Unipart, the former components division of British Leyland, based in Cowley, Oxford, shows that a leopard can change its spots. It used to have the fractious industrial relations and poor relationships with suppliers characteristic of the motor industry. But recently the company has been enjoying something of a transformation.
Following a MBO in 1987, chief executive John Neill looked at the Japanese manufacturing miracle and decided that, if Britain was to compete, its industry was going to have to work on the basis of co-operation and not the confrontational approach which had dogged Britain's car makers for so long. 'It's no good having these annual all-or-nothing battles with unions. You have to build relationships and work together.' Many of Neill's ideas originated in Japan, which ironically is now rethinking some of its employment practices, including the jobs for life pledge. All Unipart staff, now wear the same uniforms, eradicating 'us and them' demarcations between bosses and workers. Multi-skilling has been introduced so that people are trained, become used to doing a variety of jobs and understand other people's problems.
The unions were de-recognised in October 1991.'Within 12 months, productivity in our distribution department had gone up by 39%,' says Neill. 'It wasn't that people were working harder, they just felt liberated.' Unipart began investing heavily in staff training, something that had previously been targeted at management. The company ran a series of two-day training seminars for all staff entitled, Putting People First, and a monthly award programme was launched, to recognise outstanding service to customers.
Quality Circles were encouraged under a 'My Contribution Counts' campaign. Neill says that 1,000 staff have taken part and developed ideas, saving £4 million a year.
A campaign to improve supplier quality and reliability, called 'Ten to Zero' measures supplier performance. Aims are not just quality and reliability but trust and co-operation.
It seems to have worked. Last year profits were up to £20 million on sales of £662 million (1987 profits: £12 million; sales: £428 million) and, Neill says: 'Unipart is a much happier ship.'