Former chairman of British Leyland

Born: October 11, 1930;

Died: September 15, 2019

SIR Michael Edwardes, who has died aged 88, was the Mr Fix-It of British industry in the 1960s. He was the man Whitehall went to when industrial giants were failing: notably British Leyland (BL) and Dunlop.

His time as chairman of BL was fraught and it is now considered one of the definitive confrontations against the might of the trade unions. Sir Michael had to settle what many saw as numerous outdated working practices then rationalise and modernise the whole fabric of the company. BL was partly nationalised and its range still included Austin, Morris, Rover, Jaguar and Triumph. In November 1977 – the month Sir Michael assumed control – the company was moribund and 250,000 cars failed to reach the showrooms because of strikes. BL was also close to bankruptcy.

Sir Michael was uncompromising, blunt and forthright in his dealings with senior managers and workers. He was a bit of an industrial loose cannon but when he joined BL he was given carte blanche: ‘Make Leyland work or close it.’ Not for nothing was he known as The Turnaround Artist on the Loose. It was with that attitude that he assessed the situation at BL’s plant at Bathgate.

In a grand industrial gesture, the Macmillan government had opened the Bathgate plant in 1961. It was expected to provide jobs and revitalise Scotland’s heavy industry. Initially, Bathgate and the Albion plant in Glasgow were operating at capacity. But by the end of the 1970s Sir Michael was having to make crucial decisions about Bathgate’s future. To combat strike action, he threatened to cut £32m of promised investment in the plant and when the workers did not comply, he cut the investment immediately.

By the early 1980s the industrial climate had changed radically and the UK car industry was in the doldrums. In 1982 there was serious concerns over the future of Bathgate and Tam Dalyell (the local MP) asked questions in the Commons and lobbied tirelessly on the workers’ behalf begging that, somehow, the plant was retained. Somewhat forlornly in his autobiography, Dalyell wrote, “For a quarter of a century, the BL plant at Bathgate and its ever-increasing problems were at the epicentre of my existence.”

In 1984 Sir Michael decided to close both Bathgate and Albion with the loss of 2000 jobs. There was a work-in on the factory floor but to no avail. Labour MPs called it “industrial sabotage”.

Michael Owen Edwardes was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa where his father worked in the motor trade. He attended St Andrew’s College and read law at Rhodes University. When he graduated in1951 he came to the UK and worked for the Chloride battery company. After a spell running the company’s affairs in Rhodesia he returned to join the UK board in 1969 and was responsible for a huge rise in the company’s profits. He was viewed as one of the high-flyers of British management.

So much so that Harold Wilson made him a member of the National Enterprise Board and Sir Michael wrote a critical report on a costly bailout of BL. He was made the chairman and on the day he took over in 1977 he had to contend with wildcat strikes and a crisis at the bank. Within six months and, with typical confidence, he proposed a savage restructuring of BL that included reducing the staff by over 12,000, the axing of some long-outdated models and developing the Metro.

The unions were horrified. Further industrial unrest followed and Sir Michael closed the Speke plant in Merseyside. He gave the unions an ultimatum: either they accept his proposals or the company would collapse.

Sir Michael would often appeared on early evening magazine programmes and gave relaxed interviews direct to the public over the heads of the unions or shop-stewards. He took on – some would argue outsmarted - the unions and gained the company much public sympathy: insisting, for example, that work contracts be strictly followed.

The denouement came with Sir Michael’s dismissal in 1979 of Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson, a Communist convenor at the Longbridge plant with a history of leading disruptive strikes. Sir Michael’s calm but firm tactics won the day. The workers voted not to strike in support of Robinson and thereafter days lost to strikes at BL were much reduced.

Sir Michael inspired differing opinions both within industry and the workforce: when he left, BL still owed £1.6 billion to the government and was trading at a loss. He undoubtedly reshaped BL, enhanced the upmarket division (Jaguar and Rover) and launched the Austin Metro. Finally, he entered into a beneficial arrangement with Honda. One thing is certain: his restructuring of BL marked a radical change in the management practises and skills witnessed throughout British industry.

In 1984 he was asked to save the debt-ridden Dunlop. Sir Michael sacked 11 of the 13 on the board on arrival and within a year negotiated a good price for the company when it was taken over.

He was a keen sportsman – especially squash – and had played scrum half in his youth. His first marriage in 1958 to Mary Finlay was dissolved in 1988. His second wife, Sheila Witts, survives him as do his three children from his first marriage.