UK: EDITORIAL - THE UNLIKELY PHOENIX - ROYAL MAIL. - When nationalisation was an encompassing dogma, the idea of public ownership, of everyone having a share in this and that, was never much more than a short-lived joke. 'Our gas', 'our electricity', eve

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When nationalisation was an encompassing dogma, the idea of public ownership, of everyone having a share in this and that, was never much more than a short-lived joke. 'Our gas', 'our electricity', even 'our telephones' soon became recognised as 'theirs', someone else's. The customer was on the wrong side of barricades many thought could never be erected.

A different wisdom prevails these days. Customers have come into their own where once they queued with complaints and unrequited needs. Royal Mail always had the customers and almost certainly believed and behaved as if these people could not go anywhere else. Technology, and desperation, proved otherwise. And, extra-ordinarily, and partly out of shame, managerial energy somehow found a way through the fug of public disdain and internal self-doubt that even the most optimistic would have deemed impenetrable, to transform Royal Mail into a leader among Europe's postal services.

'For any company,' writes Robert Heller (p30) 'the metamorphosis would be remarkable. But for an ancient nationalised operation to rise from the ashes of ill-repute and under-performance stands conventional wisdom on its head.' Indeed, it does here, if not, inevitably, elsewhere. Privatisers, zealous as nationalisers once were, might well have to be careful about both baby and bathwater. One notes, however, the comment of the Post Office's chief executive, Bill Cockburn, about the need for an escape from a public finance system that is insensitive to differences between spending income and investing capital, and his wish to have the freedom to be more successful and be as free as any business to shape its future.

And, without taking anything away from the Post Office's daring deeds, it is appropriate to reflect that these might have perished at the green shoot stage had there not been a change in the climate which itself came about because mammoths like it were so demonstrably bad and uncaring about their customers. It behoves big businesses, public or private, to remember that pride in size can come before a fall.

One notes with satisfaction that Royal Mail's success has not bred complacency. It might well be satisfied with being Europe's best, but it now has its eyes on the world and the future. It knows that there is no final destination, only an inexorably diligent journey, never neglecting the fact that the quest within for more quality is constant and the market outside has to be wooed not dominated.

But one can allow Royal Mail, at a time when pollsters find that confidence in Britain's public institutions is at the lowest level recorded, the indulgence of a self-excepting 'H'm'.

There are in fact a brace of phoenixes in this issue. You can read about the other in Jim Levi's story of Trinity Holdings (p66), a management buyout that has bucked the recession. One of its marques, the Dennis bus, is rolling back the imports and now outnumbers those of Volvo, DAF, Scania and MAN all together on British roads. Trinity is now the leading manufacturer of specialist vehicles in Europe.

So here are a couple of birds that flew when others were lost in the encircling gloom. Could there be others? Surely. It is a thought perhaps, reverting to those pollsters again, for all those people who think they should emigrate (where to?, one wonders), that life in Britain can only deteriorate. As the poet Arthur Clough said, and some are proving, 'If hopes are dupes, fears may be liars.'.

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