This is an old story about british businessman depression in 1966

England in the past few years has chewed on more self-delusion than any nation can be expected to swallow without acute indigestion.”English methods are the best methods.”British craftsmanship is the best in the world.” Be the accent Oxford, BBC or Cockney, the gist is the same: If it is British, by definition it’s the best.

The economic situation today would not lead one to believe wholeheartedly in this opinion. England’s growth rate for 1965was about three percent below that of 1964 and economists see the rate for 1966 falling to one percent. This is far below the forecast figures for France, the United States, and West Germany. With the rest of the west on in a boom, England is today talking of a recession, worrying about the balance of payments and fearing the effects of a possible devaluation of the pound. And after years of pointing with unjustified pride at something they call “full employment, “workers are now being found “redundant” by the thousands.

Last fall the largest British car manufacturer, BMC, put 7000 workers on a four-day week. Total car production for 1965 was down by more than 150,000 from 1964. Whose fault, and what is the cure? You can hear almost any answer your prejudices desire. But three years as a director of an English company have given me a distinct feeling that Britain’s economic problems stem in large part from the British businessman himself, and he, in turn, is the inevitable product of the social environment of England.

One finds in the British public a debilitating willingness to go along with things, good or bad, as they are. There is an apathetic acceptance of shoddy merchandise, second rate workmanship, slipshod service. There is no passion for improvement, no sense of urgency.”Don’t worry. It will all sort itself out.”

This lethargy, this willingness to muddle through, pervades business. A young man recently joined one of the largest travel agencies in London. Going through the files, he found a number of requests for travel rates, accommodation and so on, each with its appropriate answer. Following up these requests might lead to some business, he thought, so he got on the telephone. His boss found out what he was doing. “This is not the way we do business,” he said. “We don’t bother clients. If they want anything from us, they know where we are.”

Thus is enterprise stifled in England today. There is still an abiding dislike for anything that smacks of “salesmanship.” An Australian woman in search of gifts for friends back home went into a Bond-street shop for scarves. She found an aisle table laden with them, and picked out half a dozen. “What are you doing with those?” a chilly voice asked over her shoulder. ” I should like to buy them.” “Well, you can’t. These are sale merchandise, and the sale doesn’t begin for two days.”

Fifteen years ago, the Brtish motorcar industry had more than 70 percent of the Australian market. Today it has less than a quarter of the market, partly because it disregarded its customers. The Australians, for example, wanted a car design for Australia, not England. The longer distances require more powerful engines, more legroom, more comfort, and larger petrol tanks. But the same four-cylinder, small, underpowered cars, “suitable to English needs,” kept coming out. Inevitably, the Aussies turned to the United States.

Little real effort is made by the British businessman to find out what his export market needs or wants. He makes it, be it car, ship or dynamo, the way he always has, sells it on his own terms and, more often than not, fails to keep his delivery dates or service promises. So the smart fellows, who know what they want, buy their ships from Japan, their small motorcars from Germany and their almost anything else from the United States.

The English businessman simply does not know how to cope with the competition. He is happiest with high prices and high-profit percentage; let sales take care of themselves.

A sales meeting was held in the conference room of one of the largest English manufacturers of food products. His leading product, once enjoying upwards of 60 percent of the market, was being successfully challenged by a lower-priced product. What to do? One bold marketeer suggested: ” cut the price.” “Impossible” was the reply. “The directors would never stand for a profit cut.” The profit per packet was 47 percent!

A British businessman has still to do discover, as American business did long ago, that high volume at a reasonable profit is what makes the balance sheet blossom. A few Englishmen realize this. Commander Whitehead, the bearded president of Schweppes (U.S.A) Ltd., in 1953 dropped the price of Schweppes Quinine Water by 50 percent, and sales “Schweppervesced” 1000 percent over the previous year. In fact, the whole Schweppes operation in the United States is or should be, a clear object lesson to all Brtish businessmen.

Lack of salesmanship and marketing skill, however, is not the only deficiency of the British businessman. The OBSERVER reports that “the misuse of manpower in factories up and down the land is a scandal.” The prideful boast that England has few if any unemployed becomes empty indeed when the prefix “un” is changed to the more factual “mis.” Misemployment finds its way even into executive offices. One man in a managerial capacity for a world-famous textile firm left after five years.” For the majority of my time I was grossly underemployed,” he explained. “At no time was I given any responsibility or executive authority.”

Lesslie Williams, deputy chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries, is quoted in the observer as saying that the work now done by 160,000 ICI workers could well be turned out by 15,000 fewer. “It is no good pillorying the unions,” he says.” Management throughout Britain is blindly convinced that it is using the best possible system.”

Best it may be to British minds, but productivity figures suggest otherwise. At Youngstown Sheet and Tube in America, 95 people turn out $2,800,000 worth of steel; at Stewarts and Lloyds, one of Britain’s largest steel companies, it takes 259 men to produce the same amount.

And so it goes throughout British industry. According to McKinsey, the international management-consultant firm, productivity per worker in the United States is two or three times that in Britain. William Keefer, an American, is vice president of Warner Electric Brake and clutch in the United States and a director of England’s westool company. He reports, “With the same machinery the American workman turns out three times as much as his British counterpart. Even though we pay our workmen more than twice as much as in England, even though the United States is 4000 miles from Europe and England only 200, we can make the same product and undersell its English counterpart all over the continent.”

In West Germany, too, the contrast is hardly consoling. Britain and West Germany are broadly similar in population and size of the labor force. Yet in the ten years from 1953 to 1963, production in West Germany increased by 84 percent; in England, it has risen but 31 percent. If 1958 is taken as a base, the index of industrial production in Germany has risen 37 points, in England only 19.

Real hourly earnings in Germany have risen 73 percent since 1953, compared with Britain’s increase of 34 percent. As in the United States, the German wage increase has been earned by increased productivity 58 percent, while England lags sadly behind with 21 percent.

The depressing thing is the bleakness of the future. One would expect that the younger generation of managers would move in with new ideas and new energy, and put things right. The fact is, however, that the majority of them are products of precisely the environment that produced their predecessors. They come from the same class. They went to and were conditioned by the same public schools and the same two universities. For, though the grammar school and red-brick universities have had much publicity, their effect if any, still lies in the future. One firm, a large textile, and chemical concern, openly admits that it recruits only ” Oxbridge” graduates. “They are the cream. Why should we look elsewhere?”

It is true that these new men are somewhat more aware of the times and their needs. They hardly exhibit, however, the adventurous, searching imagination that in an earlier day produced the Industrial Revolution. At best they seek to travel a little faster along the same old paths.

The drive necessary to compete in an increasingly competitive industrial world is simply not there. The remarks about British golf made by Mark McCormack, the Ohio lawyer who manages professionals Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus, mightWell apply to British business. “Being British,” he said, “is a definite drawback in golf. Stroke for stroke, Peter Alliss, and Christy O’Connor are equal to any other golfers. But, because of the tempo of British golf, they just don’t have that competitive ‘edge.’ “

One would hope that the coming generation of English businessmen will see through the complacent self-delusion of their predecessors and seek to acquire the competitive “edge” without which Britain seems likely to remain rooted in the outmoded methods of the past.


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