Talking exclusively to BQLive, business legend Sir Ian Gibson tells Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes about the importance of education, communication and leadership.
If you had made it to the rarified air at the very top of British business and had, perhaps been Chairman of Morrisons or Chairman of Trinity Mirror, maybe even President of Nissan in Europe or Deputy Chairman of Asda or acted as an influential non-exec at, let’s say, Northern Rock, GKN or Greggs... then you would be rightly regarded as a giant of the business world.
So when you have been all of those things - and more – then you can only be Sir Ian Gibson, now a York resident and still a man whose opinions and guidance can move the industrial landscape.
He had made the very short walk from the home he shares with Jane, Lady Gibson, who is the chair of marketing and development organisation Make it York, to give a lecture to York St John University Business School, but readily agreed to talk to BQLive before the event.
“Being at a university like York St John goes back to original idea of how universities were perceived - acquiring knowledge and skill but also helping round them off as people,” he tells me.
“When I went to university in Manchester in the Sixties, that was something of a production line, trying to restock the nation, and the idea of supplying something broader just wasn’t there.”
He got thrown out of UMIST at the end of his second year because had spent all of his time organising events as social secretary or working as a band roadie. But there then came a pivotal moment.
“I accepted that, despite being a 20-year-old rebel, sometimes you have to stick by the rules of the system and make it work better for you rather than just going ‘naah naah nenaah naah’. Quite a useful lesson for me.
“And there are still lessons I can pass on to students today. I spent most of 1985-2005 in and out of the North-east because of Nissan and so I joined the council at the university there and joined Durham University’s business team. Half the time you end up talking about your experiences and finding out whether your perceptions were right.
“Then I was taken on to the governing body of London Business School and again I found that it was largely about people wanting to find out what I had done and how I got there. Students are seeking a real-life context, which doesn’t mean they will choose the same path as the businessmen they talk to, but this is how they will inform themselves, and it is a good thing to be able to do for people.”
He recalled working part-time at a department store many years ago, filling out HP forms and realising that the full-timers around him, who had all served in some way during the war, were feeling they had missed an opportunity.
“It was like walking into a cloud. These were blokes in their mid-40s, so they still had twenty years left of their working life and they were already sitting there feeling bitter about what they had missed.
“I thought, as a young lad of 16 or 17, ‘dear god, never do that to yourself’ because all you would do with your life is sit there and wonder what might have been. That’s become one of my guiding principles.
“I told myself donkey’s years ago never to go around regretting things – all it does is eat you up. You can ask yourself if you made mistakes and of course you did because we are all human.
“But the question is ‘what can we learn from our mistakes’, because hindsight isn’t given to humanity, they only get it afterwards so you have to cope with what has happened and get on with it.
“I think the genuine entrepreneur, no matter what sector or interest they have, has that thing within them that wants to shape things their way. Some don’t know what their product will be, it is just that independence they are after.”
Sir Ian’s grasp of business strategies and ethics is unmatched and hugely relevant to today’s BQ entrepreneurs, and his views on today’s Yorkshire business scene are highly valued.
“There is a period of unabashed confidence running through what might be called the broad North, which I am really pleased about. There was a piece of that around in the bustle of the late Sixties, but it all got a bit battered in the Eighties with the riots in Toxteth and Meadow Well. People thought ‘what the hell is going on – is the country falling apart?’
“But right now there is a bit of a swagger about, particularly in the big cities. In places like York, it is developing a particular confidence about being successful at what it is.
“It is a city that attracts people, not only tourists, has two universities and a thriving retail sector and is starting to grow quite a thriving entrepreneurial and cultural sector – and about time. But I am still a bit concerned that some small or mid-sized towns are showing signs of real economic hardship, so I hope the confidence that is out there is able to spread out and capture more of the other towns.
“For an entrepreneur or start-up the framework is pretty much the same, but if you are a bigger business the overall economic environment and customer body is more important, so you will want to wait until the dust settles and some of your questions are answered about Europe or the Northern Powerhouse, rather than commit to a big investment programme and then see your assumptions were wrong.
“Coming from the auto industry, when you start investment in a car, you want to be building it for 20 years, so that is the payback time. It’s a long time. In business and in life, nobody ever has complete security. But you want to have at least a 60:40 chance of seeing it through. But if so much is uncertain then why risk your present business?
“But the North needs to take advantage of having more space, less crowding, more people available, less congestion and lower housing costs to grow faster.”
“My advice to someone considering setting up a business in Yorkshire now is that if you have the idea and you think it is good and your customer research tells you the same, then it is always time to go for it.
“If you are looking to start up, this is as good a time as any. Interest rates are low and probably aren’t going to go up too quickly. Oil has started to go up, but we are not facing dramatic pressure on materials availability. So why not?
“But I would just add caution for the first two or three years about how far a new business should stretch itself. What cripples most start-ups is not profitability but cash flow, covering the cost of investment and wages and being able to use profits for the next investment.
“Go for it steadily, don't be over-optimistic and choose when you want to take that second or third step and commit yourself to a big gulp.”
Later in his lecture to a packed York St John audience, Sir Ian’s subject was ‘Doing the right thing in business’, something he would know plenty about.
As part of talking about PRME – the global Principles for Responsible Management Education which the university has signed up to – he warned would-be business leaders to look after their employees at all levels.
“Never underestimate jobs that seem unrewarding. People have pride in their work and no CEO I know does well if their people don't respect the way they are led. Everyone – particularly the customer - has the right to ‘the right thing’”
He talked about a production line at Nissan which had to be stopped because drums containing water and brake fluid had been mixed up. But the approach was not to target the one man who had connected the wrong lines, but to look at the area where it all happened and appreciate that the lighting was not right, the labelling could be better and the floor should be marked more clearly.
There was also the stottie line at Greggs, where one baker who was told there should be a timer on his ovens so that he knew when each batch looked perfect rather than have to check them all the time. The experienced employee disputed this because he knew that the company’s customers had different tastes, so each tray of stotties he sent to each shop had a mix of well done, medium or lightly toasted. The customer could pick their favourite and everyone was happy.
These are guiding management principles from one of the great business managers of modern times. People, communication and trust are Gibson essentials and the potential of Yorkshire businesses to grow and attract investment will be all the greater when this intake of YSJ students gets to work.