Profile: Leader fights on at Lucas: Sir Anthony Gill has endured a tough year, but his engineering flair and decentralising instinct may yet prevail. David Bowen and Terence Wilkinson report

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The Independent Online
SIR ANTHONY GILL, chairman and chief executive of Lucas, should not be in his job. He is the first to admit it: he was due to retire last November, and had a house in London and two jobs lined up to start him off on a prosperous semi- retirement. But unforeseen circumstances have kept him in the hot seat at Lucas. Few seats are warmer.

Tomorrow Lucas announces its interim results: they are likely to be grim. Despite a massive clear-out of jobs announced last October, the group remains close to the top of the City's takeover target list.

Sir Anthony, 62, has had a terrible year. Apart from realising that his bold plan to keep Lucas steaming full ahead through the recession was going badly awry, he has lost a finance director, David Hankinson, and his own designated successor, Tony Edwards. Both departures added to Lucas's accident-prone reputation in the City. It also meant Sir Anthony would have to stay on until a replacement could be found. If all goes to plan, he may be able to move into his more relaxed life only a year late; if it does not, he could still be in charge in a year's time.

It is unfair but inevitable that a personal reputation depends to a large degree on timing. Sir John Harvey-Jones left ICI covered in glory. He did many good things, but his best move was to step into the chairmanship at the end of a recession, and to leave in the middle of a boom. Sir Anthony will have done the reverse. He became group managing director in 1984, and took over the combined top job three years later. The first half of his reign was marked by successive record profits; the second by collapse. In the short term, at least, he will be remembered most for the collapse.

By all but the most implacable standards, the career of Anthony Keith Gill has been highly successful. His father was a clerk in a solicitor's office in Colchester, who was sacked at 54 when he discovered his boss was stealing clients' funds, and confronted him. Tony went to the local high school during the Second World War; he was sporting but had little interest in academic work.

He left at 14 to become an apprentice at a local engineering firm, but then started to study at night school. A state scholarship to Imperial College, London, brought him the best first-class mechanical engineering degree in his year.

Sir Anthony is the first to admit that he was lucky in his early career. As a 25-year-old National Service officer in the REME, he found himself managing two workshops employing 2,000 civilians. Then he joined Bryce Berger, an engineering firm, and was soon able to put his management experience to work by relocating a factory. He did this on schedule and ahead of budget, and was rewarded with a directorship at the age of 29.

Lucas bought Bryce Berger in 1960. Its managers were surprised to find such a youthful second-in-command, but dropped their prejudices and put him in charge. He says his army experience counted, and also helped him in his job. 'The services were very good at communication, structuring and training - characteristics that were pretty obviously missing in industry,' he says.

He spent the Sixties and Seventies in the thick of the industrial relations battlefield that was the British motor industry, running first Bryce Berger and then Lucas CAV, which made diesel injection systems. 'Managers were having far too much of their time taken battling out industrial relations problems,' he says. 'Some of them were punch-drunk; they were not thinking about the long term; they were not even really thinking about today, because of the problems created yesterday.'

Sometimes he found himself in the front line. When CAV bought a company where the management was in full flight from the unions, he decided to dig in his heels. 'We had disruptions on and off for 18 months, but we just kept on saying no,' he says. 'I used to have the chairman of Lucas and customers screaming down my ear.'

These experiences left him as unimpressed with Lucas's senior management as with its workforce. 'I had the feeling any younger person has that there ought to be more change than there is. There was a valuable pool of energy which I didn't feel was being tapped.' He remembers reading that the then chairman had said Lucas was short of good management. 'I was incensed: I said, 'There's lots of talent, but people are hiding their light under a bushel and no one will take the bushel off.' '

The recession of the early Eighties, which pushed Lucas into loss in 1981, came as a deep shock to most managers. 'They saw it as another downturn, when what it was was the culmination of all the things that had made us less competitive,' he says.

For Sir Anthony, now joint managing director, the aftermath of the loss 'was a busy, exciting and progressively less frustrating time, as we were able to do the things we obviously needed to do.'

One of these was to take the bushel off his managers, and the mechanism he devised to do this was the Competitiveness Achievement Plan. Each subsidiary head was told to present a plan showing how the business could compete: if it was approved, the managers were allowed to get on with it. If it was not, the business would be sold or closed down. It was a self-selection process that fitted his belief that central power should be minimised.

He was also responsible for putting Lucas at the forefront of the drive towards Japanese-style manufacturing systems. Against some internal oposition, he hired John Parnaby from Dunlop and encouraged him to install them throughout the group. Though progress was not as fast as Parnaby had promised, Sir Anthony continued to support him. His intellectual engineering mind is, it seems, fascinated with the relentless rigour of these systems.

Lucas was also trying to move its business away from the automotive side and towards aerospace and specialist industrial products. The process has been slow, and Sir Anthony has been accused of lacking the will to push it through, failing to force a closure or sale until the last possible moment. This can be seen as a sign of weakness, but it also comes from his belief in decentralisation.

He has also been excoriated for failing to react rapidly enough to the current recession. This too is a function of the man. 'The key to understanding him is that he is and always will be first and foremost a mechanical engineer,' a former colleague says. Thus he refused to cut research and development spending, and kept up capital spending as other companies were cutting back.

Most dangerous, Sir Anthony has found himself cut off from the City by a barrier of mutual incomprehension. Had the recession been short- lived, Lucas would have been well- positioned for the recovery. But it was not, and as the group belatedly announced it too was cutting back, its chairman did little to help the City forgive it. He could talk in great depth about products and markets but insisted, when talking to City analysts or the financial press, on reading from statements rather than speaking off the cuff. 'His concern for detail is quite incredible,' the ex- colleague says. 'But he is not easily able to take himself out of his frame of reference and put himself in the position of someone looking in.'

The depth of misunderstanding is reflected in one analyst's comment that Sir Anthony is 'a typical Brummie engineer'. It is an easy mistake to make: he can come across as diffident and stiff, and so soft-spoken that an accent is difficult to detect. His appearance contributes to the misconception: he looks a bruiser, not a man with a first-class degree and three honorary doctorates.

Within the company, he is respected for his technical ability and is thought of as honest and highly ethical, if lacking the ruthless detachment a chairman in tough times needs. With people he feels are sympathetic, he will relax completely and start chatting about his passions, yachting and opera. He goes to his marina-side house on the Solent most weekends, and is looking forward to swapping his Moody Eclipse 33 for something bigger when he retires. He has an exceptionally close family, including two married daughters with whom he and his wife regularly go on holiday in Spain.

He still has the house in London, but the two non-executive jobs he was hoping to take have now slipped past him. He believes, however, that it is his duty to become part of the network of directors helping engineering industry, and expects to add more jobs to his non-executive portfolio of National Power and Tarmac.

Whatever the City thinks of Tony Gill, he refuses to be downhearted. 'I get my own personal and private satisfaction from knowing what we've done,' he says. 'I'm very pleased with Lucas - I don't feel at all apologetic about what has happened.' Largely thanks to him, Lucas is one of the few British companies determined to stay at the forefront of technology: history may yet prove his confidence is justified.

(Photograph omitted)