The heroes and inspirational leaders of this story are both or either Andrew Davis or Ian Macgregor. I will leave you to decide but I only met one and he tells the story for us.
Andrew had previously been managing director at WalkerSteel which is only of relevance because its owner Jack Walker used his wealth to support Blackburn Rovers to win what was then the equivalent of the Premier League with Alan Shearer. With the World Cup just finished I needed a football reference.
After Walkers amalgamated with British Steel, Andrew later became Managing Director of the combined business, British Steel Distribution. This is where I met him in the 1980s.
I was working with him to design a new information system for the senior executives and my way to start was, as always, to have long and wide-ranging interviews. A good information system is not just about the data but as much about the personality of its primary user. This was when he told me a personal story.
Earlier in his career, Andrew was running a steel distribution business in Aberdeen supporting the growing Scottish oil industry and he told me of the day when one of his projects was seriously at risk. In short, the promises Andrew had made to the customer weren’t being delivered by the suppliers and steelmakers. He was in the middle and in a hard place.
He was feeling low and his mood was not improved when he heard that his Chairman, Ian MacGregor, a mix of Scot and Canadian, was on his way to visit him. MacGregor had built up a reputation as a tough and aggressive leader after his provocative role in the UK miner’s strike of the 1980s.
Andrew assumed the Chairman was going to fire him and he told me that already he was mentally packing his home and wondering where he would work next.
‘He sat in my office clearly happy to be back to be in Scotland if only for a day, and he listened carefully as I told him why things were going bad. Ian said very little until I finished and then he asked me for a precise and full list of what was needed to get the project back on track. He made it clear it had to be everything. So, while he went to lunch I sat writing out what support, help and product was necessary,’ Andrew said.
‘When Ian got back he looked over the list and his only question, yet again, was if this was everything.’
‘Give me an office, a phone and 2 hours,’ Ian said.
‘We reconvened just before 5 pm when Ian called me back into my office,’ Andrew said, ‘because of course, I had given him mine and I was perched on the corner of a desk in the main office.’
Andrew said it was Ian that spoke, ‘I have been through the list and everything you asked for has now been arranged and fixed. Now, Andrew, you have everything you want. Now you have no excuses left, and with that, he stood, left and got the train back to London.’
Andrew told me that of course, not everything had been sorted but now with the Chairman behind him and his own skills, the project progressed and was a success.
And that became the rule for the information system we designed and built. Andrew wanted real clarity on each individual’s accountabilities.
As Andrew said, ‘I remember what Ian did for me. He cleared out the problems and removed all the excuses so that he could test me as a manager.’
That is a lesson I have not forgotten.