Guy Adams: The white-collar drones who destroyed a car giant

MG Rover was a shambles. No other word can do justice to the scale of the inefficiency

There's an episode of The Office where David Brent finds a novel way to fill one of his many empty days. In the absence of any proper work to do, the deluded middle manager devotes an afternoon to hiring a new secretary. I was reminded of this when I heard that MG Rover had reached the point of collapse. The decline of Britain's last major car manufacturer will be widely debated; a host of factors may be held to blame. But amid the bluster of politicians and trade unionists, one pressing fact remains: a casual waste of resources - the fault personified by Mr Brent - is at the root of Rover's downfall.

During the late 1990s, a summer job bought me face to face with daily life at the 100-year-old firm. For a brief, illuminating period, I worked at the company's engineering works at Gaydon, a sprawling facility off the M40 in Warwickshire. It employed close to 3,000 people, and was devoted (so far as I could tell) to new product development.

At the time, BMW owned the company. It had taken over in 1994, with big ideas about modernising Rover's bloated infrastructure and turning it into a profitable enterprise. But its early sense of purpose was quickly coming to nought; even the ruthlessly efficient Germans were unable to cut a swathe through the slobbering British car giant's middle management.

MG Rover was a shambles. No other word can do justice to the scale of the inefficiency. Vast rooms housed colonies of white-collar drones. They had smart desks, subsidised company cars and fat pensions. But when you peered beneath the surface - how can I put it? - nobody actually seemed to "do" anything.

Timekeeping was reasonably strict: you had to clock in in the morning and clock out a certain number of hours later. But within those parameters, staff could more or less act as they pleased. Senior managers had little grip on their brief, and output (seemingly) was never monitored. As a result, legions of well-paid staff sat twiddling their thumbs. The working week wasn't exactly arduous, either. Everyone was given Friday afternoon off. Holiday entitlements were generous, and lunch lasted as long as you thought you'd get away with. In the hot weather, many staff left their desks to do some "photocopying" and caught a tan outside.

Given this, it was strange to see MG Rover using employment agencies to recruit even more spare staff during the summer months. We were paid £6 an hour - far more than other local firms were offering in those days. In return, temps spent their days firing off e-mails to friends, and playing Solitaire on the computer.

My then girlfriend booked a seat in the first-class carriage of this gravy train when she landed a job as a PA to one of the firm's senior engineers. Not long after she started the job, the reason for her employment became apparent. Her boss had embarked on an affair with his previous PA, and decided that she should be promoted in order to accompany him on business trips. In six months at MG Rover, my girlfriend estimates she did a total of two full days' work.

All huge companies can be complicated, opaque institutions. So perhaps it isn't surprising that pockets of inefficiency should have existed, not least at a firm the size of Rover. They were perhaps the natural hangover from its days as the state-owned monolith British Leyland. The real scandal since that era has been the failure of market forces to result in corporate reform. When a company is poorly run, it is like the emperor's new clothes: nobody wants to alert their bosses to the bleeding obvious. If the scandal of overstaffing had been ended, the 3,000 workers at Gaydon in the short term would have been subjected either to redundancy or to a more arduous workload. A turkey isn't going to vote for Christmas, so mouths were kept firmly shut; Rover continued its steady progress towards oblivion.

In 2000, when BMW finally gave up and washed its hands of the Rover marque, the Gaydon facility was sold to Ford, who used it to develop Land Rovers. I would be very surprised if more than half the former employees remained. As to the rest of the company, it has been argued that British assembly lines (such as Longbridge) are no longer able to compete against other global giants. But I'm not so sure the blue-collar staff are to blame. At Gaydon, if David Brents hadn't ruled the roost, Rover might - just might - have had a future.

g.adams@independent.co.uk

Comments