Lord Trotman

Ford trainee who rose to be chairman

Thursday 06 October 2011 07:46

Alex Trotman's was a rags-to-riches story. His career with Ford took him, over 43 years, from the lowliest of white-collar jobs in Essex to the company's very pinnacle at its headquarters in Detroit.

Alexander James Trotman, businessman: born Isleworth, Middlesex 22 July 1933; staff, Ford Britain, Ford Motor Company 1955-67, director, Car Product Planning (Europe) 1967-69, staff, Car Product Planning and Sales Planning Depts (US) 1969-75, chief car planning manager 1975-79, vice-president, European Truck Operations 1979-83, president, Ford Asia-Pacific 1983-84, president, Ford of Europe 1984-88, executive vice-president, North American Automotive Operations 1989-93, president, Ford Automotive Group 1993, chairman and chief executive 1993-98; Kt 1996; director, ICI 1997-2003, chairman 2002-03; created 1999 Baron Trotman; twice married (four children); died 25 April 2005.

Alex Trotman's was a rags-to-riches story. His career with Ford took him, over 43 years, from the lowliest of white-collar jobs in Essex to the company's very pinnacle at its headquarters in Detroit.

Although he was born in Middlesex, Trotman's austere upbringing was in an Edinburgh tenement block, endowing him with a light Scottish accent for the rest of his life. His father worked as an upholsterer, and the young Alex's first job, when he was still at school, was as a butcher's boy. He was bright enough to win a scholarship to the Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh, but university was not an option.

His concern, from the day in 1955 when he began work as a 22-year-old management trainee in the purchasing department at Ford's huge Dagenham plant in east London, was the methodology by which the company's products were manufactured and sold at a profit. Such planning rigour was one of the Ford Motor Company's tenets from the outset, and Trotman (who had spent time in the RAF as a navigator) fitted its ethos well. He recalled later: "I thought, this is one big mountain I'm going to climb."

The details of the first component he had to chase never left him: "[It was] the radiators of the old Consul. It was E5PD2. When you could be fired, you're inclined to remember things like that." He was later part of the team that created the Ford Cortina, Britain's best-selling car throughout the 1970s.

Ford posted him to Detroit for the first time in 1969, and this was followed by spells working his way through the global ranks to become chairman of Ford of Europe in 1984. He was put in charge of all North American operations in 1989, and in 1993 he was appointed to the post of chairman and chief executive.

This was two years after Ford posted its biggest ever loss, £2.3bn, and Trotman set about improving things in the way he knew best: prudent organisation. His plan, entitled Ford 2000, was set in motion in 1995. One of its boldest moves was to change Ford's traditional role as a manufacturer of its own components to being an astute buyer of them from outside suppliers. Many of its disparate parts-making businesses were spun off into the entirely separate Visteon. Visteon, and its workforce, then had to compete for Ford contracts. Meanwhile, relentless cost pressure was applied to Ford's existing suppliers.

Trotman's other action was to centralise Ford's design and engineering activities. From now on, Europe would be responsible for developing small- and medium-size vehicles, and North America would concentrate on large cars together with light trucks and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). This led to some bizarre situations, such as the replacement for the Transit, Britain's best-selling van, being entirely designed in North America, but it also saw the cost-saving measure of outwardly different models being built on identical "platforms".

Trotman shrewdly exploited the growth in sport-utility vehicles, large four-wheel drive cars based on low-tech pick-ups. "It's a good formula for the public and that's what we're providing", he said in 1997, although Ford was shortly to be rocked by a scandal involving the safety record of its Explorer SUV.

None the less, Trotman hauled the Detroit giant back to profitability, ultimately cutting £2.75bn in costs. In recognition of his rare distinction as a Briton who had made it to the top in the world motor industry, he was knighted in 1996, becoming a life peer three years later.

The blaze of glory surrounding his departure, however, was slightly dimmed by a disagreement over who should succeed him. In the end, William Clay Ford, great-grandson of the company's founder, prevailed upon the board to split Trotman's role so that he - Ford - became chairman and Jacques Nasser was appointed chief executive.

When the decision was announced in October 1998, Trotman - self-evidently, a firm believer in merit, and usually a formal, courteous man - was reported by Fortune magazine as saying sardonically to William Ford, "So, Prince William, now you have your monarchy." Trotman then stepped down, a year before his contract was due to end, and retired to Yorkshire the following December, well away from the metallic grind of the car industry where his reputation had been forged.

He was a director of ICI from 1997 until 2003, and served as its chairman in 2002-03.

Giles Chapman

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