Revenge On A Roller

Sir Allen Clark, who ran Plessey from 1946 to 1962, was a hire and fire merchant who once walked onto a factory floor and shouted: “Sack everyone from A to K.”

There’s a good yarn about Clark told in Stephen Aris’ book ‘Arnold Weinstock and the Making of GEC’.

Clark was a stickler for time-keeping, recounts Aris, and one day demanded that everyone more than five minutes late for work that day should be sacked.

One of those late to work was one of the company’s top toolmakers.

As he left he removed every detachable handle and knob from Clark’s Roller.

The gatekeeper, who watched this procedure, said he had thought the car was being repaired.



  1. Yes Chris trying to manage industries without understanding them is a common cause of disaster.

  2. As an electronic engineer I was made redundant once by telephone call and once by text message (!) It does seem to be a thankless industry which is why I moved into project management – at least the skills are transferable to other industries if it all hits the fan again.
    On the topic of firing experts and wishing you hadn’t, I remember reading (but not where I read it) about a cost cutting drive I think in Rio de Janeiro, whereby the politicians fired all of the ageing electrical utilities workers to save money. It turned out during the next power crisis that there weren’t any accurate plans of where exactly the power lines and other utilities were buried and it was all in the heads of the people they had let go..

  3. Ha Ha zeitghost the management got burnt by that one

  4. Gosh yes Dr Bob, sack guys and then be forced to bring them back on contract rates – how often we see this – particularly in the NHS it seems – but it’s happened where I’ve worked.

  5. Crikey Chris I didn’t realise it was leftie to want employee protection laws. I thought over the last 70 years it had become received wisdom.

  6. One place I worked had a bought of cost cutting so employees were laid off starting with the eldest (>65). I lasted another year.

    However when the company ceased shipping and Goods In was deadlocked it was found that they had dispensed with the services of the Qualified Mechanical Goods In Inspector and his assistant because they were 66/67. OOPS!

    Both taken back at contractors rates until permanent replacements obtained

    • I seem to recall that Siliconix Inc sacked the burn in guys during a downturn back in the early 90s & 6 weeks later started wondering why nothing was coming out of burn in.

      You couldn’t make it up.

  7. Sounds only too plausible NormanG, the Clarks and Arnie sacked thousands, sometimes seemingly on a whim. They saw themselves as feudal lords over their domains. We don’t know how lucky we are to have the workers’ protections we have today or how vulnerable those protections are now that we’re leaving the EU with the Tories rampant.

    • Leave out the leftard politics David – I thought you were above that. And btw, it’s already public policy from the Conservatives to carry forward all EU employment legislation (as well as adding the 1 year care rights). But don’t let the facts get in the way of a cheap populist soundbite.

  8. When visiting Plessey with one of my customers in the 70’s I was told of the day the MD (not CEO in those days) who was driven into the site. The gateman opened the car door and was told ‘if you have nothing better to do than this, you’re fired’. Apocryphal?

  9. An excellent point Steve – principles cost money which, presumably, is why so many managements today are unprincipled

  10. Very nicely put, Steve. I suppose great principles need great men to uphold them.

  11. Sadly yes Steve but it’s interesting how many subsequenr CEOs have quoted the HP Way approvingly – presumably hypocrisy being the homage vice pays to virtue.

    • All I can say to that David is that the “HP Way” was squishy. It meant whatever it meant at the time. Without Bill and Dave’s authentic “velvet glove over iron hand” management style, the HP Way produced mounds of deadwood and divisions working at cross purposes. The bloodletting associated with cutting out the deadwood was not the HP Way but continuous application of the HP Way would have prevented the overgrowth in the first place. It is easy to give lip service to the HP Way but it took a lot of continuous effort by Hewlett and Packard to make it work in practice. It depended heavily on “management by walking around,” MBWA, which is very time consuming if you have 40+ divisions. One other aspect of the HP Way, no longer to be found anywhere, is deep investment in developing your people. That shows up as a huge expense on the spreadsheet, one that’s easy to cut when the profits stop rolling in.

    • Found this nice, concise version of the HP Way from an article by Jim Collins. See if you think the HP Way got more than lip service after Bill and Dave:

      1) The Hewlett-Packard company exists to make a technical contribution, and should only pursue opportunities consistent with this purpose.
      2) The Hewlett-Packard company demands of itself and its people superior performance—profitable growth is both a means and a measure of enduring success.
      3) The Hewlett-Packard company believes the best results come when you get the right people, trust them, give them freedom to find the best path to achieve objectives, and let them share in the rewards their work makes possible.
      4) The Hewlett-Packard company has a responsibility to contribute directly to the well-being of the communities in which its operates.
      5) Integrity, period.

      There’s no guarantee, by the way, that the HP Way is a competitive approach in today’s M&A, risk-averse environment.

  12. Well SEPAM, when you have “the worst board in fhe history of business” you expect some dilution of standards. Appointing Carly, Leo and Meg was unlikely to perpetuate the values of Bill & Dave

  13. Yes maybe there’s no such thing as a sensitive lay-off Steve, but people can be put on a priority list for re-hiring when things turn up, they can be offered free outplacement services, they can be given generous severance and they can be treated with respect. I agree not much comfort to someone being terminated.

  14. Wise words DontAgree, but these things can be done sensitively or brutally.

    • I’ve yet to see layoffs done sensitively, David. I’ve observed that mass layoffs brutally hit both those suddenly laid off and those who remain. The net effect is quite injurious to the company and to morale, with lasting effects to everyone involved. I was too late to the party, but HP was having severe revenue problems in 1970/71. In fact the famous HP catalog, which was the company’s very best sales tool (the engineer’s “wish book”), was published as a “reduced” 113-page supplement showing only new items in 1971 to save money. (Google “HP Catalog 1971”. “Only” 100 pages of new items in a year. Imagine the innovation it took back then to produce that!) Meanwhile, everyone went on a 20% pay cut (a 4-day work week) to prevent mass layoffs. People were retasked to infrastructure maintenance (like painting) to save on outside contracting dollars. I joined four years later and it was clear that these measures had strengthened morale because people saw what measures Hewlett and Packard would take to keep their company whole and functional in tough times. I don’t expect to see the like of this sort of management again because layoffs have become a fashionable management tool to prove to investors that the execs are on top of their expenses.

      • SecretEuroPatentAgentMan

        The strange thing is that Hewlett Packard is often used as an example in books on organisational theory and yet the story seems to have no impact on the students once they reach the C-suite.

        • The “Bill and Dave” HP was quite different than the subsequent versions. Packard famously said, after taking HP public, that he didn’t care what the stock market wanted, it was his name on the company so he was going to do what was right for the company long term. You can teach that in B-school, but good luck finding a CEO who can make that stick these days. The stock market’s become far more powerful these days and CEO longevity is now a fragile thing.

  15. It seems that engineering is particularly brutal in the way it sacks people, Jamo, I don’t know why this should be so.

    • Easy, engineering takes a long time to turn investment into profit … when the going get tough the easy thing to do is cut the cost of engineering on some future product, while keeping the marketing and sales to sell what you already have in production.

      When the situation is dire and swift action is required, to prevent a bankruptcy, there is no time to make sound decisions on weeding out the dead wood, so it becomes a blind numbers game played on the whim of whomever is in charge. Long term this is the worst thing a company can do to itself, good people leave even if they were not kicked out, but it is still better than doing nothing which will result in killing itself in the short term … when that happens everybody is out of a job.

  16. My first experience of this was as a young engineer at Burr-Brown. We arrived at 8 to he told there would be redundancies and we would would know by 12 if we still had a job. For the next few hours the Tannoy was announcing names to go see Personnel. I was called to go see the Boss only to talk about some production problem. By 12 the team of engineers I was in had been reduced from 9 to 2. After that experience every downturn was a breeze.

  17. My God Steve there are some horrors around. When Fairchild wanted to sack some people Corrigan waited in the foyer with a counting device and fired everyone who came in until he’d reached the number they wanted out.

  18. Believe it or not, I once worked for a firm that sacked the 50% of the R&D team that was on one side of the room where the sacking meeting occurred. I was fortunate enough to survive merely because I went right instead of left when I entered. I immediately went job shopping and left ASAP.

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