My Biggest Mistake

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Neil Johnson, 43, was appointed director- general of the Engineering Employers' Federation in July. His business career spans 19 years in the motor industry, in which he held several executive posts, including sales and marketing director at Jaguar, director of sales and service for Land Rover worldwide and director of European operations for Rover Group as a main board director. A graduate of Sandhurst, he took a three-year break from business in 1986, accepting a secondment to the Ministry of Defence and commanding the 4th Battalion, The Royal Green Jackets.

I HAD become a Europhile early on in my management career in industry, and I still am. My biggest mistake was to assume that all the industrialists I had to work with felt the same way. To my immense surprise, it wasn't so.

Far from their sharing my view that our future lay in Europe, I found, a hangover of post-imperial pretence still prevailed among many senior British industrialists. So much so that I sometimes came out of meetings so frustrated that I felt like banging my fist through a wall.

I developed a sense of sadness at having to work in that sort of sort of environment. It sometimes gave me the feeling that I had failed.

It alarmed me that I was having to spend so much time debating the issue and trying to convince people that we needed to be at the heart of Europe.

The insularity of some senior executives took me aback. I thought if something went wrong with one of our products in Europe, there would be a queue of people ready to fly out to wherever the problem had occurred and sort it out. I was wrong.

If it had happened in the United States, where they speak English, sure - they were ready to go. But so many were reluctant to go to any land where they spoke a different language.

Fear of not being able to communicate was the main deterrent, I suppose. But there was also little understanding of the different cultures in Europe, and that the approach to business in the various countries of Europe was also different.

In most cases, executives soon become experts in their domestic industry. But far too many find it difficult to understand other markets. Sad to say, I often heard it said: 'What's good for Britain should be good for other markets as well.'

Frankly, I should have spotted my mistake earlier. If I had, I would have launched an induction programme on what Europe was all about, rather than dribbling it out as I came across negative and ill-informed views. I would have made everybody who was involved in decision-making sit down, and would then have blasted them with the necessary information to file in their memory banks. As an imperative to understanding the different approaches to business in Europe, I would have started with the cultural backdrop in the countries concerned - and perhaps some basic language lessons.

I do believe that this insular 'culture' problem in Britain is spread right across our complex Anglo-Saxon national psyche, although there are signs of it changing. There is now a better understanding in industry of what's needed, whatever the hesitations, doubts and downright hostility to Europe from politicians who ought to know better.

Many of our manufacturers are working very hard to sell in Europe where 63 per cent of our engineering exports go. And I might add, Germany is our biggest customer, though we still have a huge trade deficit.

What is needed from Government is a clear statement on the financial front and a long-term industrial and economic strategy leading to a lasting expansion of our manufacturing base. And we need them now, to stimulate growth. Otherwise, I fear for our industry and UK plc.

It is immensely worrying that there is still no real sign of such a strategy. That really is a big mistake.

And, dare I say it, we will need to be a part of some form of European currency system.

(Photograph omitted)