`My Biggest Mistake' Brian Small

The managing director of Ingersoll Engineers was a consultant to busine ss and industry for 25 years and is the incoming president of the Management Co nsultancies Association. Here he talks about how easy it is to fall into old wa ys
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The Independent Online
My biggest mistake lasted for nearly 10 years - starting from my arrival back from the United States in 1975.

During my five years there, as a consultant to a number of blue-chip manufacturers, I had seen and helped and led some pretty substantial and radical change programmes.

Coming back, I made the transition from the "can-do" culture to the "tea-break'' way of life all too quickly. Tradition, in all its entrenched ways, still ruled. I recall eating in all nine levels of dining-room at one major industrial group. And I remember one posted notice - admittedly it was a bit faded - which stated: "Gentlemen working on Saturday mornings will not wear hunting attire''.

This, of course, was the era when to suggest that an improvement of more than 10 per cent was possible, and realistic, was likely to produce the men in white coats. How different from today, when anything less than 100 per cent is considered too conservative.

My mistake, then, was to get sucked back into the good old British ways and to allow discretion to prevail over valour. I told my clients just as much as they could stomach - even when I knew, and had seen, that far more was possible, and necessary, to survive in modern world markets.

However, for those of you who remember, those were the days when, for example, we didn't argue with the plumber if he did a bad job. We didn't quibble if the electrician was late. And certainly we didn't complain if either one left the place in a mess.

Would the big industrial names of that era have fared better today if only we had dared - if only we had shown the will to be more radical?

The answer, I'm convinced, is "yes'', but I will leave out their names as most of these companies still exist today in some hugely different guise and ownership.

One of the few occasions when I threw caution to the winds was with Raleigh - long before its current ownership. I got thrown out.

My mistake was to say, for once, that dramatic improvements were possible. I can remember that one of the key issues was our idea to break the company up into smaller, more agile, business units - each one responsible for making quite different things, such as racing bicycles, sturdy bikes of the type that are most popular in the developing countries, and children's toys.

Today, this notion of creating focused and accountable mini-businesses is the sort of thing we do all the time. But to the typical management at that time, such an idea amounted to diluting a big company - where they seemed to be proud of the time-honoured principle of one entity, one site, one monolith.

Later, TI tried to sell the company. Later still, Raleigh became a management buyout. It was almost as if the management had to go through all those options to realise that any real change must be radical and fundamental.

With hindsight, I suppose that my mistake was understandable - if hardly justifiable.

You see, I did know that in the late 1970s the average rate of change and improvement in the US was three times higher than that in the UK.

I knew about the dramatic changes in Japanese industry, and all about "just-in-time" production and delivery, 10 years before it was the vogue in England. In fact, I admit to assisting in the process by helping to design Hyundai Heavy Industries - now animportant player in capital goods - on behalf of the World Bank. And this was only 10 to 20 years ago.

Thank God that both the actions and attitudes of British industrialists have improved so much over the past decade - leaving us now, in all probability, more willing to accept change than anywhere else in Europe. By comparison, it took an unprecedented invasion by the Japanese into the US to get American industry back on its toes.

Still, had we started in the UK only 10 years earlier, so much capacity and capability might have been saved.

Today, I fear that we may never again become a net exporter of high-value, high-tech manufactured goods.