by Frank Schnittger
Wed Jan 2nd, 2019 at 11:07:25 AM EST
Finbarr Flood was one of my first bosses in Guinness and taught me much of what I have learned about surviving in big business. He had joined the company as a messenger boy aged 14 and also played semi-professional soccer as a goal-keeper in both Ireland and Scotland. Having risen through the ranks to become Managing Director, he left to pursue a further career as Chairman of the Irish Labour Court, Chairman of Shelbourne Football Club, and Chair of a number of city rejuvenation projects. Having left school at 14 he was extremely chuffed to receive an honorary Doctorate from the Dublin Institute of Technology and to become an adjunct Professor to Trinity College Dublin.
a retrospective story for the season that's in it...Originally published Jul 26th, 2016.
He joined Guinness in 1952, which from then until the 1970's can perhaps most accurately be described as an outpost of the British Empire with a clearly defined pecking order of Brewers (all Oxbridge graduates); other graduate professionals (Engineers, Accountants and later Marketeers); No. 1 Staff (mostly protestant secondary school graduates); No. 2 staff (mostly catholic secondary school graduates who worked as lab technicians); Supervisors and Foremen (promoted from the shop floor on seniority); Craftsmen (19 different trades who had served their time as apprentices); and General Workers, Lads, and Boys who joined aged 14 and worked their way up from messenger boy to largely manual jobs in raw materials handling, brewing, engineering, kegging, bottling, loading and driving delivery lorries.
Each Category had their own dining room and there where numerous distinctions as to what overtime rates, medical benefits, and other services and facilities were provided.
Finbarr was a great story teller who regularly regaled all and sundry on the stories of his ill-spent youth or misadventures at work where the joke always seemed to be on him. His first job was as a messenger boy where he had to wear a uniform with a jacket of shiny brass buttons and a cap. His job could involve stoking the open coal fire in the Head Brewer's Office or turning the pages of the Brewing Reports Manual as the Brewer read...
He was one of the first of the Catholic manual general workers to be promoted to the No. 1 Staff and was working as an assistant Personnel Manager when I joined the Personnel Department fresh from a chequered college career which had ranged from the Natural Sciences to Politics and Sociology. I was doing a post graduate diploma in Personnel Management and Guinness was one of the Companies offering a placement. The company had just set up a "Human Resources Development Team" chaired by Finbarr with a brief to modernise the Company's Victorian attitudes and work practices and seemed to think it was a good idea to employ a student who refused to wear a tie and seemed to have some far out ideas on worker equality.
The Human Resources Development Report which eventually received Board Approval had some pretty far reaching proposals for the Guinness of that time: All (waiter service) dining rooms where to be closed and replaced with one large self-service catering facility with the exception of a small Board dining room and a facility intended for visiting guests. All pay structures were to be harmonised to provide for the same working hours, payment rules and non-pay benefits including access to medical and recreational facilities. There was to be an emphasis on team working (across previous category boundaries) and the 8 level organisational hierarchy was to be reduced to 4. All promotions were to be on merit, and the glass ceilings which had effectively prevented most manual workers from being promoted to "staff" and most women from reaching senior management were to be abolished. It took a few years, but all these changes were eventually achieved.
There were a number of internal and external factors driving these changes. Firstly, the Brewery had been starved of Capital Investment for many years and needed about £100 Million pounds spent on it to bring it up to "best industry practice" - the largest investment by any business in Ireland at the time. There had been several proposals to close down the Brewery and build a new one on a greenfield site elsewhere. The Company needed a plan to justify such a massive investment to the Board in London. Unit costs were way out of line with costs in other Breweries elsewhere both within the Group and in competitor breweries.
Guinness had already down-sized from 4,000 to 2,600 employees but the new plan was to reduce this to 1,400 through a combination of new technology automating manual work, outsourcing non-core activities to cheaper outside suppliers, and more efficient team working. The Human Resources Development Plan thus became an integral part of the overall plan - focused on re-skilling the work-force and eliminating inefficient working practices and managerial hierarchies.
Secondly, there had already been a number of extremely damaging strikes which had destroyed Guinness's near monopoly of the pub trade in Ireland, as well as more our less destroying the Harp lager brand. Even a two week strike was extremely damaging as the supply chain for fresh beer is extremely short, and as Publican's then had no option but to install more competitors taps on pub counters. One of my first jobs after being made permanent was to conduct a post audit of one such particularly damaging strike. The workers involved were perhaps the best paid in Irish industry, so the absolute level of reward was hardly the main problem.
I concluded that a number of factors were primarily responsible: resentments at some of the antiquated managerial structures; `resentments at some of the irrational pay differentials between categories of workers; extreme rivalries between 20 odd Unions vying for members amongst the same target population by being more militant than the next; and a lack of negotiating skill on the part of management at the time. It was Finbarr Flood's outstanding skills as a negotiator which were the primary reason for his rapid rise through the ranks from assistant Personnel Manager, to Personnel Manager, to Personnel Director and finally to managing Director in the years which followed.
At some levels negotiation is a game whereby both sides probe for an opening, try to exploit vulnerabilities, and seek to demonstrate to their constituents (Union Members, or up-line management) that what they were getting is an outstanding bargain given the circumstances which they would be foolish to refuse. It is about timing, setting the initial parameters of what is negotiable, gradually lowering the expectations of the opposition and your own side, until such time that both sides are ready to strike a deal through a combination of desperation and opportunity.
Put forward a rational proposal too early, and it will be rejected as people are still in the business of venting their anger. You have to wait until such time as a majority have passed that phase and are actually operating in "solution seeking" mode. There is a wrong time to be right. The same proposal might have succeeded if presented at the right time, but once rejected cannot be re-offered without some people having to lose face. Virtually all strikes are ultimately resolved, but there is a reason the process takes time, and sometimes that process has to involve some blood-letting.
Finbarr was a master at that game. During a subsequent strike I recall him telling me that there was no point in making a proposal (that we had been preparing) today, as the weather was very pleasant and the strikers out on the picket line were enjoying themselves. Better to wait for a cold wet day when everyone is getting fed up and getting worried about the future. He knew every single worker in the Company by name, and often their wives, children, partners and former partners as well. Whereas a previous Personnel manager might have responded to a particularly outrageous union proposal with a measured "I'll have my staff look into that" - thereby raising hopes on the Union side that at least something was going to be conceded - he might respond with a "ah Jasus, Joe, I knew your mother well and she always said you were a chancer!" And the thing was, he really did know Joe's mother...
People knew where they stood with Finbarr and that made for very productive working relationships, although some of the older staff, more used to the "stiff upper lip" conventions of the old Brewery could find it extremely disconcerting. For me he was a godsend. I felt extremely uncomfortable in the privileged surroundings of the brewery and he was a breadth of fresh air. I had the academic language and the concepts and I liked writing. He had the on the ground knowledge and the practicality which made for a very complementary relationship. Having left school at 14 he didn't have the self confidence to write much on paper. I became his memo writer and policy developer who could put his ideas in a broader academic or industry context. When I moved on from Human Resources to work in Information technology his parting presentation gift was a gold pen which he said would stop writing once a paper had reached 100 pages...
My abiding memory of him as a manager was that of a man with a phenomenally high social and emotional intelligence. He could detect a mood in a room instantly and respond appropriately. Awkward situations were transformed into amusing anecdotes. As a young turk unsure of my place in this world he was everything I could ask for in a boss. He gave me my head sometimes responding with a wry "aren't you very brave to be suggesting that," when I made some particularly off the wall proposal. But he was also the first to give me credit for my ideas and to make sure I got the recognition for them from other senior managers (perhaps so he could disown them later!!). Unlike some managers who might feel threatened by a better qualified subordinate, he was proud to promote the work of a subordinate as he felt that to do so would reflect well on him as the manager in charge.
Much of the success of Guinness in those years is attributable to Finbarr and the people who worked with him. The £100 Million investment programme was delivered and the future of the Brewery was secured - albeit, by the time he left, one with only 900 in-house jobs. The Brewery became one of the most modern in the world and survived the closure of other Breweries in the Guinness Group (now Diageo) in Dundalk, Kilkenny, and Park Royal in London. I have little doubt that without Finbarr's leadership, the Guinness Brewery in Dublin would have shared their fate.
This was achieved at a time when Ernest Saunders (aka "Deadly Ernest") was running amok as Chief Executive of the Guinness Group (now Diageo). Saunders was notorious within the business for allegedly sacking a senior executive by introducing him to "his successor" at a meeting and telling him he had until lunchtime to clear his desk. (Saunders later became famous as the only person in medico-legal history to make a full recovery from the Alzheimer's disease. His defence team had suggested he might be suffering from the disease when pleading for mitigation of his sentence for his fraudulent activities at the time of the United Distillers takeover).
At one point morale within the senior management group in Dublin became so poor that Finbarr asked me to do an anonymous survey of morale within the senior management group. Interviews with those managers were scheduled for 30 minutes but often took two hours or more. As a relatively junior staff member I was shocked at their insecurity and anger. My written report was a composite of those views containing verbatim quotes without attribution organised according to a number of themes. This caused further consternation. Nobody denied they had said what was quoted, but hadn't expected it to appear "in print". Many were relieved to discover they were not alone in feeling so angry and insecure. It became a bit of a game to guess who had said what, but thankfully most of those guesses were wrong and anonymity was preserved.
A senior management "strike" was narrowly averted some years later, but Finbarr knew there would be
consequences. He was unlikely to progress further within the organisation and in any case would not have wished to move outside Ireland. Like any good negotiator, he had an "exit strategy" prepared: He took early retirement and left to become deputy chairman (and later chairman) of the Labour Court. He also became Chairman of Shelbourne FC when it got into difficulties, became Non-Executive Director of Beacon Medical Group, and served as Chairman of the Government's Decentralisation Implementation Group, the Fatima Regeneration Board, the St. Michael's Regeneration Board and the Members' Advisory Council of the VHI. His Memoir, In Full Flood is available from Liberties Press and Amazon.
Those who retired early left Guinness with generous redundancy benefits, good retirement pensions, and continued entitlement to use the company Medical department, catering and recreational facilities. The joke was that you could see the doctor or social worker in the morning, go for a swim in the pool, eat your lunch and play some snooker with your mates in the afternoon all without leaving the premises. The pain of early retirement for those who did not wish to go early was much reduced in consequence.
The Medical Department remains the place where most pensioners get to see one another. A few weeks ago I met Finbarr there, seated in the waiting room like everyone else. Although in the meantime he had taken up the offer of a Directorship in a private medical group and could no doubt have availed of exclusive private healthcare, he felt more comfortable with his peers in the Company, greeted by almost everyone who entered the building. They don't make his sort any more. My condolences to Anne, his wife, colleague, collaborator and co-conspirator; and to all his family who cared for and supported him throughout his illness.
May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead.