SIR JOHN HARDLY-KNOWS
WHEN THE TROUBLESHOOTER SHOT HIMSELF IN THE FOOT
SIR JOHN HARVEY-JONES v MORGAN SPORTS CAR
Everybody remembers the TV series, Troubleshooter, in which the industrialist, Sir John Harvey-Jones, visited struggling businesses to advise them how to increase their output and to maximise their profit. Those of us who live in Malvern, to say nothing of enthusiasts and owners of the iconic Morgan sports car the length and breadth of the country, and overseas as well, have particular cause to remember the infamous episode when Harvey-Jones visited the town, home to Morgan Motors, to cast his pearls of wisdom across the factory floor. The episode is recalled with a mixture of amusement and bafflement, perhaps tinged with anger, because nobody at Morgan Motors could understand how and why the great man got it so wrong.
To refresh my memory, I watched the episode again on You Tube. I tried not to be distracted by the poor quality of the picture and sound and the rather faded and dated production values. It was aired in 1990 and it was strange how old-fashioned everything seemed thirty years ago. As it happened, ‘old fashioned’ was the theme of this episode, for nothing stands more for venerable and traditional values than the Morgan sports car.
The title of the episode, Swimming Against The Tide, rather gave the game away. We all know which way we should swim, and Sir John was going to explain precisely why. Then a thought struck me. Maybe the title was not so well-chosen after all. From the Malvern Hills, the River Severn is plainly visible. The Severn Estuary, which flows up the Bristol Channel, has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world. The surging waters on certain days of the year (about 130) force their way upstream in a series of waves, reaching as far as Tewkesbury. The first time you see it, your eyes open wide in astonishment, for the current is very visibly flowing upstream, in the opposite direction to that which we are accustomed to see in rivers. It’s as if the natural order of things has been turned on its head. Would Swimming Against The Tide come back to haunt the sub-editor in charge of titles of the documentary series?
In the interests of impartiality, I sought to view the programme through a dispassionate lens. What was Harvey-Jones’s point and how did he want to put across his message? He said that the Morgan sports car was an iconic brand, instantly recognisable, much loved and greatly sought after, so much so that potential buyers were prepared to wait years for delivery. That much was undeniable. A seven-year waiting list to take delivery of a Morgan seemed to be about par for the course. To a businessman, such as himself, to whom quick delivery of purchase was axiomatic to maximising profit - the raison d’etre of any enterprise – this made no sense. So why were Morgan Motors so sluggard in getting their cars off the forecourt and into the possession of their long-suffering customers? The solution, it seemed obvious to him, was to uncover the reason for the delay and to suggest ways and means for the waiting list to be reduced. In order to lay bare the inefficient and outmoded working practices at the factory, he visited the site and took a look around…accompanied by the television cameras, of course.
The two main protagonists, Sir John Harvey-Jones and the chairman and owner of Morgan Motors, Peter Morgan, came from different worlds, literally so. Harvey-Jones was born in India but sent back to England to attend prep school and later Dartmouth Royal Naval College. After a time serving in the Navy, he joined ICI, eventually becoming its chairman. His modus operandi was to strip the company of non-profit making businesses that were not at the core of the operation and to drastically cut the workforce, thus enabling the company to emerge leaner, stronger and much more profitable. His philosophy he summed up as “speed before direction”.
Peter Morgan went to Seaford Court prep school in Malvern and thence to Oundle School. He joined Morgan Motors, founded and owned by his father HFS Morgan, in 1947, becoming chairman in 1959 on the death of his father. He definitely did not believe in the philosophy of ‘speed before direction’, probably not a good idea in any case, sitting behind the wheel of a motor car.
Put together in the same room, the two were as different as chalk and cheese. With his sallow complexion, hinting at a childhood brought up under the Indian sun, his droopy moustache, slightly too-long hair and pug-face, Harvey-Jones resembled the bruiser of a man that he probably was, a bear-like figure prowling the jungle of high-powered industry. By contrast, Peter Morgan was tall, with an upright, patrician bearing, silver-haired and spoke with the well-modulated, yet restrained, tones of the public school-educated gentleman. He could have been the headmaster of a prep school or the squire of the village, bestowing friendly greeting as he passed among his pupils or among his estate workers. The foremen and technicians on the factory floor did not actually tug their forelocks as he moved through the assembly lines, but they undoubtedly answered respectfully.
At their first meeting, politeness was the order of the day, but you could tell that both eyed the other warily. Initial formalities having been dealt with, Harvey-Jones set off on his exploratory cruise around the plant….followed by a small army of cameramen, light engineers, sound recordists and people with clipboards. It was evident, if only by his absence, that Peter Morgan did not enjoy the limelight. Harvey-Jones relished it.
From the outset, Harvey-Jones was expressing incredulity that Morgan were making motors in the same way they were in 1909. The production of only nine cars a week was preposterous. The machinery was outdated, the layout ergonomically inefficient, the management resistant to change, strategic planning was non-existent, everything was stuck in a time warp. There wasn’t even a computer, let alone a power tool, anywhere on the site. He had a look at the accounts, and you could hear him whistle in disbelief. The company was simply not making enough profit to invest in the future. Yet the Morgan was a very popular product. Was it an equipment problem, he mused aloud, a layout problem, a head-in-the-sand problem, a people problem. The company has great potential, he averred, but it won’t survive if they don’t invest. They were currently producing nine cars a week. At the very least, why could they not bump that up to ten a week?
On his tour of the factory, he spoke to foremen, engineers, workers, office staff and some of the exchanges he had seemed to underline the very points he was trying to make. “Would anyone who bought a Morgan care how this car is made,” he asked of nobody in particular, “or how this wood is cut? I’ve not seen a lathe like this since I was a bloody kid!” There were ways to produce more cars more cheaply, he told a foreman. “How long have you been working in the factory?” he demanded. “About 35 years,” was the reply. “Wow! You must have seen plenty of changes in that time, then?” The man’s face was a picture. “No, not really,” was his cheerful answer.
Harvey-Jones searched in vain for the planning office. Eventually, he was introduced to Derek Day, the sales director. “So, you’re the non-sales director,” was his uncompromising opening gambit. Having unsuccessfully persuaded Day to give him any firm figures on anything, he came to this hostile conclusion, “So, your correct title is ‘rationer’ of cars.” Day’s reaction was not shown, not on camera, at least.
In his voice-over at the conclusion of his tour, Harvey-Jones was unapologetically downbeat. “This firm is run in a totally unbusinesslike way,” he sighed. Nobody was thinking ahead, to the future. The place needed a radical overhaul. Three months to produce a car was ridiculous. Morgan Motors was imbued with stifling conservatism from top to bottom. Slowly but surely, he predicted, the cars will become more and more expensive until they are priced out of the market.
He took this weary disbelief into the boardroom to confront Peter Morgan and his son and heir-apparent, Charles, with his grim conclusions. Politeness was maintained but you could sense the crackle of discord. Charged with a conservative mindset, Peter Morgan was not denying it. “Yes, we are conservative,” he said, “Change comes slowly.” He went on to defend their record. “We must be doing something right because other companies have tried to do the same as us but have failed. We are not without experience in making cars.” Charles Morgan chipped in, “We don’t really want to change because our customers don’t want us to.” Somebody piped up from the back, “If you increase your capacity, you lose your market.”
In conclusion, Harvey-Jones’s frustration was palpable. “They have a lot going for them,” he told the viewer, “But the only thing that’s stopping them is themselves.” He believed that the son should take over from the father, thinking that Charles was less resistant to change than Peter. At the very least, Harvey-Jones hoped, they will increase their output from nine cars a week to ten, which Charles felt was feasible. “I’m not sure I can help,’ Harvey-Jones concluded, “Everybody is resistant to change.” And no company can survive in the modern world with that inflexible mindset.
In these programmes, there is invariably a follow-up when the TV personality revisits the scene some time later, to see how the building work is going, or the re-laid garden settling down or the new project progressing. Swimming Against The Tide was no exception. The post-mortem took place at a well-known hostelry in Malvern Wells, the Cottage in the Wood, with its unparalleled views across the Severn Valley. Judging from Harvey-Jones’s demeanour, the episode might just have been renamed Stuck In The Mud. The one extra car a week, which Morgan had promised to deliver - unsuccessfully, he noted - was not really significant; what he had been trying to do was to get the management to look at how the car was made and ways in which productivity could be improved. Sadly, he concluded, he could see no evidence of radical change. “In my view, if they don’t change, their car will disappear. The workforce and the car deserve better management than this.” For his part, Peter Morgan, in a rare unguarded moment, was heard to say, “He’s on a sticky wicket if he tries to get us to change how we make our cars.”
That was the reality that was presented to us, the viewers, through the lens of the camera. Now, I wanted to find out for myself what had happened behind the scenes, behind the camera, in the conversations and meetings within management and workforce when Harvey-Jones was not on site. The true story is often very different.
The BBC had approached Morgan Motors to do the programme. Peter Morgan was not keen but was persuaded by his son that they should do it. Not long after the cameras had started rolling, Peter, smelling which way the wind was blowing, wanted to pull out but the BBC insisted that production was too advanced and publicity for the show, identifying Morgan Motors as one of their episodes, had already been aired. No, to bale out was impossible. In that case, they all agreed, we might as well try to make the best of a bad job. They knew what was coming.
I met two employees of the company, Derek Day, the sales director, who had appeared on the show, and Mark Read, the sales manager, who had not (he was in Canada on holiday at the time) for their take on the programme. “What you must understand,” said Day “is that Peter Morgan wasn’t greatly interested in profit. He ran it as a sort of hobby. His stated intent was to build a sports car that was affordable to the ordinary working man. He had no intention of making it super-expensive. And if he could live a reasonably comfortable life with the meagre profits that the company made, then so much the better.”
This paternalistic ideal that imbued the elder Morgan’s vision was something that all his workers recognised and respected. “He really did make us feel that we were all part of one family,” I was told, “He would walk in, he knew everybody, he would chat and pass comment. He was a true gentleman.” The unfavourable comparison with Harvey-Jones was left hanging in the air. “Most of the workforce who met Harvey-Jones on his tour of the factory,” Read told me, “thought he was a berk. All the foremen were singularly unimpressed by him. He just couldn’t see that Morgan Motors was unique. He thought we should be like any other car manufacturer.”
One by one, Harvey-Jones’s criticisms were rebuffed. The one that made me laugh out loud was the part of the film where it showed workmen pushing the wheeled chassis of a half-made motor to the next point of assembly. “Far from wasting time, we were using the geography of the place! The gradient downhill made it easier.” I was also told that the fanciful idea of increasing production from nine to ten cars a week was uneconomic. Not having a business brain, I must have raised my eyes quizzically. “To produce more cars meant more expenditure of manpower and materials. More hours, more pay, more overtime. No, nine cars a week was our capacity. And the long waiting list was part of our appeal. The enthusiastic buyer was prepared to wait seven or eight years for delivery of their precious Morgan.” A bit like a lifetime wait to join the MCC? I’m not sure my analogy met with wholescale approbation
Day’s evidence was possibly the most damning. “Harvey-Jones said I was the non-sales director. The fact was that we had such a long waiting list that I had no need to go out and sell the car. Customers came to me. I just had to make sure they were put on the waiting list and informed when the car was ready for collection. They were almost exclusively Morgan enthusiasts. They knew what we were about and supported us loyally. Why change what worked?”
I was intrigued to discover what Harvey-Jones was like. He might have been preaching an unpopular sermon but was there any hint of the charisma and leadership that he had obviously displayed in his time at ICI? Was it evident why he led, and others followed? Day sucked thoughtfully through his teeth. “In my 50 years at Morgan, I have met many people, the great and the good of society, royalty, film and stage actors, media moguls, rock stars, politicians, the rich and the famous.” He paused, weighing up his words. “And I can truthfully say that I have never met a ruder man. He was arrogant and opinionated, a know-all. All he was interested in by doing this programme was to tell us he was right, and we were wrong.” Heads around me were nodding in agreement. “The reason I was so vague about the figures,” said Day, reloading his pistol, “was because I wasn’t going to tell that sod a damned thing!”
The days when Harvey-Jones and the cameras were present at the factory were “very stressful for all of us,” said Day, “He just couldn’t get his head around the fact that the long waiting list was the reason the car was so popular. What he was trying to get us to do was to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” Day’s wife, Pam, who worked in the company as a secretary, had even harsher words to say about the industrialist. “The boys stuck a photo of his face on the dartboard and fired darts at him. You can tell what people think of things by what graffiti is scribbled on the back of the toilet doors.” All I can report is that the comments were not very complimentary about their visitor but whether Pam crept in there when all was quiet to read them or relied on the word of mouth from the men, she was unprepared to divulge.
Mark Read then recounted an anecdote which in itself was instructive. “A friend of the company, Don Booker, a well-known motoring correspondent, happened to meet Harvey-Jones in Harrogate and had a stand-up row with him. He believed Harvey-Jones was doing a hatchet job on us and felt the programme was grossly unfair.” Reid directed me to a passage in Booker’s book, A Barnsley Lad, and I read about the altercation with amusement:
“His response to my words was this, ‘Well, they think I’m a wally and I think they are wallies. But they are a great company.’ I told him there were more things to life than making money. The Morgan family were happy, the workforce were happy and the customers were more than happy. What was wrong with that philosophy? He went on his way without further comment.”
Booker’s analysis of the programme’s effect was this;
“The programme did not harm the company; it just gained the marque more popularity and added a further year to the six-year waiting list!”
Peter Morgan, as you would expect, was more measured in his response to the turmoil. “I think he was a little hard on us,” and added cheerfully, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Prescient words, as it turned out.
“When Harvey-Jones took one of our cars out for a spin,” Day remembered with a mischievous grin, “he stalled it.” Pause….. “Everybody laughed!” He then sighed and delivered his final verdict on the ill-fated TV programme. “The thing was that Harvey-Jones just didn’t get it.”
Didn’t he? Harvey-Jones might not have understood the special ethos that lay at the heart of Morgan Motors, but he certainly ‘got’ his television audience. The series was a huge success which swiftly turned him into the “most famous industrialist since Isambard Kingdom Brunel”, according to one newspaper. Not all the companies he visited in the series followed his advice to the letter, but that mattered to him not a jot. In the public’s eye, he became a controversial, larger-than-life figure, with a bluff sense of humour, an easy manner in front of the camera, who was prepared to wade into choppy water without so much of a backward glance. He was made for television.
Peter Morgan, with his quirky, old-fashioned company that built bespoke sports cars, using only traditional methods of construction, was not made for television. Old-fashioned Morgan Motors might be, but it is durable. Morgan are still selling cars when the series Troubleshooter has become no more than a distant memory. The episode, Swimming Against The Tide, is now held up as a case study in the business world as “a failed assessment of business culture”. Not that Sir John Hardly-Knows would have cared about that. And yes, that is what the folk at Morgan Motors called him.