for different functions was calculated. “I was totally lost. I realised I didn’t know the most fundamental things about the trade I had chosen ...  I knew I had to do something.”

 He persuaded his employers to send him to college and gained a degree in electrical and electronic engineering. He moved to the US in his early 30s after being offered a job by General Motors, in Detroit, and then worked for Detroit Edison and the Emerson Electric Company. After a brief sojourn in the UK with British Rail, he was lured back to head the Brunswick Corporation based in Chicago.

He plans to continue the “snowbird” migration – Florida in winter and Minnesota in the summer – with about a week a month in the UK, spending as much time as he can at his old vicarage at Sheen in Derbyshire, the place where he wants to be buried – “standing up so I can keep looking out at what’s going on”.  It’s also where his trains and toys are stored: “Whenever I get apologetic about having so many, Ivan, who owns the antique shop where I buy them, tells me, ‘It’s never too late to have a good childhood’.”

So is he still making up for his own tough one? “Maybe.  We were terribly poor yet I never felt underprivileged.” His “philanderer” father left when he was born and his mother soon after. He grew up in his grandmother’s house, a rooming property with about 30 displaced people – Poles, Italians and soldiers back from the war. “It was a Sheffield slum dwelling – there was one gas ring and an outside toilet.” A family living in the house looked after him and became his foster-parents.

When he was 11, his mother came back to reclaim him. “ My blessed foster mother had died when I was eight so my foster father looked after me. I was devastated to be taken away from him and I still remember looking up at the house the day I left believing that no one loved me.” It’s why he so clearly adores his own children. 

It’s now Sir George’s turn to ask a question.  “Do you want to know why I have been successful? It’s proof God has a sense of humour.”

The CV: Sir George Buckley

Age: 66.

Education: Degree in electrical engineering from Huddersfield Polytechnic and Phd from Southampton and Huddersfield universities in steel-making.

Present jobs: Chairman-elect of Smiths Group, director of Hitachi and PepsiCo, and chairman of private equity firm Arle Capital Partners.

Reading: Antony Beevor’s ‘Stalingrad’.

Favourite film: ‘The Princess Bride.’

Hobbies: Cars, reading history and cleaning the house.