Sir Terence Beckett, who has died at the age of 89, had a career which included six years as chairman of Ford in Britain and several years as director general of the CBI. But despite his successes, the industrial and political problems of Britain in the 1970s and 1980s prevented him from achieving as much as this model of a modern manager could have done a few years later. As he himself put it, "We have had an inheritance of inertia in this country which has been disguised by the industrial revolution, the empire and North Sea oil."
Beckett had few advantages in life – though he was not the only member of the family to be a successful industrialist. His younger brother, John, ended his career as chairman of the British Sugar Corporation. Born in Walsall in the industrial West Midlands, Beckett went to secondary school in Wolverhampton and a local technical college.
His opportunity, as with so many people from such a background, came from service in the Army, where he served in the Far East and rose to be a captain in REME – the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. This enabled him to take a BSc in economics at the London School of Economics after the war. In 1950 he was hired by Ford, one of the few firms – and the only one in the motor industry – with a modern management system capable of appreciating his double training, as an economist and as an engineer.
He was quickly spotted as a potential leader. The year after he joined, he became personal assistant to the chairman, Sir Patrick Hennessy, and in 1954, at the young age of 30, he was appointed styling manager at Briggs, Ford's body-making subsidiary at Dagenham. Within a couple of years he was promoted to head of Ford's product-planning staff – again, as the youngest person to be appointed to that job, the only one of its kind in an industry which generally lacked a sophisticated management structure.
His position ensured that he was probably the biggest single influence on the introduction in 1962 of the Cortina, the single most financially successful mass-produced car in post-war British motoring history. Unlike the much-praised Mini, it was not mechanically advanced, but it was both profitable and reliable, and for several decades dominated the market for the sort of family cars favoured by aspiring British families.
Beckett continued with further successes thanks to Ford's policy of a "model replacement cycle", not only with cars like the Escort and the Fiesta, but also with that perennial favourite the Transit van and the D-Series truck. In 1974, after a spell as the first British head of sales for Ford Europe, he became chief executive in Britain and chairman two years later.
He could not have chosen a worse time. In 1978, despite his willingness to listen and discuss rationally, to be a team leader and manage by persuasion – characteristics highly unusual in British management at the time – a nine-week strike by Ford's 57,000 workers resulted in a settlement which cost £200m in sales and aroused the Labour government's anger by dramatically breaking its policy of a maximum of five per cent wage increases, as against the 17 per cent awarded by Ford.
In 1980, claiming to be bored by his work at Ford, he was appointed director general of the CBI. He believed that at a time when "our whole way of life is at stake" he had a role to play. The choice of so senior a business figure was considered a major coup for an organisation which, although founded 15 years earlier, was still finding its feet and had been thrown off course by the early death of its director general, Sir John Methven.
Beckett naturally sympathised with what might be called the "wets" in the CBI – and at his first conference he boldly attacked the Thatcher government's policy of economic austerity, proclaiming the need for a "bare-knuckled fight" with a government which he accused of being composed of a "narrow alliance" of people with no business experience. He also called for a lower pound, and a sharp reduction in interest rates and employers' National Insurance contributions.
The speech received a standing ovation – but a number of leading Thatcherites, including the future Lord King and Sir James Goldsmith, resigned in disgust. Beckett's political naivety, so common among businessmen, naturally resulted in a well-publicised row, though he soon made it up with the Prime Minister and many of his proposals were eventually adopted by the government. Indeed, Beckett was at one with the Thatcherites in objecting to government support for industry – he called it "a species of tetanus which eventually paralyses the patient". This attitude was not surprising, for the only way that Ford's major rival, British Leyland, had been kept afloat was by regular injections of taxpayers' money.
Beckett remained at the CBI until 1987, when he retired, was knighted and became a very valued member of the Great and the Good. His appointments included the chairmanship of the Council of Essex University and a number of business appointments. But his most important was as chairman of the governing body of the London Business School, for, not surprisingly, he had been an early exponent of the need for business education.
He also had broader interests than most of his contemporaries in the business community, including bird-watching and a love of music which led to him attending the Edinburgh Festival every year. His wife, Sylvia, whom he married in 1950, died last year, leaving a daughter, Alison.
Terence Norman Beckett, business executive: born 13 December 1923; director and chief executive, Ford 1974-80, chairman 1976-80; director general, Confederation of British Industry 1980-87; CBE 1974, Kt 1978, KBE 1987; married 1950 Sylvia Asprey (died 2012; one daughter); died 2 May 2013.