From humble beginnings

Sir George Buckley, Sheffield-born former CEO of 3M, delivering the Sheffield Management Lecture at Sheffield Hallam University Pennine Theatre June 12, 2013
Sir George Buckley, Sheffield-born former CEO of 3M, delivering the Sheffield Management Lecture at Sheffield Hallam University Pennine Theatre June 12, 2013

To say that international industrialist Sir George Buckley rose from humble beginnings and adversity is something of an understatement.

His early life in Sheffield before he rose to become chief executive of one of the world’s most innovative companies has elements that sound as if they are lifted from a fictional saga but Sir George, back in his home city to give a lecture at Sheffield Hallam University recounts it matter of factly.

He was born just after the war in his grandmother’s house in Pitsmoor, a former pub turned rooming house full of displaced people - Poles, Italians and soldiers back from the war.

“It was a classic old Sheffield slum dwelling with around 30 people in it and one gas ring and an outside toilet - with newsprint for toilet paper,” he recalls.

He never knew his father and by four months he had been abandoned by his mother too and ended up being raised by one of the other families in the house.

When he was eight the foster mother died, and he was left in the care of her husband until eventually his mother came to claim him back.

Describing himself as “a sickly child” he says he was sent to a school for physically handicapped children, Springvale House School, where they didn’t believe anyone was capable of learning anything beyond the three R’s.

That meant he left school at 15 with nothing to show for it and eventually got a job as an apprentice electrician. “One day I was sent to work on a site at Sheffield College (what is now Hallam’s Owen Building) and this was a pivotal point in my life,”

Here he was introduced to an electrical punch list and the foreman asked him if he understood how they calculated the strength of cabling required for different functions., “He went through the basics of Ohm’s Law and I was totally lost. I was 15 years olds and had got a job and realised I didn’t know the most fundamental things about the trade I had chosen. I went home on the bus that night and thought I have to do something about this. I knew I wasn’t stupid, but I was ignorant.”

He persuaded his employers to send him on day release to Granville College which he attended for five years eventually leading to a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Huddersfield Poly.

Fast forward a few years and at the age of 31 he is working for the Central Electricity Board in Kent when he is offered a job in by General Motors in America.

“I said no at first because the idea of moving to a foreign country was too much for me,” he says. “It was a big deal for me moving down south and I had never been abroad.

“Later I realised I could earn more money in America so I thought I could work there for five or six years and save money and come back home but like so often the theory and practice were very different.

He moved on from General Motors to Detroit Edison and then the Emerson Electric Company which took him to St Louis Missouri and in time moved up from chief technology officer to president.

At the end of the Eighties he returned to the UK, ironically through his American wife who got a scholarship at Cambridge. He became managing director of the Central Services Division of British Rail just before privatisation and was responsible for its residual manufacturing sector - “all the things that were not about running trains.”

He says he was happy there but when his wife became pregnant with twins they decided to return to the States and he was headhunted by the Brunswick Corporation in Chicago which manufactures sporting equipment and marine engines..

After 10 years he was approached to become CEO of 3M to turn round the company famous for Scotch tape and Post-It notes. But he says that is a relatively small part of the business which continually aims to make 30% of sales from products launched within the previous 10 years.

As the first non-American to become head of 3M he was the first and only Brit to become chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.

But it has a mandatory policy that anyone among its top 120 executives is required to retire at 65 so he stepped down as CEO last year.

He certainly hasn’t opted for the pipe and slippers and is currently on the board of several companies including Pepsico, Hitachi in Tokyo and is chairman of Arle Capital in London.

Other boards on which he has served include Stanley Black and Decker, “I used to work at Stanley Tools on Rutland Road so that appointment was coming full circle by becoming part of the business - I felt there was a poetic twist in that.”

He also has a large family - five children from his first marriage and two from the second. Six of them are scattered across America but one of his daughters lives in Sheffield, working as a teaching assistant. She came to the UK to train as an English nanny and ended up in Sheffield where her grandmother lived.