The demise of British Leyland was “entirely avoidable” according to the inspirational businessman who transformed the defunct car-maker’s parts and service division into a global leader.
John Neill, chairman and chief executive of the Unipart Group, visited Birmingham to deliver the University of Birmingham Business School’s Annual Advisory Board Guest Lecture. “Culture Change: It’s Not Rocket Science...It’s Harder Than That” focused on the importance of changing culture to achieve success in the business world.
Speaking to the Post ahead of the lecture, Mr Neill, who took control of Unipart in 1976 two years after it became independent of British Leyland, believes things could have been very different for the car maker.
“It was entirely avoidable and was by no means a preordained outcome,” he said. “If you think about it British Leyland was Britain’s biggest company and largest exporter selling cars all over the world.
“It was highly innovative too. The Mini was invented by British Leyland, as was the Range Rover – the modern SUV – and the Rover SD1 is being copied today by BMW. Where the business failed was in the execution.”
As to what that failure entailed Mr Neill believes it was failing to look after customers combined with the industrial strife of the day.
He added: “If you look at one of the biggest reasons for the demise of the business it was that customers all over the world ran out of patience with poor quality products that went wrong and couldn’t be delivered on time
“When Michael Edwardes came to the business he decided to send out a fax every day detailing the strikes, go-slows and disruptions occurring throughout the BL supply chain. It was three pages long every day and that tells you a lot.”
Mr Neill also contrasts BL’s demise with the rise of the Japanese auto industry, Japan getting things right as Britain got them wrong.
“While that was happening the Japanese were working out how to do things better, how to improve quality, how to improve cost and how to improve delivery. Now they make more than 12 million cars a year. Just think what it would have meant if we were making 12 million cars in Britain today – just think about the public services we would be able to fund.”
On the subject of public services Mr Neill has strong views on the NHS, believing the ‘Unipart Way’, where the focus is ultimately on the customer, could help deliver a more efficient health service.
“The Francis Report shocked everyone but wasn’t isolated and it is clear the problems spread way beyond Mid Staffordshire,” he said.
“Francis makes 289 recommendations, if you try and summarise what he said you have to improve the quality, reduce the costs, change the culture, improve delivery and be more innovative. To create a culture of innovation. I know from having built and implemented the Unipart Way in multiple businesses throughout the world if you put the Unipart Way into the NHS you would get all of these results by getting people to focus on what really matters – the patient – rather than the numbers targets set by some administrative body completely removed from the coal face.
“There are great people in the NHS and with a bit of leadership and help you can get a better result for patients.
“At the end of the day all of us as citizens want a great NHS but it has to be competitive and it has to be productive. The nation can’t afford the costs at the rate at which they are escalating.
“The auto industry in the UK didn’t believe that – it said you can have one or the other but 20 years on everyone knows you can get the quality up and the costs down.”