Profile: Defender of the Rolls: Sir Colin Chandler needs all his bluff skill to keep Vickers on the highway. Chris Blackhurst reports

Click to follow
FOR MUCH of his life, Sir Colin Chandler appears to have led a charmed existence.

At school, he was good at sports, confident, big for his age, one of the lads, a hit with the girls. Upon leaving school, he struck lucky and landed the first-ever commercial apprenticeship at De Havilland at Hatfield.

Then it was onwards and upwards, eventually to negotiate Britain's largest defence contract, the Al Yamamah air defence project, with Saudi Arabia in 1988. He was rewarded with a knighthood for his efforts. All the time, he carried on pretty much as before: cracking jokes, drinking his companions under the table, playing - and, when he became too old - watching rugby.

These days, though, the smile is not as broad as it was. The reason is simple: Rolls-Royce cars. When he left the Ministry of Defence after a spell on secondment as head of defence sales from British Aerospace, he had a choice: return to BAe or go elsewhere. He picked the latter and landed the plum job of heir-apparent to Sir David Plastow, retiring head of Vickers, Rolls's parent.

Last week, Sir Colin, with Sir David having departed, announced the cutting of 950 jobs at Rolls's Crewe works and a loss for Vickers for the first six months of the year of pounds 4.1m.

The new man's big, tough, bluff - but charming - personality is facing its biggest test yet. So far, the City, which has the power to make or break him, is hanging fire. Even so, there are signs of potential trouble ahead.

Analysts hoped he would sell Rolls. Instead, he has decided to hang on to the famous marque. Sandy Morris of County NatWest is neither impressed nor unimpressed. 'It is clear he is his own man. We have not had a chance to meet him yet but he seems very personable and sensible.' Alistair Stewart of Carr Kitcat & Aitken has yet to be seduced. Sir Colin, he said, was 'proving something of a disappointment'.

The target of Stewart's initial dismay was born in Greenwich, in south-east London, in October 1939, 'at St Alphage's Hospital, to be precise.' For all his casual, relaxed manner, Sir Colin takes himself seriously. 'I've got a good memory for facts and figures. I could have got a Ph D in maths and geography.'

We are sitting in the plush surroundings of the Vanderbilt tennis club in west London - he is a member, as is the Princess of Wales. His chauffeur is sitting in the Bentley Turbo R - one of Rolls's proudest products - parked discreetly in the alley outside. The car and Sir Colin are familiar sights at the Vanderbilt. Some days he plays there twice, early morning and evening, often with the likes of Sir James Blyth, the Boots chief executive and his predecessor at defence sales.

On the days he does not play tennis, he gets his chauffeur to drop him at Battersea Park on the way in from his Hampshire home and jogs a few laps round the gardens, and then into work.

His origins, he says with pride, were 'relatively humble'. The family lived in Rotherhithe, in the former docks area of south-east London. Dad was a tool-maker, mum a shirt-maker. Colin passed the 11-plus and went to St Joseph's, a Catholic grammar school in Blackheath. Only four of his classmates came from what is now Docklands. The rest hailed from Orpington and Bromley, in leafier Kent. 'I felt pretty incongruous. I remember, on the first day, catching the bus in my emerald blazer and taking a fair amount of stick from local urchins who had come to watch.'

Sport, especially rugby, was his entry to a different world. He played prop, then wing-forward. Later, he played for clubs in Surrey.

He left school at 16, after O-levels, and would dearly have liked to have gone on to university, but his parents said no. In their world, people went to school, then to work; they did not put it off for another three years. 'Because of my background I was expected to leave. One thing that really irritates me about politicians today, when they talk about higher education and how it is a good thing for young people, is how little they know about parent power. They just don't understand - they should be talking to the parents as well as the children.'

While he has never been able to forgive his parents for their blinkered approach, he mentions with evident satisfaction how proud his mother is of her son's knighthood.

So it was, that when his father, on a business trip to De Havilland, heard it was recruiting for a new commercial apprenticeship course, he ran home, got his son to comb his hair and polish his shoes, and put him on the train to Hatfield.

It was hard (he earned pounds 2 a week, his digs cost pounds 2 10s, with his father paying the difference), but by the end of his apprenticeship, thanks to a day-release course at Hatfield Polytechnic, he emerged as a fully qualified chartered management accountant.

His first real job was within De Havilland's contracts department, 'helping to organise the selling of the Comet IV to impecunious airlines'.

There followed an inexorable rise within the grand old aircraft manufacturer. At every level, he appears to have made lifelong friends, on the shop floor, in the staff canteen, in the boardroom. When he considered leaving in 1966 - he was newly married to Jenny from Mertsham, Surrey, and hated daily commuting - Jim Thorne, the Hatfield general manager, persuaded him to stay with the company but go to a different division. He joined the Hawker factory in Kingston, Surrey, as assistant to the commercial manager.

A decade later, he was running the Kingston operation ('My parents were very proud,' he says). A year later, when Hawker became part of the newly formed British Aerospace, he was head of the giant company's 12,000-strong Kingston- Brough division. He acquired a reputation for doing unlikely deals, such as selling the Hawk trainer to the Finns and the US Navy. He stresses that he went out of his way to keep his feet on the ground - sitting on the canteen committee, promoting a worker information hot-line, and holding slide shows with staff 'to pull everyone together and give them some identity'.

After he joined the board as marketing director, his career appeared to hit the buffers again. He did not like the direction the company was taking and did not see eye to eye with Ray Lygo, the BAe chief. 'The company wasn't numerate any more. It was giving planes to get contracts. I did not like BAe then and thought it was time to get out.' He was recommended for the job as head of defence sales at the MoD.

The other candidate was Dick Evans, BAe's current chief executive and Chandler's then rival for power. James Blyth, the incumbent at the MoD, recommended Chandler and that was that.

He was on secondment and had his salary paid by BAe, which meant, as he puts it, he 'could stand proud of the stuffed shirts'.

His job was to win Al Yamamah for Britain. The French had received a letter of intent and it appeared to be heading their way. Chandler, with strong support from Margaret Thatcher, brought all his matey, changing-room bonhomie and sales- pitching skills to bear. The Saudis loved him. He was a man, he cared little for diplomatic protocol, he talked in a direct language they could understand. His immediate rapport with the Saudi Defence Minister, Prince Sultan, clinched the contract for Britain.

He describes its signing in simplistic, almost football-manager-speak, as a 'great moment'. Ever since, though, amid allegations of backhanders, it has been dogged by controversy. Sir Colin is dismissive. 'We broke every rule in the book, because it was in the national interest to do so. Negotiations were done by stealth, not by the rule-book.'

He claims to have landed on his feet at Vickers. 'It is my kind of company - very principled, very few internal politics and very open.' His passions are 'management development, and communication with employees and shareholders'. Just as well, judging by last week's news.

(Photograph omitted)