Laird's long-stay boss has been on most headhunters' lists for all the top slots in recent years. But he hasn't needed to change jobs - he has kept on changing the company.
John Gardiner, chairman and chief executive of Laird, the automotive and engineering giant, is what you might call a boss's boss. Twenty-four years in the same top slot, in huge demand for his expertise as a non-executive director, widely respected for his work on Government committees and the like, he is venerated by many of his peers yet virtually unknown to the general public.
That's how he likes it. After all, he reasons, the public are not Laird's customers. Yet some are continually surprised at how little recognition he has received. To fellow Laird director Sir Graham Day, a friend since the early '70s, he is simply 'the great unsung hero of British business'. He is also, I had been warned, a bit of a needler, with a reputation for aggressive awkwardness. 'Once you are over 30,' Gardiner announces, eyeing me beadily from beside his trusty slide projector (he likes giving presentations), 'you are too old for journalism.' Ouch.
We are sitting in the relatively anonymous boardroom at Laird's fourth-floor St James' Square head office. There are some old Paolozzi prints on the wall, and a nice view of the square, but little else. Gardiner, 58, a medium-height man with a brisk, mischievous manner, is not a great one for the luxurious trappings of corporate superstardom. He is, for example, quite happy to be taking a pay cut and to be losing his chauffeur-driven car next month when he finally steps down as chief executive at Laird. He remains as chairman but at Laird - £38 million profit on £624 million turnover in 1993 - only the chief executive gets a chauffeur. Gardiner (whose combined salary topped £340,000 last year and who owns more than half a million shares in the company) will be driving himself in from his modest home in Dulwich. Friends say that despite his wealth, his ascetic streak runs a mile wide.
He is certainly not a fan of interviews: like his prickly dealings with analysts, he doesn't like what he sees as the inevitable stupid questions. A former journalist himself - he used to write the Financial Times' Lex column in the '60s - he is no slouch at communication and analysis, but prefers to concentrate his attentions on Laird's major shareholders, to whom he makes individual presentations every year. And Laird shareholders have always understood where the group is going.
Which is lucky because many might feel they need a thorough route map to guide them through Laird's past 30 years. Rarely has one company changed so much under one man. Since arriving at the company in the early '70s and splitting up the original Cammell Laird empire, Gardiner has led the group through planes, boats, buses and trains, whisked it out of steel and into components, dabbled in plastics, pushed it into computer assembly, stormed the security systems market and relentlessly dragged Laird's focus away from Britain and, in particular, the public sector. Twenty-four years at the top has taught him that politicians and governments are, he says, 'unreliable customers'. That, of course, is somewhat ironic since he got into the business via a political agency, the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, in the first place.
Gardiner started as an economist. Brought up in Lancing, the son of a retail manager, he had graduated from the London School of Economics and trained at the Prudential before joining the Financial Times in his mid-twenties. But it was through Lex that he made his name, writing the column for six years with James Joll. 'They were an extremely aggressive, effective pair,' remembers one who worked with them on the FT. The young Gardiner's USP was to tell bosses exactly what he thought of their company's financial performance, with rather less deference than they were used to at the time. It won him admirers and detractors in roughly equal measures.
One admirer was IRC boss Lord Kearton, who lured him over to join the corporation. The IRC's brief, devised by Harold Wilson, was to assist in the merger and rescue of ailing British businesses, in the hope of making them fitter global competitors. Two years after joining, having just completed a damning report on Rolls Royce, Gardiner was sent into Cammell Laird, the bankrupt shipbuilding and steel group, to advise on rescue. He never came back.
The rescue is now textbook stuff. The group, which had a famous history going back to its Victorian founders, had been through boom and bust many times before but by 1970 it looked like the end had really come. It was crippled by the combination of increasing inflation, an ill-advised shift from warship to commercial shipbuilding, and a whole series of diversifications that had gone wrong. The banks wanted to wind it up. Gardiner was its last chance.
Somehow he pulled it off. He persuaded the big ship-owning companies to change the fixed-cost contracts that were breaking the shipyards, sorted out the aviation arm that had been hit by Handley Page's bankruptcy and drove from office to office - the group was spread right across Britain - in his Austin 1300 laying off staff and telling managers what he wanted them to do. 'You can guess what some of the guys' reaction was,' he says now. 'There I was, aged 33 and a journalist. But I was pretty determined and I knew a lot about bankruptcy.' By the second week he had devised a series of rules to re-establish head-office control on spending and management, and cut down expense and confusion. He borrowed heavily against the bits of Laird that still made money to pay for the shipbuilding losses, before eventually demerging the yards. By this stage the IRC, told to find a new boss for Laird, realised that Gardiner was the only realistic choice for the job.
Sir Graham Day, then a troubleshooter for Canadian Pacific, which had large contracts with the shipyards, describes Gardiner's bosses as a bit 'Machiavellian' in luring him in. 'I don't think the idea of moving into full-time business had occured to him. Even now, 24 years later, he still always refers to himself as an ex-journalist.' Others say he was always ambitious. For no one doubts that since establishing himself at Laird, Gardiner has topped most headhunters' lists for the top jobs that have been going. Friends say he has been offered coal and steel, but turned both down. He always says he has enough on his plate at Laird. Others have pointed out that he had no need to change jobs as he kept changing Laird anyway.
Certainly the group has had its ups and downs, although Gardiner's position has never been threatened. 'No,' he agrees with a laugh, 'it hasn't been 24 years of unremitting progress. There have been crossover points. In 1973, 80% of our profits were in steel. Following the oil crisis they disappeared. Fortunately other companies started to go well and we bridged the gap.' Hence by the late '70s three-quarters of Laird profits were suddenly coming out of trains, but these were judged unsustainable, too, as the group couldn't get a significant presence at home. So again Gardiner had other irons in the fire, and plumped for a drive into the automotive industry, where it has become one of the biggest manufacturers of car seals in Europe, with huge plants in Germany, France and Spain.
The sector is Laird's key area, supplying nearly two-thirds of the group's profit last year - but the technique of preparing 'nice little earners' on the side, ready to take up any slack, still holds good. Laird continually buys and builds, but never gets involved in competitive takeovers, which Gardiner says he doesn't believe in. Now, as a balance against the downturn in the motor industry, the group is into plastics distribution, home security products and computer assembly as well. Whereas other similarly diverse groups might get criticised in the City for being 'unfocused', somehow Gardiner, who has a prickly reputation among analysts, seems to get away with it.
The point, they say, is that despite disasters like its attempt to get into the bus market (Metro-Cammel), Laird's diversifications are generally successful - unlike the attempts of other automotive giants. More crucially, Gardiner's insistence on turning Laird into a development and capital-expenditure-driven group based mainly in Continental Europe, investing heavily in the best expertise and technology in its industries, has paid off.
Gardiner's sticking power at Laird is in sharp contrast to his mobility elsewhere. Despite the low profile - or maybe because of it? - he is in huge demand as a non-executive. He is currently deputy chairman of Tesco and sits on the boards of 3i and Enterprise Oil as well, and in the past has had responsibilities at British Airways, MAI, PowerGen, Courtaulds, not to mention the non-plc work: British Shipbuilders, British Steel Performance Review Com-mittee, UK Atomic Energy Authority, Council of Brunel University, school teachers, prisons. He is well-known for taking his non-executive work very seriously indeed. He moves every three-to-five years, in case he gets stale.
So what makes a good director? Gardiner says there are certain qualities you are always looking for in a non-executive. 'Above all a non-exec needs to be a business person, and secondly, he or she needs to be in management. You can have other people but they are usually much less effective. You want people who have had final responsibility for results and are aware of the balancing act that goes on to get those results, and have a lot of experience of failure, as all good managers have done. Managers are quite lucky if they are right 60% of the time. The trick is to control the things that go wrong so you don't slow everything up.' Aren't there inconsistencies? Laird, for example, now has no less than four chartered accountants on its 10-man board. Yes, retorts Gardiner, but they all have business experience. Well, how about the same man being both chairman and chief executive, as Gardiner has been since former chairman Sir Ian Morrow retired in 1987? That is still not viewed with enthusiasm by many in the City.
Gardiner bristles slightly when the point is made. 'Running a business', he says, 'is not a civil service occupation. You do whatever is necessary to develop. I've been chief executive, and I've been chairman and chief executive, and it doesn't matter a great deal so long as all the difficult problems are put before the board, and you have a group of directors who have enough gumption to discuss them and a majority from outside. In my case it is not a problem because I am quite open.' In fact - and I had to get this from his friends rather than the man himself - taking on the dual role was always part of the slow handover of power at Laird, as Gardiner decided some years ago to bring on Ian Arnott, the former finance director, as his successor. It means that Gardiner has been less in evidence next to his projector in the function rooms of the various big Laird investors recently, but few believe he is going to fade from the scene completely.
'If the changes don't work out,' says one analyst, 'there's always the suggestion that he will be back.' Gardiner demurs but certainly no one expects him to spend more time at his golf club (Walton Heath) or his holiday home (outside Aldeburgh). Having taken nearly a quarter of a century remoulding Laird into the shape he wants, Gardiner, like so many long-stay bosses, may find it difficult to persuade people that he is really stepping aside.