My Biggest Mistake: Walter Hayes

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The Independent Online
The executive chairman of the Ford-owned Aston Martin Lagonda Group joined Ford of Britain as public affairs chief in 1962 after a career in Fleet Street journalism. He had a global role with Ford public affairs in the 1980s.

I RECKON that I have made the normal number of mistakes in my life. I should have had more children. Occasionally, I picked the wrong man for the job. And I lost motor races I should have won. But the only big mistake in my business career, it seems to me with hindsight, was in underestimating - or perhaps not even estimating - the Japanese challenge to the UK, US and European motor industries in the early 1970s.

I was far from being alone in that lack of foresight, and frankly I don't think any individual could have done much to change the course of history. But it might have helped towards an earlier recognition by business, industry, governments and trade unions that there were no longer any domestic markets. An earlier start might have been made towards making the car industry world competitive.

No one in the US recognised the Japanese threat either. It's chastening to look back today and see how it has brought about such a huge adverse shift in the US trade balance and the unsettling effect that it has had on the US economy - for more than a decade.

If we had understood earlier the nature of the Japanese threat, we would have understood our own problems rather better - and what to do about them. Regeneration of the motor industry in this country would have taken place earlier. Individual companies would have got smarter earlier.

As it was, we were far too slow in our response. We lost 10, 15, 20 years in meeting the threat.

We are told that Japanese motor manufacturers have created jobs here. But for every job they have created, one or two have been lost in established manufacturing plants. And the bulk of their research and development is securely lodged in Japan.

What we should have insisted on from the start with the Japanese transplants is that stricter local content rules should have applied before they were allowed to set up shop.

I am not trying to be dogmatic about these matters. And I'm not a Japan-basher. The case for containing Japan is never easy to argue because the word 'protectionism' inevitably enters the argument - and it is a recognised sin. I have never known why.

There is no crime in protecting jobs, education, the health service and our farmers. And Europe should have discovered by now that it is not a crime to ensure a fair deal for its wealth-producing manufacturers.

I am not against competition. Not at all. Free trade is wonderful - but fair trade is even better. The European Community was not called the Common Market for nothing. The argument is not about history. It is important to know what has happened in the past to see how best to plan for the future.

And the future that is emerging in the Far East and the Pacific Rim gives real justification for believing that the coming century will be - as many have prophesied - the Pacific Century.

Japan has shown what it can do in the West. We now have to make sure that we travel in the opposite direction.

'Go East, young man]' may well be the most important immediate imperative for our existing and coming entrepreneurs.

(Photograph omitted)