Flying the Flag
Lord Bhattacharyya talked to David Parsley about the UK’s excellence in education and business, and urges companies to look to Asia for opportunities.
FEW PEOPLE have flown the flag for UK enterprise more effectively than Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya. The Indian-born engineer is one of the nation’s greatest talents, opening up overseas opportunities for UK companies, as well as encouraging inward investment from some of the worlds biggest business names. Take last years Jaguar and Land Rover buyout by Indian industrial giant Tata. Without Bhattacharyya there would have been no deal; at least, not the kind that assured tens of thousands of jobs in the Midlands and maintained the UK’s reputation as a leading automotive nation. Yes, that’s right. Despite not having a large, home-owned automotive industry, the UK is a world leader – something Bhattacharyya was keen to stress.
“There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about UK manufacturing,” he said. “The fact is this: the UK remains the most talented and innovative nation when it comes to leading the rest of the world on manufacturing skills and production techniques. Take the automotive sector. There are more cars being built in the UK than ever before. So what if the big players are not home-owned? Business is not about what one nation can do alone. Its about how a country can lead in the globalization of business. The UK has a huge amount to be proud of on that front.”Born in Dhaka (then part of India, now capital of Bangladesh), he declares that there is no better place to live than the UK. He may be part of the establishment, having received his peerage in 2004, but he still maintains the sort of critical eye only a UK outsider can have. He sees a nation that is more critical of itself than it deserved to be.
“A great deal of moaning goes around about the UK, but not much comes from overseas,” he said. “Its our own people who knock our abilities. But everyone in this country should be thanking their lucky stars that they live here. Despite the politically motivated swipes, this country has a health service that is the envy of the world. And I don’t care what anyone says, UK education is producing some of the best and most talented people in the world.”
Education is something Lord Bhattacharyya knows a lot about. As the begetter and head of Warwick University’s Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), he has ensured more than 130,000 managers have passed through its doors and into a world keen to benefit from their skills.When he set up WMG in 1980, it was very different from the traditional academic model. A partnership between the university and some of the nations leading manufacturers, it set out to produce graduates who were neither pure engineers nor pure business graduates, but a combination of both.Although initially looked down upon by traditionalists as a money-grabbing and unacademic, it was a hit with clients: manufacturers fell over themselves to send their staff there and have great business and manufacturing brains returned to them.
From humble beginnings in an office at the universities engineering department, the group has grown into an unrivalled education establishment. It now has six buildings, a turnover of more than £100 million and a throughput of 5,000 postgraduates and managers a year.Bhattacharyya’s influence and political sway have growth with that of his brainchild and hes happy to rattle off UK and international dignitaries, prime ministers and presidents among them. Moreover, despite being a labour peer, he has high praise for former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher. “Without her the UK would simply not be one of the best places in the world to do business.” He claimed. “Due to the transformation of the business landscape in the early 1980’s, this country is set to benefit from globalization like no other in Europe. Look at France. It is only now beginning the process we went through almost 30 years ago. Germany, too. Most countries in Europe are playing catch up with the UK when it comes to creating a hotbed of business talent and opportunities.
“We have the most business-friendly laws and regulations and the most talented workforce. It makes me laugh when people moan about a UK skills shortage. There’s no shortage. We’re producing people in the world wants to use. We can always produce more, simply because there is a demand from all over the globe for the people we have.” Looking at the current situation with the worlds economy and its impact on the UK, Bhattacharyya is realistic, but by no means as negative as many of the doomsdayers. “I’m not one of those predicting a meltdown, far from it. Our economy and our business expertise and skills base will ensure we’ll come through this downturn stronger then many other nations.“We should also remember the downturn is not affecting every nation in the world. Indeed, many are still experiencing strong growth and its these nations that offer many UK companies the opportunity of exporting their skills and products. The downturn will not last forever.”So what would his Lordship’s advice be to those UK companies seeking to expand abroad? His answer contains perhaps his only criticism of the British psyche.
“There is nowhere in the world UK companies cannot go,” he said. “But they should be careful how they do it. If there’s one thing the rest of the world does dislike about Brits, it’s a certain arrogance that can come across – a sort of dismissive nature of a country’s culture and ways of doing business. Too many UK companies will shoot off to, say, India and attempt to do it all on their own. This is a big mistake. Companies should find partners with whom to launch in a new country. Find a local partner. Its crucial. They know the lay of the land, they have the contacts and you’ll be far more successful if you understand and support local businesses rather than going for the somewhat imperialist approach.” When it comes to China, perhaps the worlds greatest business opportunity, Bhattacharyya demonstrates the maverick approach for which he is renowned. Not afraid of speaking his mind, the professor has little time for politically correct attitudes that can often hold a business back and reinforce the UK’s tendency towards lecturing nations on how to behave.
“China is a huge opportunity for every nation in the world. They are not waiting for the British, so we need to be quick,” he said. “But lets not go with the attitude that China has much to fix before we’ll do business with them. Who are we to tell them what to do? Okay, there are human rights issues in China. Should we stand up and tell them how to run their country before we do business with them? Of course not. If we do, we’ll miss opportunities to make our businesses strong. If we don’t go in and do business with the likes of Cambodia and Vietnam, someone else will. What the presence of our business and investment into such places will bring is a gradual change to methods more akin to a Western democracy. But we will not change their culture, so lets not try and do that.”
As for India, Bhattacharyya is bursting with enthusiasm for what the future holds between his birthplace and the UK.“There is a highly educated and impatient business population in India,” he said. “They are hungry for success and we need to learn from each other. When it comes to technology and manufacturing, the UK and India can form world-beating partnerships. We already are with the likes of Jaguar and Land Rover. Lets form a great many more.”
Now 68, Bhattacharyya is working as hard as ever, traveling to New York one week and Mumbai the next. How much longer does he intend to continue his almost evangelical campaign to promote UK skills and talents both at home and abroad?“In my field, there’s no such thing as retirement,” he said, with typical bounce in his voice. “As long as I’m still able to contribute, I will continue to promote business success. I love the UK. I love China and India. I want to build on the successes of the existing relationships between the UK and many other countries.“We live in Great Britain. We should remember the ‘Great’ more often.”.