Sir George Buckley: From Sheffield slum to CEO of 3M

YOU LIVE AND YOU LEARN: The industrial giant's former boss on ambition, success and Warren Buffett.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Jul 2017

I grew up in Pitsmoor, a slum district in Sheffield, after my parents left me with my grandmother, who was crippled and had no money. My school wasn't exactly designed to give an elite education, so I left at 15 without any qualifications. I ended up running one of the great corporations of the world. It just proves God has a sense of humour, though I never figured out whether he was pulling my leg or everyone else's.

Heaven knows how, but I got a job as an apprentice electrician at the Stanley plant. They sponsored me for a BA and later a PhD in electrical engineering. In 1978 I went to Detroit to work for GM, then spent 10 years designing power plants for Emerson Electric.

It was a real culture shock. If we were building a bridge that was 300ft long, in America they'd be building one that was 3,000ft long. There was this sense of holy shit, this is where the sharks swim and I'm only a minnow. I had this fraud complex, this feeling that they'll find me out tomorrow, but they haven't yet.

You don't necessarily need to have ambition at the beginning of your career, but there's no substitute for hard work. You need to make yourself a tool of the corporation. If they say we've got a problem in Timbuktu, you don't say isn't it hot and dusty there, you say when do I start.

Most companies measure their success only by their finances, but that doesn't tell you a great deal about what's going on inside. When I became CEO of 3M in 2005, the income statement looked great, but the company was in the process of slowly dying. It wasn't replacing old products fast enough.

'Is your board still planning for you to retire at 65?' Warren Buffett once asked me. I said as far as I know. 'Sometimes boards are so stupid,' he said. 'They imagine capability is tied to a date on a birth certificate.' At the time I was also on the board of Black & Decker, which later merged with Stanley. I eventually became the chairman there.

We have not paid attention to our manufacturing capability. I blame Lord Weinstock, Lord White and Lord Hanson for focusing only on the finances. There are only three ways to bring new wealth, that's manufacturing, mineral extraction and agriculture. Banking and tourism are important, but they're just wealth transfer schemes. We can fix this, but we need the will - and a few more apprentices.

Sir George Buckley is the chairman of Stanley Black & Decker and the former CEO of 3M 

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