GKN in the 1970s: when nostalgia ruled

The takeover battle for GKN, spiced with rumours that closure of the company’s head office will be the first act of the successful vampire squid outfit known as Melrose, has stirred personal memories. Forty years ago I worked for Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds in its head office, then located at the top end of Heath Street in Smethwick.

My curiosity over recent weeks has focused on the presumption of those opposed to the takeover that the company’s 18th century origins, its household name, and its (rather shaky) association with Spitfire aircraft could be deployed to sway the shareholder vote, or even to inspire government intervention.

Does such sentiment add to the goodwill of a business? Not enough, alas for GKN, but I’ve enjoyed transposing that question into the context of personal experience. If I now owned shares in the company, would my vote have been influenced by the soft glow of distant memories?

I occupied a position of microscopic importance, something to do with salaries and pensions, for over four years in the late 1970s, the decade that British industry would prefer to forget. Certainly, the company has claims to my gratitude. A staff minibus was available for my commute. My superiors were very demanding but ultimately dispensed kindness beyond merit. A benevolent 2nd mortgage from the company enabled me to purchase my first flat at the age of 26. On being promoted I was gravely informed that the managers’ restaurant was now available for lunches.

A decent employer’s reference from the head office of such a company was a passport to whatever one wanted to do next. And of course I gained a couple of special friends.

But these brownie points have lacked staying power. Affection for the business was diluted by its strategic drift into the embrace of the military, ironically the one characteristic that might bring a last-minute reprieve from government intervention. My nostalgia for the period therefore tends to coalesce around the experience of living in Birmingham rather than working for GKN.

These recollections inevitably highlight the transformation in working culture over the decades that followed. I honestly can’t recall the presence of a computer at Warley, as the GKN address was known, although by that time the technology must have been on site somewhere. I spent the days in my own office, alone with a telephone and with the door shut. Across the corridor were my two secretaries, who I periodically summoned for dictation of staggeringly repetitive and boring material. Internal correspondence was called a Memo, its cold manner of address: TO and FROM, relieved us of contemporary torment of how to start and finish emails.

GKN office notices in the 1970s – roneo technology and secretaries with no names
GKN 1970s noticeboard – roneo technology and secretaries with no names

The company existed in thrall to the trade unions. Fear of strikes, then called on the flimsiest of pretexts, was palpable. On excursions to subsidiary companies, I would invariably find myself ushered into an unscheduled meeting with the Works Committee whose union officials had somehow heard of my coming and wanted to discuss petty grievances.

As the junior, I tended to be despatched to ageing factories whose technologies could be described as cutting edge only in the literal sense. Many of them were relics of the ping pong battles of post-war steel nationalisation. To my untrained eye, the old Nettlefolds screws and fastenings factories that lined the Heath Street site surely predated 1914.

We were presided over through the 1970s by an avuncular Chairman called Sir Barrie Heath. His war record as a Spitfire pilot may have fermented the legend that GKN built the aircraft. I don’t recall ever seeing him or any of the executive directors in the flesh, despite our common premises, nor receiving much in the way of motivational communications.

In the absence of share options or bonuses, there was little passion for the company’s fortunes amongst my colleagues; they were a resigned and rather laconic bunch, half with an eye to retirement, the other half picking their moment to move on.

In 1980 GKN recorded a loss for the first time in its long history and the dreaded McKinsey consultants were summoned to head office. If ever the company was ripe for takeover, this was surely the moment.

Yet the share price barely moved, for the good reason that a takeover would have encountered implacable resistance. The unions wouldn’t have allowed it. The new Thatcher government hadn’t yet got into its stride for decimating British industry.

Sentiment for Britain’s industrial heritage would have been cited as the clinching argument for the defence.