The crushed bowler hat

Company Man
July 7, 1995

Anthony Sampson has dealt with business tycoons in the past, but this time he is primarily concerned with an endangered species - middle-class company man. This familiar figure, still on the move back and forth between suburbs and city centres each day, has either got the jitters or got the sack. His further outlook is not encouraging.

Company Man is the victim of the turbulent winds of change in world trading conditions. These have created an upheaval of such force that even the monolithic headquarters buildings of the great international corporations, intended to loom above city life like the Rock of Gibraltar, have not escaped entirely. Some stand empty, others are outposts of Japan and yet more await clusters of smaller, less encumbered tenants to whom individual floors can be sub-let. As well as destroying jobs, the tempest has blown away many of the most entrenched attitudes towards company organisation and working practices. This may in the long run prove to be more significant than the current unemployment statistics.

Few writers are as adept as Sampson at holding a slide rule to human behaviour in social and business affairs and reporting the findings with a practised but not sardonic eye. His approach is detached and pragmatic, but he is not reluctant to show disapproval when he believes it to be merited. The spectacle of the heads of ex-nationalised industries giving themselves massive salary boosts as rewards for performance against non-existent competitors, for example, clearly disturbs him.

He is not alone in this. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that when I wanted to check whether the author was abreast of events, the name I looked for in the index was Brown. Cedric Brown, of course, the golden gasman whose monthly pay cheque bears comparison with a decent National Lottery win. Those who enjoy a little Cedric-bashing will be relieved to know that he does indeed figure in the list. "It is with their salaries that the chiefs show their ultimate power over the company men," comments Sampson. "While middle-managers have been helpless to protect themselves from layoffs, rewards at the top have increased to levels which have exasperated employees, shareholders and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic."

The loss the author identifies as most devastating for Company Man is security. This was once taken for granted, if not as part of a formal contract at least as an implicit understanding between top and middle management. The notion of assured employment for life in return for loyal executive service was widely accepted, particularly within giant corporations whose operations resembled in scope those of a minor nation-state. Today, such compacts are no longer viable. The bosses cannot deliver their side of the bargain if the jobs are not there.

The international dimension of the problem constantly recurs. Britain once led the field, but to recapture the glory we have to look back to the Industrial Revolution. The US seemed to have all the right answers for the first half of the 20th century, but confidence ultimately wilted when Tokyo took over from Detroit as the place of pilgrimage for those wanting to see the most skilful mass production lines at work and understand the revolutionary approach to man management which underlay them - all the more surprising coming from Japan. Now Japan herself is in trouble, and Far Eastern countries are stepping up the competition. The struggle to find a way of reconciling full employment with the labour economies implicit in the computer and automation age still has a long way to run.

This is the complex picture Sampson does his best to break down. His work has the dual merit of being well-researched and easy to read. The material is nicely laced with anecdotes gathered at the world's luncheon tables. (The author seldom seems to be far from the knives and forks when interviewing.) The basic format, little changed since Anatomy of Britain more than 30 years ago, also helps. The chapters are short and sub-divided into even briefer sections, so that a new heading appears every few pages. This creates a reassuring sense of swift progress and a gratifying feeling that a potentially difficult subject is being easily mastered. It also enables the reader to browse at ease, choosing individual passages like dishes from a tray of hors d'oeuvres. There is no risk of losing the thread of an argument, because the author is not the prisoner of continuity in his text.

This flexibility works well with the current book. A case can indeed be made for reading the last chapter first and working backwards, since the theme becomes clearer once the author himself has decided in precisely which direction he wants to travel. Much of the first part is taken up with quotations from novels with a business background, which prove nothing in particular. I found more attractive the random snippets of off-beat information scattered along the way like rewards for paying attention. These enable one to indulge in intriguing avenues of speculation. Example: Richard Branson's mother, we learn, was an air hostess. Given the strong influence she reputedly has over her son's career, does this explain his otherwise rather surprising decision to establish an airline? Was some kind of genetic compulsion at work here?

Of more immediate relevance to the main theme are research findings showing the number of accountants employed in various countries: 4,000 in Germany, 6,000 in Japan and 120,000 in Britain. Can this possibly be true? And if so, how extraordinary!

One of Sampson's most telling accounts is of the American giant IBM's fall from grace and its subsequent determined struggle for recovery, involving the inevitable cutbacks. Staff were treated generously when laid off or persuaded to take early retirement, but the loss of "belonging" proved to be a serious psychological hazard. Some went on wearing their identification badges long after leaving the company, and when these no longer served to admit them to the premises a "limited access" policy was introduced by the management to enable the ex-employees to enjoy an occasional feeling of re-integration with their former colleagues. This helped to ease the pain. But the problem of finding a permanent sense of purpose in a world of leisure remains.

Don Harker was until recently director of public affairs, Granada Television.

Company Man: The Rise and Fall of Corporate Life

Author - Anthony Sampson
ISBN - 0 00 2551 X
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 354

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