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Export is Fun


(Mr. D.R.E. Ibbs’ personal memories of his 41 years with Chubb)

These memories of my time with Chubb, have been written over a period of time since my retirement at the end of 1991, much of it during my residence in Australia. Now, some fifteen - twenty years later, The Chubb Group exists no more, although the name ‘Chubb’ is still well used by the companies, United Technologies, Assay Abloy and Gunnebo, who have picked up chunks of the old company as they were sold off. To a long serving employee, it is a great sadness to see this International Company brought to its knees and I have long reflected on the causes of this collapse. The following views are my own and others who know something of the situation which prevailed, may disagree. It may give historians looking at the rise and fall of large companies, something to consider.

Chubb was founded by the Chubb brothers in 1818, in Southsea where they had a business as ships chandlers. They had entered and won an Admiralty contract to produce a "pick proof" lock for use on Admiralty stores. Their offering was the Detector Mechanism - a design which with various modifications, was offered throughout the Chubb history. In 1837, safe making was added to their lock business and after several moves between London and Wolverhampton which was at the heart of British lock making country, the factory eventually moved back to Wolverhampton where it remained until final closure.

As a family business with a ‘Chubb’ at the helm almost until the end, it was typically paternalistic in the style of many Victorian businesses and was considered a good company to work for, with extended families of grandfather, father and son providing the continuity of skill and knowledge which are vital to any successful organisation. An important feature of the company history is the archives which still exist and provide a rich source of social and business history. When I joined the company in September 1950, it was estimated that over seventy percent of the workforce lived within three miles of the factory site.

In those days all young men who joined, passed through the apprenticeship scheme, no matter what their intended role was to be - engineering apprentices serving a five year term and locksmiths, seven. For the less fortunate who were scholastically backward, work was found as labourers etc. and it is worth recording that during my factory apprenticeship, the rather simple fellow who had the job of cleaning out swarf from the lathe beds, became the subject of some concern to the welfare nurse, Mrs Lowndes, as it was found that he rarely went home for any length of time. On checking his paid hours ( including his time and a quarter, time and a half and double time supplements), it was found that he was being paid for some one hundred and twenty hours per week! The factory manager sent for him and gently suggested that his hours were to be cut back to eighty four, which they duly were. For many weeks after that he went round loudly complaining that he had been put on "short time"!

After the war there was an influx of new personnel as well as the returning pre-war employees and although there were some fairly poor performers amongst them, such was the dedication of the workforce and the quality of the top managers, a few pieces of "deadwood" could be absorbed without to much harm. Although government red tape increased from the pre-war days, the job of personnel manager was a part time appointment, ably carried off by Les Tinkler, the Chief Estimator. It was not until much later that a dedicated "professional" Personnel Manager was appointed to handle increasingly difficult issues caused by government legislation, with the inevitable diversion from productive effort and increase in overhead costs.

Shortly after my arrival in 1950, Chubb, which until then had consisted of the Lock and Safe Company with two overseas subsidiaries (South Africa and Australia), began to expand. First with the take over Hobbs Hart and then Chatwood Milner, which itself had been formed by the amalgamation of the famous Chatwood Safe Company and the equally famous Milner Safe Company. For many years the directors ran Chatwood Milner as a separate and competing brand name to Chubb, although much of the equipment came from a single source - the Chubb factory. Josiah Parkes (Union locks), Pyrene, Read and Campbell, Burgot Alarms and others followed in the late 50's and early 60's. Inevitably, the share base had to be diluted to fund the major part of these purchases and the Chubb Family lost control. Many of the insurance companies took up these shares as the basis for pension schemes and as long as the dividends remained good, all went well.

More seriously however, the fine quality managers who had run Chubb were too few to spread over the newly taken over companies and inevitably this led to some pretty poor managers from the takeovers, either being left in place or moved into Chubb for experience. The old ‘esprit-de-corp’ and pride which had been instilled into Chubb employees began to fade and possibly worse, some of the Chubb "deadwood", began to receive promotions on the basis that there was no one else.

Finally, "consultants" were appointed to help fill a senior vacancy in Chubb, the position of Sales Manager. In my view, a disastrous choice was made - Dick Chapman - who joined us allegedly from a competing data protection company. We had all hoped that Bill Bannochie, a young, highly successful Chubb employee would be chosen but it was not to be and he had to wait some years before his opportunity came, first as the Lock & Safe Co. Export Manager, then transferring to one of the fire companies before finally returning as a good Managing Director.

There are those who hold that Chapman was a successful choice and if one looked for for an inconsistent, hard drinking, free spending appointee whose conduct did much to demoralise many of the staff, they would be right. Eventually, he was moved sideways into some relatively harmless position where he became a bane to his supervising managers with his outrageous expenses but not before the damage was done.

Chubb were never good at dismissing under performing staff and there was a tendency to move under-achievers sideways, whilst giving them high flown titles. In my view a detrimental trend, not only for general morale but being a drag on the company and in many cases unkind to the staff concerned. I always felt it was better to try and improve staff and if that failed, warn them that they were under-achieving, before finally dismissing them. In my managerial career, I needed to dismiss a number of employees, not a job I ever enjoyed but a course of action I felt was beneficial to the company and in several cases good for the ex employee. It was once said by a managing director that I believed all my geese were swans, to which I replied with some truth, that all my swans were swans, the geese having been culled!

Following Chapman came many more employees, selected by specialist recruitment companies and having wonderful credentials. Some were indeed excellent; Ray Sands, the research director springs to mind, but many were truly woeful and brought in with them, cronies who themselves were poor. Of these Barton, the Works Director stands out in my mind; he brought in people like O'Neill-Fisher, of whom it was once said (apropos his write off of company cars) "If he had been retired on full pension the day he joined the company, it would have saved Chubb money". I feel similar comments apply to the totally inflexible system he set up regarding the preparation of drawings for new products as well as the shocking costs incurred through his use of inappropriate materials, from which his nickname "the plastic Fisher" came about.

Barton himself was an arrogant man who surrounded himself with so many layers of unnecessary management, so as to distance himself from the shop floor, that his management style became the subject of an article in one of the management magazines - probably on the basis of how not to do it. He was also a terrible bully but like all bullies tended to deflate if one stood up to him - a fact I found out for myself in my early days at the factory following my return from Australia. He acted like a distant supreme being at the factory, from which he waged a campaign against Hansell, the then Sales Director - himself another arrogant man who like wise, thoroughly detested Barton.

As already mentioned, the company acquisitions between 1956 and the late 1960s resulted in Chubb ‘shuffling’ managerial staff from one Group Company to another. By the early 1970s, problems began to surface and managers came to realise that all was not well.

I first experienced this during my time as Export Manager in Chubb Lock and Safe Company Ltd. I discovered the Chatwood Milner Export Department under Fairclough, were illegally obtaining information regarding Chubb export schemes (by Fairclough snooping in the drawing office at lunchtimes), offering quotations at heavily discounted prices and crowing about their prowess at obtaining export business with a smaller staff than Chubb. This was relatively easy to stop as I discovered in respect of the Central Bank of Malta project which we dealt with under a coded name. Chatwood never even quoted for the project!

Chubb Export Managers had long been suspicious of Chatwood discounting on projects but it was never possible to prove this until the postal strike of the late sixties. I had taken action to ensure that export business, which depended on post in those days, continued relatively without disruption. As a result export department handled virtually all outbound group mail, taking it by hand to Belgium, where inbound mail was collected. At the request of the Belgian post office all mail for a single country destination had to be bundled together which necessitated my staff opening the enclosure envelopes to sort it. Accidentally, a large Chatwood envelope was opened which contained a quotation for which I had just completed the Chubb version. It was obvious that the Chatwood prices had been heavily discounted in defiance of group instructions. Thereafter, I had all Chatwood quotations opened and resealed, quickly building up a dossier showing virtually all equipment was being discounted. Having mentioned my proof to Reg Pilgrim, he took the matter up with George Lemon. Following an interview with Lemon, who fortunately did not ask me how I had gathered the information, he took the matter up with Group Board. As he later told me, the evidence prompted the decision to amalgamate Chubb and Chatwood Milner and led to Regionalisation and my first senior management position. Unfortunately, Fairclough, the man responsible for the Chatwood discount policy, was made Export Director of the amalgamated Export Department. In turn, he ensured Dempsey, a very nasty individual who laid up many problems for export, was his successor. Ultimately, Dempsey was moved sideways and finally sacked for incompetence.

After regionalisation, it became obvious the Chatwood discounting policy wasn’t confined to their export department and for two or three years, all the regional managers had their hands full sorting out the problems. Although I inherited two excellent sales representatives from Chatwood, I also inherited two of the worst managers imaginable, both of whom I had to dismiss over a period of time. This reinforced my opinion that Fairclough was totally unsuited for Senior Management as he later admitted he should have dismissed one of those managers himself, at the time of amalgamation. His excuse for not doing so was that he didn’t have the heart to as he knew the man's wife and had been to dinner at their home!

After the amalgamation, we had a disastrous interlude when Harry Thorpe, the former M.D. of Chatwood Milner, was appointed M.D. of Chubb. He was totally unsuitable, being a small minded, unpleasant man who created a large number of problems within the organisation and demoralised the staff. One senior secretary, Anne Mearing, who had been secretary to the previous M.D., elected to leave the Company after sixteen years service rather than work for Thorpe.That he was moved sideways, to a position where he could do relatively little harm, came all too late.

Unfortunately, these problems were affecting the Company's profitability and The City’s golden opinion of the Chubb Group was beginning to fade. So much so that Chubb became a constant source of tittle-tattle as a "potential take over target", with G.E.C. being the favourite predator. However, the next take over was carried out by Chubb and was probably the body blow for the company.

There was a large cash register company, Gross Brothers, based in Brighton. They were a very large employer and had been tremendously successful in producing mechanical cash registers which were to be seen in virtually every large chain of department stores. Computerisation was the coming trend however and consequently, cash registers which could "talk" to the Stock Control Computers, were the future. Gross Brothers had not ploughed their huge profits into research and were losing their market to American and Japanese cash register companies who had moved in this direction. The Labour Government of the day were determined to maintain the large employment opportunities of Gross and Wedgewood-Benn, the Technology Minister, searched for a larger company to take Gross over and prevent bankruptcy and closure. It has always been suggested the Chubb Directors were "pressured" into being the ‘white knights’ and finally Chubb agreed.

I believe It was unfortunate that Randall, the Group M.D. at the time, was such a forceful character. John McArthur, the finance director later told Ted Hewitt and myself that he was utterly opposed to the take over. When we asked him why he did not put his case strongly, he smiled sheepishly and asked us whether we had ever felt the rough edge of Randall's tongue by suggesting that he was wrong. I knew what he meant from my early days at the Cannon Street offices. However, his admission ruined my high opinion of McArthur (who succeeded Thorpe as M.D.), as I felt directors should have the guts to disagree with their M.D. if they felt that he was wrong. Surely that was why they were selected and paid for these exalted positions?

The millions of pounds which were poured into the failing Gross Company, were to no avail and finally the whole thing had to be written off. The harm which this did to the Group as a whole was, I believe incalculable, as it meant that money which aught to have been put into the profitable parts of Chubb and paid in dividends, was squandered for no return.

The "take over" rumours in the city press became a clamour, still with Weinstock the boss of G.E.C. given as the take over probable. I later learned that no take over suggestions from this source were ever made to the Chubb Board - a fact confirmed to me by Bill Randall. Unfortunately perhaps, Racal with Harrison as their boss, were keen rivals of G.E.C. and it was said that Harrison and Weinstock cordially detested one another. This rivalry finally inspired Harrison to act before Weinstock did and out of the blue in the early 1980's, Harrison made a bid for Chubb. The city investment groups, for whom Harrison was one of the leading company gurus, were delighted and Chubb’s past poor performances, caused mainly by the Gross disaster, bore fruit and our shares were sold to Racal.

In 1984 the blow fell. Chubb became a subsidiary of Racal and Randall, Bannochie and several other leading directors were paid off. There can be no question that our Directors had made mistakes, but in their hearts they always had the best interests of Chubb at heart and this esprit de corps was lost, never to be regained or replaced. The directors left in place were mainly of poor quality and although Racal seemed surprised at what they had bought and consequently left us mainly to our own devices, the Chubb spirit and direction were never regained.

Initially, Chubb were held within the main body of Racal. Harrison had told the city analysts that he could deliver value from Chubb in this format but over the years he failed to satisfy the city and eventually, Chubb were de-merged from the main group and resurrected under the Chubb name. I count myself fortunate to have left the company by this time as Harrison selected David Peacock, of whom it was said The City had "golden opinions", to be the Chief Executive. Whether this was true or not I cannot say but undoubtedly from what I observed as an outsider and by speaking to my former colleagues, he was a blowhard and a dreadful bully. He recounted many stories of his various "experiences" but if one cared to add up the years he claimed to have spent in various markets, he simply was not old enough. As for the bullying - he was a typical power mad executive, tongue lashing both senior managers and lower employees alike, often in front of their peers and sometimes their staff. A typical example of his attitude came one afternoon when my former colleagues in the Export Department were instructed to prepare at short notice, full marketing projections for their areas which he would require to be verbally presented by close of business. At 5.15pm he still had not put in an appearance and they were instructed to remain in office, cancelling any plans they might have made for the evening. After almost two and a half hours, he sent word that he was "too busy" and dismissed them. The projections were never presented!

He blew hard to the city, constantly telling of the excellent results he would be presenting but which never quite occurred. Finally, even Harrison, probably pushed by The City, rumbled him and he was given a "golden handshake" of a million pounds, the latest in a long line of no hopers. Once again business rewarded failure amongst its own.

Harrison eventually tired of the Chubb business. I do not think he ever had any clear idea of what it was about and certainly was quite unable to deliver the "value" which he had so confidently forecast. He was also struggling to deliver "value" in his traditional core businesses and apart from Vodaphone which Racal had spawned and spun off under Ghent, I cannot think of any other part of his empire that stood out. Finally, Chubb were bought out by Williams, which at least made some sense as they owned Yale Locks amongst others and had some interest in security. Chubb carried on although the Wednesfield Road factory was closed and Chubb High Security Locks (prison locks etc.) moved to a new factory in Wednesfield. Chubb’s commercial lock production was absorbed into the existing Union factories in Willenhall. Many of the Union pin tumbler locks were marketed under the Chubb name, although we had never produced this form of locking mechanism. Alarms etc continued elsewhere but all under the Williams umbrella. Safes and fire resisting cabinets were no longer produced in England but purchased from the Indonesian and Malaysian factories, Malaysia being jointly owned by Sime Darby. Thus over one hundred and fifty years of safe making expertise was thrown aside.

It has been maintained there was no longer a "market" for high security safes but I certainly dispute this. Maybe the market was smaller as the banks were no longer expanding but we had heard the same story from the marketing gurus previously in the late 1970's. We then produced even higher quality safes than at any other time in our history and found a flourishing market. It required trained sales staff however and unfortunately our sales director of the time, Tom Hansell, had little interest in continuing training for salesmen; this trend was maintained by his successors who came more and more to rely on selling by price through distributors. Ultimately, we had no Home Sales Representatives worthy of the name and naturally the marketing predictions came true - the market for very high grade safes dried up. Amongst specialist second hand dealers there is still a very active market for the old Chubb High Quality Safes (when they become available) which makes me believe there is still a niche market if the old skills to research the materials and produce the equipment still existed.

With each take over, more and more Chubb trained staff were made redundant or retired, and quickly, the collective memory of the old company was eroded. Almost ten years after I retired, I was asked  if I would return on a contract basis to work on "prison ships' as no one else at the time had the expertise. Peter Gunn, my former "prisons"colleague continued as a consultant to outside companies in the prison business, after his retirement.


Finally, Williams decided to break up the old company into its component parts and sell it off. Alarms etc, still continue in name but now owned by the American United Technologies Corp. Chubb locks and safes were sold to Assa Abloy the Finnish lock makers who immediately sold the safe business to Gunnebo, another Finnish company who by then owned the French Fichet Bauche and other safe making names. Some of the former Chubb staff still carry on in these operations but the passing years reduce their numbers as a look at the Chubb Security Pensions yearly handbook shows. Now owned by Williams, the pension scheme still exists as a separate entity albeit within the overall Williams Pension scheme.

Thus after almost two hundred years the Chubb Company ceased to exist in all but name. In my opinion, a great pity as it was an excellent company to work for and had a wonderful name throughout the world. Like so many other British engineering and manufacturing companies, it was brought to its knees by well intentioned but unnecessary, government interference, and management which was unable to cope with the changing market place. R.I.P.

© D.R.E. Ibbs - 2009

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