Sir Robert Scholey: Industrialist who transformed British Steel's fortunes but was vilified by Scots for closing Ravenscraig plant

 

Sir Robert Scholey was a hard-nosed, straight-talking Yorkshire steelman who eventually broke the stranglehold of the public school elitism that affected British industry for most of the 20th century, when he finally became chairman of the ailing, state-owned albatross, British Steel Corporation. Described as "Black Bob" for always sporting a black safety helmet on-site, Scholey, although he was credited with turning around the BSC's fortunes, will be forever demonised north of the border as the man who closed Ravenscraig, one of Scotland's historic industrial landmarks, and for the drastic job cuts which reduced the BSC workforce from 250,000 to just over 50,000 shortly after it was privatised in 1988.

Scholey had become chief executive in 1973, a few years after nationalisation, and ran the company's executive arm under the chairmanships of Sir Monty Finniston, Sir Charles Villiers, Ian MacGregor and Sir Robert Haslam, and was given much of the credit for transforming BSC's fortunes in those years, from losing £1bn annually to making over £500 million a year at the time of privatisation.

Two years after that, with profits of over £700m, it had become the lowest-cost steel producer in Europe and the most profitable – even though, unlike its European competitors, it received no state aid. Annual output, however, had fallen from 27m tonnes in 1967 to 12m tonnes when Scholey retired in 1992. In 1999 BSC merged with a Dutch company to form the Corus Group, which was taken over in 2007 by the Indian operator, Tata Steel.

Passed over for the top job on three occasions, twice by Margaret Thatcher, Scholey finally got his chance in 1986 thanks to the outgoing Haslam, who recommended him as his successor; Thatcher listened to him and took a gamble. Scholey was determined to prove to the PM that a career in the public sector did not mean a public-sector mindset. His arrival, however, came at a particularly delicate and politically sensitive time: he was given the poisoned chalice of making BSC competitive in readiness for privatisation.

Unfazed by political machinations, Scholey had little time for interfering politicians and so made enemies quickly, because he was seen as not "consulting" the relevant political figures on decisions affecting BSC's future. For him it was a question of "plugging the holes of a sinking ship".

The cutbacks were ruthless, similar in many ways to those imposed on the coal industry, but Scholey and the government claimed they were necessary to turn BSC into an internationally competitive force. Ravenscraig steel plant in Motherwell, Lanarkshire, had been a contentious issue for years, and the former Scottish Secretary, George Younger, had secured Scholey's assurance that the plant would remain open until 1994, market conditions permitting. However, the late 1980s saw the steel industry hit another trough, with Ravenscraig haemorrhaging money. To much consternation, but citing his position as head of a private company with responsibilities to its shareholders, Scholey decided to close the plant's strip mill in 1990 with the loss of 4,000 jobs. Within two years he announced the plant's full closure with 1,200 direct job losses, and another 10,000 directly and indirectly linked.

Born in 1921 in the steel-making heartland of Sheffield, Robert Scholey was an only child. His father, Harold, spent 50 years at the industry, eventually becoming a director of a local steel factory before it was absorbed by British Steel. Scholey, educated at King Edward VII Grammar School, left school at 16 to serve an apprenticeship at the Rotherham-based steel manufacturer, Steel, Peech & Tozer, while studying engineering at Sheffield University four evenings a week. In 1943 he joined the army, serving mostly in India in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

Demobbed in 1947 with the rank of captain, Scholey joined United Steels Companies as a mechanical engineer and rose rapidly. He held management positions at Samuel Fox's Stocksbridge works, near Sheffield, until it was nationalised in 1967 along with other major producers into the British Steel Corporation. Scholey was put in charge of the Welsh division of British Steel until he was called to the head office in London in 1972, where he became managing director of the strip mills division.

Scholey served on the board of Eurotunnel from 1987-94, and as chairman of the International Iron and Steel Institute from 1989-90. He also served stints as president of the European steel association Eurofer and the Institute of Metals. He retired from British Steel in 1992, replaced by Sir Alistair Frame.

In retirement Scholey travelled extensively with his wife to ancient historical sites as well teaching himself French. He also continued his interest in the Napoleonic era and enjoyed outdoor pursuits such as shooting – but he was, above all, a devotee of the opera, in particular the works of Wagner, which on occasion reduced him to tears. He is survived by his wife Joan, whom he met on a Sheffield tram, and their two daughters.

MARTIN CHILDS

Robert Scholey, industrialist: born Sheffield 8 October 1921; CBE 1982, Kt 1987; married 1946 Joan Methley (two daughters); died Much Hadham, Hertfordshire 12 January 2014.

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