Men at the wheel face uphill struggle: In our series on business leaders, Michael Harrison looks at the car industry

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The Independent Online
THE CAR industry ought to be riding high. The focal point in its calendar, the British International Motor Show, is in full swing in Birmingham, the wraps are off the latest models and the cash tills should be ringing.

Sadly they are not. Manufacturers are making headlines, not for the number of cars being sold but for the number of workers being laid off or put on short time. The razzle-dazzle of the National Exhibition Centre has more of a fake air than usual. The all-pervading sense is one of gloom.

The reason is simple. The car industry is experiencing is severest recession since the Second World War. Sales are set to decline for the third year running - the first time that has happened in living memory.

The motor industry executive with the biggest headache is Ian McAllister since the company he chairs, Ford of Britain, is the country's biggest seller of cars. A lifelong Ford man, he has been in the post for only 11 months but it has been a baptism of fire, beginning with the less than successful launch of the new Escort.

Mr McAllister, 49, has not flinched from squaring up to Ford's woes - he has placed Dagenham, its biggest UK factory, on a two-and-a-half-day week. So pessimistic has he been been about the industry's prospects that his rivals privately disparage him for contributing to the crisis of confidence afflicting the forecourts.

No such accusations have been levelled against his opposite number at Rover, the soft-spoken Scot George Simpson, who prefers to adopt a lower profile.

Although chairman of Rover, Mr Simpson, 50, also has a wider remit to look after the affairs of its troubled parent company, British Aerospace, where he was recently made deputy chief executive.

This has left the day-to-day running of the company in the hands of John Towers, 44, the highly- rated managing director of Rover group who is responsible for both Rover cars and Land-Rover.

At about the same time as Detroit decided to ring the changes at Ford of Britain, General Motors did likewise at its UK subsidiary, Vauxhall. The result was the appointment of Bill Ebbert, a 49- year-old American, to the post of chairman and manging director in place of Paul Tosch.

Mr Ebbert, who arrived at Vauxhall from GM's automotive components division in Michigan, is enjoying a happier time than Mr McAllister. Vauxhall is making money, its market share is rising and it is one of the few manufacturers operating at full capacity.

Whereas the two US manufacturers like to keep top executives on their toes by uprooting them regularly, the Europeans seem to prefer continuity. This partly explains why Geoffrey Whalen has been managing director of Peugeot-Talbot, the Coventry-based UK subsidiary of Peugeot-Citroen, for nearly nine years.

Mr Whalen, 56, is generally regarded as the gentleman of the business, the 'car chief with a conscience'. He is no soft touch, however, as Peugeot's rising UK sales testify. Before joining Peugeot he spent many years at British Leyland, latterly as head of personnel, a job that gave him first-hand experience of the car industry at its confrontational worst.

The luxury end of the car industry is run by two men who are finding life far from luxurious. Nick Scheele, 48, became chairman of Jaguar in April after having spent 28 years with its parent company, Ford, culminating in the post of president at Ford of Mexico.

It is his responsibility to turn Jaguar around from heavy losses and confound the received wisdom that when Ford paid pounds 1.6bn for the company three years ago it bought an expensive pig in a poke.

The man trying to revive the fortunes of Rolls-Royce is Peter Ward, its chairman and chief executive. After a career with BL, Mr Ward moved to Rolls in 1983, becoming its first marketing director.

The quaint assumption until then had been that Rolls-Royces marketed themselves. Mr Ward, 47, changed all that by recreating Bentley as a separate marque and promoting it, with highly profitable results.

He now needs all his marketing skills if Rolls is to turn the corner from steep losses and an alarming drop in demand that has seen sales halve in the past three years.

The Japanese transplant companies are run by a new breed of motor industry executive - the type who wear blue overalls and pin mission statements above their desks.

Ian Gibson, 45, joined Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK at Christmas 1984 as purchasing director. He is now its managing director and tipped to become the first Briton to sit on the main board of a Japanese corporation.

A pipe-smoking Mancunian who had spent the previous 15 years with Ford, Mr Gibson has been the driving force behind the Sunderland plant's development from a small-scale assembly operation into one of the country's largest car factories.

Bryan Jackson and Alan Jones, respectively corporate affairs director and manufacturing director of Toyota's new Burnaston plant near Derby, would presumably be only too happy to emulate Mr Gibson's success.

Mr Jackson, who came from Ford, and Mr Jones, a lifelong Vauxhall man, are the British face of Toyota. They will be expected to do for Derbyshire what Nissan has done for the North-east. Like Mr Gibson, they are also comparatively youthful at 45 and 51 respectively.

Charged with welding all these disparate interests into one cohesive voice for the industry is Sir Hal Miller, the former Tory MP and party vice-chairman, now chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

After a shaky start, when it was hard to distinguish whether he was acting as a spokesman for the industry or the Government, Sir Hal has begun to find his feet.

His opposite number at the Retail Motor Industry Federation, the body representing the country's car dealers, is David Gent. A solicitor by training, Mr Gent flitted between the motor industry and its various trade organisations before joining the RMIF in 1985.

With the exceptions of Sir Hal and Mr Gent, most of those running Britain's car industry have age on their side. All bar two are 50 or under. If youthfulness equates to stamina, it is a commodity that will be much in demand, because there is little sign of easier times on the horizon for any of Britain's car makers.