Inspirational Leaders: Ian MacGregor and Andrew Davis

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.

A High Octane Sport

I managed to let the start of the Formula 1 season, in Australia a couple of weeks ago, pass without mention but with the second race in Bahrain now just a few days away, it is time to pitch in.

For a long time, I have been a fan of F1 and have been two races, both at Silverstone. In my twenties, I was invited to one by Geraldine, the marketing manager of McLaren who was then my girlfriend. That contact gave me access to drivers and the after-race parties. The second time was when I was working for ICI, then sponsors of the Williams team, and additionally that gave me pit access. I still remember standing next to Sir Frank Williams during the race, an unheard of privilege in today’s pit access rules.

Both these experiences were exceptional giving me everything you get on television plus a lot more. We had the television pictures, race timing boards, all around access and a great live view on the corner just before the start-finish line.

I haven’t gone to a race since. The involvement will never be the same, but it is a sport I always want to watch.

F1 is a fascinating sport. It has more data than any other. It is almost literally a high-octane sport. We will never know if Fangio was a faster driver than Hamilton or even if Lewis is faster than Seb. How much is the car and how much is the driver? There have been thousands of journalist’s column inches on that topic.

From the outside, we only see the culmination of all the effort on a race weekend and only imagine what has been necessary to get a car to the chequered flag. It is a sport of tiny margins, often small factions of a second and if ever the phrase ‘marginal improvements’ meant anything it is here.

In my way, I have wondered what it would be like to be in the heart of an F1 team and once spent a very happy weekend in my own imagination having a conversation with an F1 team principal. Someday I may document it.

The driver wants to win the Driver’s Championship but when you hear the team principal talk they are more concerned about the Constructor’s Championship. For them, the effort of the team is more important and properly recognised.

But while we may see the improvement on the track, I have always wondered if there are the same opportunities in the way the business is managed and run because all my experience says there must be opportunities. Just like a car, nothing is perfect.

While I was thinking about this I found an article on the BBC website by Andrew Benson, written last year talking about Ferrari’s resurgence, at least in the first three races of 2017.

From a relative failure over 2015 and 2016 they had won two of the first three races, were second in the other and leading the early championship table.

How Ferrari gave Sebastian Vettel the chance to beat Lewis Hamilton. What has happened behind the scenes? Andrew Benson; BBC Chief F1 Writer (Benson, 2017)

Hard work is one thing. But all F1 teams work hard. Ferrari were working hard last year – and in 2014, when they also failed to win a race.

The explanation for the turnaround is more complex than that, and it starts a year or so ago, in the first difficult months of Ferrari’s 2016.

Ferrari were confident heading into last year that they had further closed the gap on Mercedes after a 2015 in which Vettel won three races. The team bosses told president Sergio Marchionne as much, and he came out before the season started and said he expected Ferrari to be absolutely competitive from the off.

The problems started when they were not. Marchionne is an uncompromising Italian-Canadian businessman with a reputation as a hard man with colourful language. His nickname is “the jumpered assassin”. He was not happy, and he wanted to know why performance was not what had been promised.

He began a full investigation into how things worked at Ferrari’s Maranello factory. He personally interviewed many staff, not just the bosses, wanted to know their thoughts on why Ferrari could not compete with the best British-based teams, and asked for an explanation about why they had a reputation for lack of imagination and innovation in F1 design.

Marchionne decided the design department needed to be restructured, to free up some of the more creative minds and make a less top-down structure.

He identified, he has said, about 20 key “high-potential individuals” to promote and harness. Management was reorganised; the format of meetings, too.

The idea was to make design more flexible, to ensure all ideas were discussed and make the group more open to suggestions. And to encourage a greater sense of ownership and responsibility among a much wider array of people, to avoid the usual Ferrari problem of people keeping their heads down so they could not be blamed for failure.

At the same time, Ferrari undertook an analysis of their weaknesses and concluded three main issues – aerodynamics, especially on circuits that require efficiency, such as Barcelona and Silverstone; tyre management; and gearbox fragility.

That done, they had a redefined baseline focus for 2017.

Ferrari was leading for much of the season. The team was working at its very best, but then both Vittel and the team started to make mistakes. The team imploded, and Hamilton went on to win the championship.

That is sport. You can train, practice, rehearse and still, not everything goes to plan. That is why this weekend in Bahrain I will again be watching for which of Lewis, Seb, Kimi or Max comes out on top.