In 1961, a 21-year-old Indian engineering graduate, Kumar Bhattacharyya, packed up his books and cricket kit and took a slow boat to London to begin a two-year apprenticeship at Lucas Industries, then one of the biggest companies in Britain. A family business born in 19th-century Birmingham, Lucas Industries was the main supplier of parts to the British car and aerospace industries.
“When I came here, the West Midlands was tremendously vibrant,” the now Lord Bhattacharyya says. “People were working very hard, industry was at its peak and I never thought that anyone could replicate what we were doing. Germany and Japan were still re-equipping, everything you bought was British, the Mini had just come in, there was a huge cultural revolution with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – it was just fantastic.”
Bhattacharyya’s talents were quickly recognised and within a few years he was on a management fast track. Some time around 1964 he found himself at Lucas’s training centre, Hilver, a large detached house in Moseley, originally built for Harry Lucas, son of Joseph, the founder of the company. Thirty years later, Bhattacharyya became its proud owner.
“When I first came here, I was gobsmacked that it was being used for management training when it was such a fantastic house,” he recalls. “The wood floors were covered in carpet and the ornate fireplaces had all been boxed in, yet it was an oasis, just three or four miles from central Birmingham, but so quiet and with wonderful croquet lawns at the back.”
Between 1964 and 1996, much had changed. Lucas Industries had all but disappeared after a series of mergers with US companies, the West Midlands had gone from manufacturing heartland to post-industrial wasteland, and Bhattacharyya had become a professor at Warwick university.
“I was very proud to have been a Lucas apprentice and this house was part of me,” he says. “My wife Bridie did most of the work and our children were young. It was fun. When you spend all your time at the university dealing with complex engineering problems and working with companies, restoring a house is a relaxation.” Today, after more than a decade of painstaking work, Hilver has been returned to its former glory. An imposing entrance hall leads to a series of beautifully decorated rooms in bright period colours. The vast dining room-cum-ballroom looks out over a splendid lawn, fringed by tall trees. Continuing a tradition set by the Lucas family, it is occasionally used for performances – private affairs for friends and family, and concerts to raise money for charity.
Hilver is an eloquent testament to Bhattacharyya’s passion for history but in his working life he has always looked to the future. While still at Lucas he began an MSc in manufacturing engineering before going on to do a PhD. In 1980, he founded the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), a groundbreaking new department at Warwick university.
It had two missions: first, to bridge the gap between universities and British industry and, second, to persuade British companies that they needed to boost investment in research and development and take the training of both workers and managers much more seriously.
“There was this enormous gap,” says Bhattacharyya. “Industry felt that universities couldn’t deliver, universities said industry didn’t know what it wanted. There was a tremendous polarisation.”
Today WMG is a huge success story, with more than 500 staff and an annual turnover of £150m. It boasts Europe’s first Digital Lab, a multidisciplinary research centre where companies and academics collaborate on everything from the latest esecurity products to digital healthcare systems. After years of fundraising, work has begun on an even bigger project: the National Automotive Innovation Campus, a research facility funded largely by the car industry, dedicated to the latest automotive technologies.
“We are now one of the largest manufacturing research and training groups in the world,” says Bhattacharyya. “We work with companies from China to Europe to the US as well as Britain.”
Bhattacharyya has always been an internationalist. Surrounding the carefully restored mantelpieces and antique furniture at Hilver, there are artworks and curios from all over the world, including Chinese porcelain, glassware from Murano, exquisite Indian miniatures, antique clocks from France and paintings from South Africa and Thailand.
“Nowadays you just have to think globally,” he says. “I first went to China in 1981 and I’ve been back maybe 50 times. Every time I see a change. The hunger of the Chinese to make it happen, to make themselves a world power, is tremendous. And I’ve always been impressed by Germany; their rigour, their attention to detail, their focus on the long term.”
Drive around Birmingham today and the need for a British manufacturing revival is all too apparent: factories boarded up or flattened into “brownfield” sites; unemployment on every street corner. When he talks about the West Midlands’ decline, Bhattacharyya’s face displays first sadness, then anger.
“When I arrived here, 30 per cent of Britain’s GDP came from manufacturing. Now it is 10 per cent. Lucas is no longer in existence, Wilmot Breeden gone, Plessey, GEC – all gone. The speed of the decline was amazing. There was a complete lack of perception that, in order to compete, you had to change the game in design, manufacturing and management,” he says. “Now where are the jobs? What have we become – a nation of warehouses? It’s scandalous, we have outsourced virtually everything. We are a completely underinvested nation, everything is short term.”
It is no surprise that Bhattacharyya has closely followed India’s rise. A long time friend of Ratan Tata, until recently chairman of the Tata group, he is proud of the behind-the-scenes role he played in encouraging Tata’s takeover of Jaguar and Land Rover in 2008. Today the combined company is Britain’s largest automotive employer.
“Five years ago JLR was on its knees, but now it has comes back with tremendous turnover, tremendous cars. It proves that if you put in the investment, if you are willing to think long term, we have the talent, we have the capability.”
Like the Cadbury family, the Lucases were Quakers. They didn’t need modern-day management bibles or highly paid consultants to get them to treat their workers well, Bhattacharyya says. “It was in their DNA . . . it was part of their culture, they looked after people.”
One flight up the carved oak staircase that dominates the entrance hall at Hilver, there is an unusual feature: a pulpit. “When the house was first built,” he says, “a lot of people worked here – carriage men, gardeners, cooks. Every morning Harry Lucas would pray with them and give a short sermon, he really wanted to engage with them.”
Bhattacharyya is a devout Hindu but when I ask if has ever been tempted to preach, he laughs and says his three daughters would quickly tell him where to go if he tried.
For rest and relaxation, he enjoys watching cricket, listening to music and collecting the art that adorns Hilver’s walls, but all this has to be squeezed in between frequent foreign trips and public engagements. In recent years he has become an increasingly prominent national figure. A knighthood in 2003 was followed by elevation to the House of Lords in 2004.
And yet, in spite of all the honours he has received in Britain and abroad, he is still just as driven and ambitious. His twin passions remain unchanged: engineering innovation and the revival of British industry.
“We have a great science base,” he says, “a great technological base and great workers – given the right leadership and funding, we can hack it. That’s what makes me hopeful.”
Battacharyya chooses a bronze statuette as his favourite object.
“This is a 4th-century bronze from eastern India, a statue of Vishnu,” he says. “The Bhattacharyyas are Brahmins, from a fairly orthodox side of Hinduism. This statue is very sacred to me. I might be very westernised in many ways, but I’m also very religious.”
Get alerts on West Midlands when a new story is published