How has a motor industry magnate come to be on the board of a Birmingham financial services firm? John Cranage talks to Bryan Jackson to find out.
For a life assurer, the Wesleyan seems to have a strong affinity with the motor industry.
In 1999 It recruited Jim Mcdonald, a retail financial expert-cum-carmaker as managing director. He left it soon afterwards, however, for a banking job in his native Scotland.
But now Birmingham-based Wesleyan – rated the strongest mutually-owned life office in Britain – counts the former head of Toyota UK among its non-executive directors. It is one of a clutch of jobs that Bryan Jackson, 61, has taken on after retiring as managing director of Toyota’s UK carmaking operations four years ago.
It means that a society that already has a stronger balance sheet than any of its peers has one of the country’s leading specialists in man management and lean production on its board.
When I talked to Swansea-born Bryan at the Wesleyan recently, he said he had only just got his voice back from cheering Wales’s Six Nations grand slam.
The journey that the would-be professional golfer has taken from a council estate in the Welsh port to the Wesleyan boardroom and the chairmanship of the East Midlands Development Agency included a 23-year stint at Ford.
"I did the usual thing, passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school," he said. "I found golf and wanted to be a professional golfer but I wasn’t good enough. But my son is and he is a pro."
Having swallowed his disappointment, Bryan set his sights on a career in accountancy. His initial encounter with Ford back in 1966 saw his job path take quite a different turn, however.
"I was playing golf one day with someone who said Ford were coming to look for accountants and trainees and I applied. I went through a series of psychometric tests and the like and while I had a natural bent for maths they thought I would be better in human resources.
"As a result of that, Ford employed me and very kindly sent me off to what is now University College Swansea and paid for my education, which was very good because we were from a council estate and didn’t have much money."
Bryan’s first posting was to Ford’s now-defunct Swansea plant which produced rear axles and transmissions for trucks.
That was followed by stints at Dagenham and Ford HQ at Warley in Essex where he worked in forward planning and in researching the Detroit giant’s competitors.
"Then one of the vice-presidents who I had worked with quite closely said 'if you think you’re so clever at telling people how to do it why don’t you do it yourself’ and I moved into manufacturing and general management.
"All my colleagues told me not to be so silly, but I didn’t want to stay in human resources all my life."
His first taste of life on the factory floor was at Ford’s Saarlouis factory in Germany as assistant manager in the press and body plant.
"After that I went to Halewood, which is where my career really took off."
He arrived on Merseyside in 1982 to take up a post in production control and ended up managing, in turn, each of the sections that made cars, the press, body, paint and final assembly plants.
After gaining further qualifications, Bryan was put in charge of operations for both the press and body plants at Halewood.
"We had a really challenging time," he said. "There were 13,000 people producing 650 cars a day and we turned that into about 7,500 people making 1,300 cars a day – without a dispute.
"Halewood had a terrible reputation, but we worked really hard and we won their hearts as well as their minds. If you win a Scouser’s heart you’re there."
The transformation of Halewood from a strike-beset plant making Ford Escorts in large numbers into the much more efficient home of the Jaguar X-Type and Land Rover Freelander has become almost the stuff of legend in the car industry.
It is now rated one of the most efficient plants in the Ford empire – a factor that has probably influenced Indian conglomerate Tata’s decision to bid to take over Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford.
Bryan, however, was not at Halewood to see the final transformation. Because in 1989 he was approached by a head-hunter who told him about a company that was planning on setting up operations in the UK. It was Toyota. And Bryan was to became part of one of Britain’s most remarkable industrial success stories from the start.
"Initially I went along in all honesty to see what their plans were because I had no intention of leaving Ford. In my job in research and planning we had studied our competitors and the only one we were really concerned about was Toyota, but at that stage we didn’t anticipate them coming to Europe."
But he quickly discovered just how exciting an opportunity the Japanese carmaker was presenting to him – one too good to turn down.
Toyota had already chosen Burnaston, between Derby and Burton-on-Trent, as the site of an investment that began at £850 million, but which has now mushroomed to some £2 billion in value, by the time Bryan joined.
Burnaston produced just a handful of cars in its first year of operations and now has the capacity to build up to 300,000 units of the current plant models, the Avensis and Auris.
"I claim no credit for the fact they chose Burnaston. Every local politician claimed credit for getting them there, but I used to say it was nothing to do with me.
"We took over a field which had been an aerodrome and in June 1990 we broke ground and we were told we had to produce the first car on December 16, 1992.
"We had to build the entire plant while at the same building an engine plant in North Wales. And on December 16, 1992, the first car drove off the line."
Bryan will tell you he had a "fantastic time" with Toyota right up until he retired in 2004, having risen through the UK management ranks to the managing director’s chair.
So what, I asked, were the essential differences between working for US-based Ford and Toyota, with its fabled lean manufacturing techniques, its obsession with quality, its attention to detail, its philosophy of constant improvement and of making every single individual employee a part of the company.
"What I’d been trying to do at Halewood, where we had a baggage of history, was to do many of things that Toyota take as a given," Bryan replied.
"Coming to Burnaston, we had no baggage, but equally there was no culture; we had to create it.
"The biggest difference for me was that I had worked for an American company all my life at that point who were extremely fast of foot. You were recognised and rewarded for quick thinking and quick action.
"Going into Toyota – I say 'Toyota’, not 'Japanese’, because each Japanese company is different – the culture was considered, evidence-based, factual and with no emotion; it was a completely different climate and atmosphere.
"And as much as I thought I understood it, until I went and worked in it I didn’t understand it.
"The only consolation was they must have been as frustrated with me in the first couple of years as I was with them because I was trying to become de-Americanised and they were trying to become Europeanised."
Something of a myth has grown up about Toyota’s decision to locate its first European assembly plant in Derbyshire rather than in the traditional car-building areas of the West Midlands.
The Japanese didn’t want to take on workers imbued with the industrial bloody-mindedness that had blighted plants such as Longbridge, the cynics claim.
Not so, says Bryan Jackson.
Toyota had already proved in the US that it could take over an established plant (formerly owned by by General Motors) with a stinking reputation for quality and industrial strife and turn it around.
"The real motivation for locating at Burnaston was that we needed 600 acres of accessible land in an area that had traditionally had an engineering background. And Derby, with Rolls-Royce and the rail centre had a respect for engineering. Also, we took no money, no grants, but we were welcomed by the national and local governments of the time and we were quite close to the parts and component suppliers of the Midlands."
After retiring Bryan took time out to recharge his batteries by touring Australia with his wife.
"My wife often jokes that we have been married for 35 years but have only lived together for five because I was always at work," he said.
Then he was invited to apply for the post of chairman of East Midlands Development Agency (a job that’s in the gift of the Prime Minister, incidentally) which he took up in December 2004.
He was also asked by industrialist John Neil, an enthusiastic adopter of Japanese methods to take over the deputy chairmanship of Unipart Manufacturing Group.
Then there were invitations to join a top level ministerial advisory group for manufacturing and the task group preparing for the 2012 Olympics.
Bryan also runs a company he established himself to advise on lean manufacturing – he is, after all, one of the country’s leading experts in the field.
Oh, he’s also retained as a European adviser to Toyota. And by a London venture capital house. Then came an approach to join the board of the Wesleyan. Its chairman, Lowry Maclean, had briefed headhunters to find a non-exec with big business experience and a deep understanding of how to keep customers satisfied.
Bryan joined last year after running the rule over the business – at one stage by phoning in and pretending to be a potential customer.
"I was really impressed by what I perceived to be their values and ethics.
"Then I spent some time with the executive and they were all young, bright, enthusiastic, committed, and I thought 'yeah, I can work with these people’.
"I am thoroughly enjoying it. It is so new and challenging that it is exciting for me because I always want to learn and improve my own personal performance.
"And I hope that I bring a lot of experience of how to truly look after customers and run an efficient and effective organisation."
Bryan knows he was not the first former car man to join Wesleyan.
"I said to Lowry that I might be the first to fail but I won’t be the first," he joked.
On a more serious note, he added: "I think the car industry can bring certain disciplines and a different perspective to financial services.
"The FSA [the Financial Services Authority] said it wants some truly independent non-execs and I think I am just that."
And just as he went to live close to Burnaston ("you can’t claim to be building an environmentally-friendly car plant and then go and live 50 miles away") Bryan has put some of his own money with Wesleyan, which has one of the most enviable investment records going.
"If you believe in something you have to put your money where your mouth is, so I have bought some of their products."
All in all, he’s back working five days a week. But at least now he has some time to get his golf swing working again.
* 'Tata will look after Jaguar and Land Rover'
Bryan Jackson talked to The Birmingham Post at another watershed moment in the history of the British car industry, with the imminent takeover by Tata of Jaguar and Land Rover.
What does he make of it, given his 23 years at Ford, I asked.
"This is a very personal view," he answered, "but I think Ford would probably have liked to have kept Land Rover but recognised they couldn’t sell Jaguar without it being part of the package.
"There is so much integration in design and development now.
"Tata is a really good company. It has a fantastic ethic and culture and I think they will respect the brands and be good for Jaguar and Land Rover.
"So if Ford have to sell them, personally I would be delighted if it was to Tata."
Was he concerned that Tata has had to go to the capital markets to raise $3 billion to help finance deal?
"No. This is a major acquisition coming on top of the fact they have bought Corus and Tetley and it is a huge investment. My understanding is that they have a reasonably strong balance sheet.
"In some ways they remind me of Toyota; they are very cautious and don’t take major decisions lightly."
Bryan has met senior executives of Tata recently and he said: "I have to say I was very impressed, very impressed."
So what would Indian ownership do for the brand image of these two essentially British car brands?
"That is a question they asked me: how would it be perceived," Bryan said.
"My answer is very simple: Jaguar and Land Rover were owned by Ford and will now be owned by somebody else.
"At the end of the day if the image of the brand is retained, most people will still think of them as cars built in Britain by British people. If the capital comes from India, so what?
"Some people, I am sure, will think 'God, an Indian company’, which will be extremely naive because the Indian companies I’ve met are run by superbly gifted business people who are highly qualified with a really strong work ethic."