Magazine article Management Today

John Gardiner

Magazine article Management Today

John Gardiner

Article excerpt

John Gardiner, chairman and chief executive of Laird, the automotive and engineering giant, is what you might call a boss's boss. Twenty-four years in the same top slot, in huge demand for his expertise as a non-executive director, widely respected for his work on Government committees and the like, he is venerated by many of his peers yet virtually unknown to the general public.

That's how he likes it. After all, he reasons, the public are not Laird's customers. Yet some are continually surprised at how little recognition he has received. To fellow Laird director Sir Graham Day, a friend since the early '70s, he is simply 'the great unsung hero of British business'. He is also, I had been warned, a bit of a needler, with a reputation for aggressive awkwardness. 'Once you are over 30,' Gardiner announces, eyeing me beadily from beside his trusty slide projector (he likes giving presentations), 'you are too old for journalism.' Ouch.

We are sitting in the relatively anonymous boardroom at Laird's fourth-floor St James' Square head office. There are some old Paolozzi prints on the wall, and a nice view of the square, but little else. Gardiner, 58, a medium-height man with a brisk, mischievous manner, is not a great one for the luxurious trappings of corporate superstardom. he is, for example, quite happy to be taking a pay cut and to be losing his chauffeur-driven car next month when he finally steps down as chief executive at Laird. he remains as chairman but at Laird--[pound]38 million profit on [pound]624 million turnover in 1993 -- only the chief executive gets a chauffeur. Gardiner (whose combined salary topped [pound]340,000 last year and who owns more than half a million shares in the company) will be driving himself in from his modest home in Dulwich. Friends say that despite his wealth, his ascetic streak runs a mile wide.

He is certainly not a fan of interviews: like his prickly dealings with analysts, he doesn't like what he sees as the inevitable stupid questions. A former journalist himself--he used to write the Financial Times' Lex column in the '60s -- he is no slouch at communication and analysis, but prefers to concentrate his attentions on Laird's major shareholders, to whom he makes individual presentations every year. And Laird shareholders have always understood where the group is going.

Which is lucky because many might feel they need a thorough route map to guide them through Laird's past 30 years. Rarely has one company changed so much under one man. Since arriving at the company in the early '70s and splitting up the original Cammell Laird empire, Gardiner has led the group through planes, boats, buses and trains, whisked it out of steel and into components, dabbled in plastics, pushed it into computer assembly, stormed the security systems market and relentlessly dragged Laird's focus away from Britain and, in particular, the public sector. Twenty-four years at the top has taught him that politicians and governments are, he says, 'unreliable customers'. That, of course, is somewhat ironic since he got into the business via a political agency, the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, in the first place.

Gardiner started as an economist. Brought up in Lancing, the son of a retail manager, he had graduated from the London School of Economics and trained at the Prudential before joining the Financial Times in his midtwenties. But it was through Lex that he made his name, writing the column for six years with James Joll. 'They were an extremely aggressive, effective pair,' remembers one who worked with them on the FT. The young Gardiner's USP was to tell bosses exactly what he thought of their company's financial performance, with rather less deference than they were used to at the time. It won him admirers and detractors in roughly equal measures.

One admirer was IRC boss Lord Kearton, who lured him over to join the corporation. The IRC's brief, devised by Harold Wilson, was to assist in the merger and rescue of ailing British businesses, in the hope of making them fitter global competitors. …

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