Memories of the Iron Lady, Iron Fist

I had been in the House of Parliament several times, but I never had the opportunity to meet Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. However, I do have some memories of her early years as PM.

I was recruited by British company, John Brown plc, to “fix up” their machine tools division.  The chance to live and work in merry old England was to hard to pass up.  The Chairman of John Brown plc thought the job required an American executive instead of a British one. So from late 1981 to mid 1984, I was on the scene as she implemented her sweeping changes in British Industry.

By the time I arrived in Coventry, England, changes were already starting.  Her goal was to make British companies more productive which she did through a variety of techniques.  One of the toughest pills for British labor to swallow was the “redundancy rule”.  We call this “layoffs” in the US and is very common and easy to make because of our system of unemployment benefits that helps a laid off worker.  Not so in England then.  Layoff rules made it very costly for companies to reduce their workforce, for whatever reason. Thatcher changed that by providing government financial assistance. My first task; layoff off about 30% of the workforce due to low demand for product.

A British company typically had their own company sponsored lunch benefits. Senior execs had their own dining room, the middle management had theirs and the factory employees had theirs but at a reduced quality. Not uncommon for the execs to have scotch, wine or beer with their lunches. Talk about class distinction and lack of teamwork!  This benefit was dramatically eliminated and at my company execs and workers alike shared the same lunch room sans the booze. This helped to better create a “we” atmosphere.

When it came time for me to consolidate two facilities into one, the uproar from the unions reached a fever pitch. Local press and Coventry public officials all had their say.  After appearing before Coventry City Council, I was required to appear before the British Department of Labor Secretary as the union continued to fight the closing.  The senior Minister took my side and saw that this was the business smart thing to do, so we were able to proceed.  Pre-Thatcher, the government would have stopped this efficiency consolidation. Painful, yes but also necessary for survival.

I became friends with some local British executives. Taxes were at a peak of 70% Pre-Thatcher.  My friends would go on to complain: “why work harder to make more money when the government will only take away more from you”. Reducing personal tax rates was another step in making for growth in industry and it was beginning to work.

Many more examples of the Thatcher revolution abound, but in my mind, she did the right things, despite the Arthur Scargills of British industry.