Sir George Buckley: The business chief on how he was ‘never overwhelmed’ as boss of 3M, coming home to Sheffield and why he would pay more taxes

"It's a very strange story," says Sir George Buckley, as he reflects on the turn of events that took him from a poverty-stricken childhood, blighted by illness and living with foster parents in a Sheffield slum, to the top of global business as CEO of the massive American conglomerate 3M, once earning $23 million in a single year.

Tuesday, 20th August 2019, 07:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 20th August 2019, 20:58 pm
Sir George Buckley. Picture: David Levenson

He jokes about the way his prospects were transformed – "My usual line is that it 'proves God has a sense of humour'" – but he knows things wouldn't have been the same had he not striven to better himself and taken the odd leap of faith.

"If you're not prepared to work hard and you don't have a certain amount of drive you won't be successful," he says. "But it's serendipitous, accidental, sometimes random. One of the best examples is in art and music. Not only do they have to be incredibly good, but they also have to be incredibly lucky. They're an extreme manifestation of what successful lives can become."

Sir George is on the phone from his home in Chicago; he also owns houses in Florida, Minnesota and one near Hartington in the Peak District. It's 6.30am in the US but he's an early riser – "I'm normally up at about five" – and is looking forward to visiting Britain to pick up an honorary doctorate from Sheffield University when we speak.

"Last year I spent 88 days in the UK," he says, his Yorkshire accent virtually unchanged despite his decades in the States, during which he became one of the few Britons to run a Fortune 500 firm.

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Although ostensibly retired, he still holds several important roles – he is chairman of engineering company Smiths Group, holds the same position at toolmaker Stanley Black & Decker and sits on the board of PepsiCo.

It's a comfortable existence, and Sir George readily agrees he has been exceptionally well remunerated.

"I'm afraid the very best people are often the best paid," he says. "Because you're in a competitive system for labour, you end up in those circumstances. The board of directors sets those numbers."

Poverty, he quips, is 'overrated'. And he has known true hardship. Born in Pitsmoor, he had a limp, and suffered from chronic bronchitis as well as pernicious anaemia. His parents split when he was very young and he was left with his grandmother, before being taken in by another family.

"When I was born I weighed 4lb 9oz," he says. "Even at the age of nine I weighed three stone. I was very thin. I looked like a pencil or a clothes line prop.

“I was short, sickly, not particularly good at any of the things boys might typically think were important – cricket or football. But you get by."

He went to Springvale House special school, and after leaving aged 15 with no qualifications he became an apprentice electrician.

However, he realised that a lack of education had left him ill-equipped to do the calculations necessary for the trade he had chosen, so began studying at Sheffield Technical College, then took a degree and a PhD while working for the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Sir George was soon offered a job by General Motors in Detroit, who spotted research papers he had written – initially he turned them down, but accepted when they asked again.

His move to the USA led to jobs at Detroit Edison and the Emerson Electrical Company. Following a sojourn back in England as an MD with British Rail, he was tempted to Chicago to run the Brunswick Corporation, which makes recreational boats. The pinnacle came in 2005 when 3M appointed him president, chairman and CEO.

"I love the Americans' positive attitude," says Sir George, who holds dual citizenship. "Their reliance on the welfare state is not nearly as strong as we have. There's a belief in society – and you see it in the success of very large American companies – in a better future.

“It doesn't mean it doesn't have its challenges. I just wish in America we had the National Health Service, I am a devoted hero-worshipping fan of the NHS. Britain has done some things right."

The scale of 3M is dizzying – in Sir George's time it had 110,000 staff in more than 40 companies, with a market capitalisation that peaked at $157 billion.

"I was never overwhelmed," he says. "Being CEO is like being the conductor of a large and complex orchestra. It's amazing how the human mind has the capacity to adapt. You compartmentalise."

Post-it Notes and Scotchgard spray are among 3M's most famous innovations, and it came up with the original idea for the Apple Watch. "We gave it to them, they could make more of it," says Sir George. "We got to sell them lots of components."

Knighted in 2011, he stepped down from 3M a year later when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 65, and joined Smiths in 2013. The group is based in London.

"I love my country, and I'd seen its industrial powers go down," he says. "There are only three ways in which to create new wealth, in my view. The first is manufacturing, the second is mining and minerals extraction, and the last is agriculture.

“All the great nations of the world have used one or several of those items. Some people will say 'What about banking?' – all banking does is move wealth from one place to another."

Now aged 72, he has eight children and is married to Donna, his third wife. He describes himself as 'conservative with a small c' in his political, religious and financial views, but is not against some of the tenets of socialism.

"I'm a big believer that society has a responsibility to support the old, the young, the sick, the downtrodden and the infirm," he says. "I'm happy to pay more taxes to have that happen."

He opposed tuition fees while at 3M, telling MPs the cost would have put him off going to university as a young man. "If there had been an additional impediment I think there's a very significant chance I wouldn't have done it. I said 'I think you're making a terrible social mistake, you will come to regret this'."

Sir George has encouraged his children to read subjects that can 'provide a sensible profession' – computer science, accountancy, medicine and dentistry all get the Buckley seal of approval.

"I want my children to be independent," he reasons. "I can get them lots of money, but they're very good kids."

The honorary doctorate is 'wonderful', he says. “You're always most proud when you get awards from your alma mater, or your home town. There's a bit of a biblical flavour to it.

“I've offered to come and do some lectures at the university – they don't have to pay me, but I'd be speaking in manufacturing, strategy, business, leadership... it doesn't have to be just once, I'd be quite happy to do a course of four or six. I believe all great leaders are great teachers, so I think any good leader should want to share his or her knowledge with others. My experiences may not be unique, but they're highly unusual.”

‘I told 3M how to survive recession’

The 2008/09 recession brought the economy to its knees – but Sir George Buckley says it was the best thing that happened to him as the boss of 3M.

Sales at the company fell by more than a quarter as the crisis took hold and it ‘looked like the wheels were coming off the wagon’, he says.

“They were relying on me, essentially, to tell them what we were going to do. And I did."

Mandatory holiday, overtime bans and pay cuts were some of the measures used to stem job losses, although there were still redundancies at 3M – around 2,000 people were laid off.

But, says Sir George, spending on research and development was maintained.

"When the economy began to recover we had a vast array of things to release into the marketplace waiting in the wings. It's when you're under pressure that real leadership comes out. We handled it absolutely superbly. The company was far stronger coming out of the downturn than it was going in."

It’s the type of episode that he will no doubt explore in his memoirs, which he has just begun writing.

"My children have lobbied with me for a long time to write a book," he says. "It's at the very early stages."