Michael Edwardes, Hard-Nosed Rescuer of British Car Giant, Dies at 88


Michael Edwardes, a famously pugnacious industrial turnaround artist in Britain who notably rescued the Jaguar, Mini and Land Rover automotive brands in the late 1970s while becoming a union scourge, died on Sept. 15 at his home outside London. He was 88.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, according to Caroline Watkin, a family friend.

In some ways, Mr. Edwardes (pronounced the same way as Edwards) was the Lee A. Iacocca of Britain. At roughly the same time that Mr. Iacocca (who died in July) was saving Chrysler, in part by persuading the United States government to provide an inflation-adjusted $5 billion in loan guarantees, Mr. Edwardes was trying to jump-start British Leyland, a government-owned car giant whose brands included Austin, Morris, Mini, Jaguar, MG, Land Rover and Triumph.

Each man came to personify corporate boldness, reputations they burnished by writing best-selling business memoirs.

Mr. Edwardes, who spent the early part of his career fixing parts of Chloride, a battery manufacturer, took over as British Leyland’s chairman in 1977. It was a last-gasp rescue effort: The British government had assumed control of the company in a 1975 bailout, and the company was almost bankrupt again. Turnaround plans had gone nowhere, a result of near-constant worker walkouts, shoddy craftsmanship, disaffected managers and a convoluted corporate structure. Japanese and German competitors were gobbling up market share.

“It was a farce — no one knew what the costs were,” Mr. Edwardes told The New York Times in 2008, recalling how, when he arrived at the company, nobody seemed to know whether individual brands were profitable.

The labor problems that characterized Britain’s postwar years were particularly severe at British Leyland: Its workers were represented by 364 bargaining units, most of which bargained on different schedules. In 1978, British Leyland counted 584 walkouts of an hour or more.

But shop stewards met their match in Mr. Edwardes, who cut British Leyland’s work force by nearly 50 percent over five years by closing 19 of 55 facilities. At the same time, he drove up productivity by investing in technology. The number of cars built per worker at one major body plant was fewer than eight in 1980. The total rose to nearly 17 in 1981.

Mr. Edwardes, who was born in South Africa, won union concessions (a contract promising a 3.8 percent pay raise, for instance, at a time when inflation in Britain was 12 percent) by defying the conventional manner of conducting negotiations. He repeatedly went over stewards’ heads and appealed directly to workers, sometimes turning up on factory assembly lines.

“One advantage of being a colonial is that I’m not weighed down by all that class nonsense,” Mr. Edwardes said in 1985, referring to the divisions in British society. “I find it quite easy to walk on a factory floor and communicate with people.”

Militant union bosses hated him for ignoring them — they nicknamed him “the poison dwarf,” a reference to his 5-foot-3 stature — but many workers came to respect his approach.

Mr. Edwardes also slashed and burned through British Leyland’s executive ranks, firing 20 percent of the top 300 executives and reassigning about 50 percent of those remaining to new jobs.

That shuffling, which Mr. Edwardes recounted in his memoir, “Back from the Brink” (1983), was informed by another of his unusual business practices: psychological testing for managers. He believed such tests could identify trustworthy employees. But the method was startling to others. “Such control freakery was anathema,” John Fryer, a former labor editor at The Sunday Times, wrote in a recent column.

Mr. Edwardes left British Leyland in 1982. He was credited witih helping British business leaders regain their self-confidence, particularly those who had come to feel powerless in the face of organized labor. And British Leyland had been saved.

But the company remained unprofitable, and the British government — by then being led by Margaret Thatcher — had grown frustrated. Mr. Edwardes had pushed Mrs. Thatcher for money to develop new models; when she suggested that he sell parts of the company to raise funds, he balked.

By the time British Leyland received its last government bailout, in 1988, it had gone through some $20 billion of inflation-adjusted taxpayer money over two decades and become a painful lesson on the limited effectiveness of bailouts. The company evolved into MG Rover, which was acquired by BMW, then spun off before eventually going bankrupt in 2005. Jaguar and Rover are now owned by Tata Group, a conglomerate based in India. BMW still owns Mini.

Michael Owen Edwardes was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on Oct. 11, 1930, to Denys and Audrey (Copeland) Edwardes. His father worked at a small automotive company.

Mr. Edwardes studied law at Rhodes University in nearby Grahamstown. In 1951, through a family connection, he got a job at Chloride. In 1958, he married Mary Finlay, the daughter of a South African shipping executive. They had three daughters before divorcing in 1988, when he married his assistant, Sheila Witts.

Mr. Edwardes is survived by his wife; his daughters Susan Edwardes, Judy Cummins and Penni Brink; five grandchildren; and a sister, Jill.

As he climbed the rungs at Chloride over the next 26 years, ultimately serving as chairman, Mr. Edwardes became known for parachuting into troubled divisions and finding solutions with the same fervor he displayed on the squash courts or as an avid outdoorsman. One such success came while running Chloride’s central African operations from what is now Zimbabwe.

During his final years at Chloride, Mr. Edwardes, then living in London, was appointed to the National Enterprise Board, a government body set up to revitalize British industry. British Leyland was one of the board’s most troublesome projects, and the turnaround that Mr. Edwardes orchestrated there earned him knighthood in 1979.

His work at British Leyland made him famous in Britain, and he went on to lead one smaller-scale turnaround (or sale) after another — Mercury Communications, International Computers Limited, the Dunlop tire company. He favored quick, dramatic moves; on his first day at Dunlop, he ousted 11 of the company’s 13 board members, something The Times of London deemed “management by hara-kiri.”

Mr. Edwardes was named in the late 1980s to lead Minorco, part of the Oppenheimer-DeBeers gold and diamond syndicate. There he devised a hostile bid for Consolidated Gold Fields, a major mining company. But Consolidated Gold punched back hard, and Minorco was forced to walk away when a United States judge refused to allow the takeover to proceed on antitrust grounds.

Rather than recalling that defeat in bitter terms, Mr. Edwardes seemed to appreciate Consolidated Gold’s mettle.

“I relish a good challenge and a bit of a fight if that is what it takes,” he told the trade magazine Management Today in 1996. “You could say I’m a bit of a scrapper.”

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