UK: Who cares who owns the motor?

UK: Who cares who owns the motor? - The apathy over Rolls-Royce's fate, says Robert Heller, may mean chauvinism is starting to recede and UK companies are realising their limitations vis a vis foreign competition.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The apathy over Rolls-Royce's fate, says Robert Heller, may mean chauvinism is starting to recede and UK companies are realising their limitations vis a vis foreign competition.

Once, the very idea of Rolls-Royce Motors, the emblem of British engineering excellence, disappearing into foreign hands would have provoked cries of outrage. Whatever fate awaits the marque, however, public opinion appears relatively indifferent - and perhaps with good reason.

First, engineering lost its sovereign importance long ago, when the car industry dwindled to the Rover rump and the famous engineering conglomerates (like GKN, TI, Hawker-Siddeley and the Roller-owning Vickers) slid down the world leagues.

Second, the sheer repetition of stories of foreign ownership has over the years led to a resigned acceptance by the British public.

In other sectors, too, we see a lack of opposition to foreign ownership. The merchant banks in the City of London were once national emblems as potent as Rolls-Royce. Their disappearance into overseas hands reflected unambitious, unimaginative management. Both the City houses and the luxury car-maker ended as niche players, under-resourced and under-represented in world markets dominated by far larger, richer and stronger firms.

The story of foreign domination reflects the need to keep changing. Don't forget that BMW once occupied a niche even smaller and less promising than Rolls-Royce's, while the German and Swiss banks were once insular to the point of myopia. The foreign firms, however, changed radically, while all the Brits changed was the number of staff they employed. Successive waves of downsizing meant that German industry is led by three giants: Daimler-Benz, VW and Siemens. Each is substantially larger in sales than the combined turnover of Britain's manufacturing leaders - British Steel, British Aerospace, GEC and BTR - the biggest in their country but still busily shrinking.

Could there be a more profound explanation for reduced industrial chauvinism?

There are two arguments. The first is that none of the above matters because Britain is in fact ahead of the game. Having industrialised first, so Britain responded early to the world-wide shift from metal-bashing to the knowledge and service industries. The second is that people happily accept that domestic markets are increasingly subordinate in a global era and see the clear benefits of cross-frontier ownership.

Does either explanation really ring true? To judge from the above examples from the City and by Barclays' retreat from BZW and investment banking (and thus from global capital markets), Britain's base for world-wide financial ambitions is shrinking rather than growing. And on the second point, the sort of nervousness and hysteria about a single currency we have seen over recent years is a very peculiar demonstration of the awareness of the opportunities presented by cross-border markets. Indeed, the muted Rolls-Royce reaction could in fact be read as another sign of a new strain of insularity which runs something like: 'Other countries may do as they like (including UK takeovers), while Britain ploughs its own, lonely furrow.'

There are of course plenty of examples of British expansion overseas.

The intensified, billion-pound drive by Marks & Spencer into global retailing, where it has very few rivals, is typical. The M&S scale is exceptional, but other national successes are following the same expansionist line. For example, Computacenter's turn-over (among the grandest in Management Today's recent rankings of top 100 private companies) has now passed the £1 billion mark. This is because it isn't content with being easily the largest PC supplier in the UK and has thrust into France and Germany with wholly-owned operations. In such firms, pragmatic, energetic managers, proficient in markets and methods alike, are taking their chances.

Further down the scale, though, many British companies, in services as well as manufacturing, are becoming uncomfortably aware of their disadvantage vis-a-vis foreign competition, especially competition from the US. They face rivals who are many times their size, who have broader product ranges, deeper purses and better access to the US-based multi-nationals which account for major shares of key European markets.

Retaliation by breaking into the US, for these firms, is very hard: defending domestic markets may become almost as difficult. The same adverse factors - narrow range, shallow purse and inadequate size - explains Vickers' decision to abandon Rolls-Royce. The unhappy trio go together. Restricted sales meant limited cash-flow and less muscle. The apathy over the fate of Rolls-Royce has its credit side: economic chauvinism is always misplaced and it is welcome to see it receding over time. The unhappier symbolism of the company's fate will be forgotten if more British managements remember, along with the other lessons, that you don't win world wars by fighting on very narrow fronts.

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