I’ve always been driven by the joy of learning

Sir George Buckley
Sir George Buckley
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Back in the 1950s, disabled schoolboy George Buckley caught the same bus as pupils from Sheffield’s best school at that time – King Edward’s – and they bullied him mercilessly.

For not only was he physically disadvantaged – he had pernicious anaemia, bronchitis, kidney disease and a limp – but he wasn’t one of them.

He went to Springvale House special school and lived with foster parents in a slum in Pitsmoor.

That, you might think, gave him a desire for revenge that drove his ascent to the very top of global mega corporation 3M – in charge of 110,000 people making 75,000 products with $30bn in sales.

But Sir George – he was knighted for services to industry in 2011 – writes his own fairytale.

He said: “Young kids can be brutal, they bullied me for going to the ‘daft’ school. It gave me some determination to prove them wrong. But I think discovering the joy of learning and being able to apply it – they were the real forces that drove me.

“My success is down to hard work, good mentors and good luck.”

It’s an answer that says everything and nothing about how someone with such humble beginnings can summit the Everest of business. A look at his career and an anecdote reveal a lot more.

Leaving school at 15 with no qualifications, he took a job as an apprentice electrician and was inspired by a senior colleague who showed him maths equations used in the profession.

He studied at Sheffield Technical College and went on to take a degree and do a PhD while working for the Central Electricity Generating Board.

While there, he wrote research papers that were spotted by General Motors in America and they offered him a job. It was 1978.

George, who was by then 31 and married with three children, said no. GM came back and asked again and this time he said yes.

“My boss Tom Miller urged me to stay, saying I could go all the way. But I knew I was born in the wrong place, had the wrong parents, went to the wrong schools and had the wrong accent, in those days. In the US it wasn’t an issue.”

The family moved to the States and his career was on the rise. He worked his way up through a string of companies – including a return to England as an MD within British Rail – before being lured to Chicago by the Brunswick Corporation.

He was at power company Detroit Edison when his boss and mentor Don Wilson gave up part of his job to ensure he got promoted.

Sir George said: “He thought there was something special in me, it wasn’t based on my view of myself. He said he knew it was the right thing and I could repay other people.

“There were many moments where I got help and advice that was incredibly important in my career. It happened four, five, six times.

“It wasn’t a driving ambition, it was much more genteel. I promise you I haven’t stood on anyone on the way to the top.”

After a lifetime’s work he made it, becoming chairman and CEO of 3M, in 2005. He was the first non-American in the post and the only Brit to become chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.

Its sheer size, and the responsibility and graft that came with it, would strike terror into some. But Sir George is refreshingly positive about it.

“Best job I ever had. The power was immense of course, but I loved the sheer stimulation of working in a company with powerful brands, powerful technology and wonderful people.

“I knew I had to deliver. But no-one can know everything as a leader, so you surround yourself with people who are better at their job than you are at yours.”

Read the full version of this interview in August’s edition of The Business magazine, Johnston Press’ bi-monthly glossy for Sheffield City Region. For a free subscription, email Emma.Angell@jpress.co.uk

Humble beginnings

It could be a plot line from EastEnders.

Sir George Buckley’s parents were living with his grandmother when he was born.

His father was a ‘ladies’ man’ and they split when he was very young and left him behind with his grandmother.

Unable to look after him, he was brought up by an itinerant family from Nottingham, the Uptons, who were lodging there. But his foster mum died when he was eight.

He was 11 when his birth mother took him back.

Sir George, who saw his real father only three times in his life, said: “It was traumatic. But people did what they had to do in those days and I’m not judgmental.”

He ruefully remembers one Christmas party in about 1965 in Sheffield – because it put him off booze for life.

Aged 18 he got ‘very badly drunk’ at his best friend’s house in Southey Green and took the best part of a week to sober up, or so it seemed.

Today, aged 66 and retired, he divides his time between Minnesota, Chicago and Hartington in Derbyshire and enjoys music, history, fishing and gardening.

One small step for company marketing

“The biggest marketing fail of all time.” That’s how Sir George Buckley describes the missed opportunity to put the 3M logo on the soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots.

The company made the footwear worn by the first man on the moon.

And the photos of his footprints will be famous until the end of time. Alas, the ridged pattern is undisturbed by letters or numbers.

It says much, perhaps, about 3M: not glamorous, not headline grabbing and certainly not sexy – but its stuff sure is useful. Despite moonlandings and making tens of thousands of products, it is most famous for a humble yellow square of paper: the Post-it note.

They can be found on most desks – and there are a lot of desks on the planet. And most people have heard of Scotch tape and spray-on stain repellant Scotchgard.

But the firm is also very big in an incredible range of sectors, from food safety to healthcare and from electronics to fire protection.