Straight-talking, capable and imposing of stature, Anne Stevens is one of the most powerful women in British industry — and right now she’s facing the toughest challenge of her career.
As the new chief executive of global engineering business GKN, one of the UK’s most august companies, she is fighting a hostile £7.4 billion takeover bid from Melrose, a company comprising a group of rapacious Mayfair-based businessmen who want to tear apart and sell off the engineering business.
GKN, which has a 259-year history dating back before the Industrial Revolution, serves the world’s leading aircraft, vehicle and machinery manufacturers.
And Anne, 69, a grandmother of four, intends to pour every ounce of her considerable energy into the battle for its survival. ‘I’m passionate about the company, the product, the technology, the people we employ, the communities in which we work, the education we do in schools,’ she says. ‘And I’m fighting with all my brains and strength for this great company.
‘We’re a real business building real products for cars and aeroplanes. We’re giving people the means to get from A to B, to conduct business; to travel, see the world, drive cars.
Anne Stevens is one of the most powerful women in British industry — and right now she’s facing the toughest challenge of her career
‘They’re key elements of human existence and I’d absolutely hate to think that a company built up over 250 years is broken up into small parts and sold to the highest bidder. It breaks my heart.’
GKN makes components for, among many others, Airbus, Boeing and BMW. It also plays a key role in the defence industry, producing parts for America’s Black Hawk helicopter, its F-18 Hornet fighter and its next generation stealth bomber.
Based in Redditch in the Midlands, it employs 58,000 people in 34 countries and has grown into a £9.4 billion business which, as the UK embarks on free global trading after Brexit, will be vital for our prosperity.
GKN’s status at the forefront of British industry was established with the worldwide railway boom in the 1800s. Before the Napoleonic Wars it was making munitions for the British Army — its cannon balls helped defeat the French at Waterloo.
It built Spitfires, tanks for the D-Day landings, shell cases and countless aircraft parts.
Now, this rich heritage is in jeopardy with Melrose’s audacious takeover bid.
Yet last week, under questioning by a Commons select committee, the City accountants and lawyers who comprise Melrose’s board — there is not a single engineer among them — admitted they could give no undertaking to protect its jobs, pensions or research funding.
MPs have signed a letter urging Business Secretary Greg Clark to veto the takeover.
Anne is a woman of formidable engineering and business expertise and achievement. Tall and elegant, she has a gentle manner that belies her grit and resolve.
Of the select committee meeting, she observes wryly: ‘It was very interesting listening to Melrose. They didn’t have a plan; we do. From what I understand they come in, interview managers and fire half of them.
‘They are accountants and lawyers, not engineers, and if they’re interviewing managers running technical companies about a business model that takes seven to 30 years to develop, I don’t understand how they can have the relevant knowledge to make an assessment.
‘The Melrose business model seems to be: “Buy, split, sell to the highest bidder.”
‘But at GKN we have relationships: with research labs, customers, unions, the communities in which we’re based.
‘And our customers count on us, not only to develop technology for the future, but to anticipate their needs; to know where the market is going.’
Anne’s status in her industry has not made her remote or unapproachable: she has always been involved with her workforce.
Long before the popular TV show Undercover Boss was conceived — in which company chiefs secretly go on to the shopfloor — she was deploying covert tactics to understand how her staff worked at the sharp end.
As America’s first female manufacturing director, with the Ford motor company, she visited factories incognito to spend a day on the assembly line.
‘I’ve worked on the heavy-duty truck chassis line. I’d dress in jeans and an overall,’ she recalls. ‘When you do this, you realise how smart the people are, how hard they work and you understand any design problems.
‘When they knew who I was, they’d say: “We need some help improving the washroom,” or “The food in the canteen’s terrible,” and they’d expect me to sort it out for them. I always got back to them.
It built Spitfires, tanks for the D-Day landings, shell cases and countless aircraft parts
‘If I go out to a plant and ask a question, I’ll want the operator, not the manager, to answer it. It’s wrong to assume knowledge is at the top of the house. Most of the time it’s on the floor. I learnt this lesson in my first job. You have to ask the question of the right person.
‘As a young engineer, I’ve scaled towers and climbed into furnaces. Not when they were hot, of course — that would have been ill-advised,’ she smiles. ‘I’m an engineer. We’re trained to solve problems. You see them as opportunities to improve.
‘We’re in the business of designing products people can build. It’s exciting. How you could think of running it from behind a desk is inconceivable to me.’ Anne, an American, is proud of her profession and her trailblazing role in it. In the Nineties, she became Ford’s first female plant manager in Europe.
By 2005, she was the company’s first woman chief operating officer for the U.S. and one of chairman Bill Ford’s key lieutenants. By 2006, she had been named four times in Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most powerful women in business.
She first worked in the UK for four years between 1995 and 1999 when she oversaw Ford’s plant in Enfield, North London, and says she was struck by a peculiarly British propensity to denigrate engineers.
‘If you said you were an engineer, people would say: “Do you fix trains?” In the U.S. it’s very prestigious to have engineering and scientific expertise. Henry Ford, the Industrial Revolution, the assembly line — they were perceived as heroic, the foundation of the middle class.’
Anne brought this respect for the industry to her role at GKN when she was appointed its chief executive three months ago.
On Friday, it was announced that GKN is merging the automotive arm of its business with a U.S. company, Dana, which will further strengthen its hand against Melrose.
‘I’m delighted,’ says Anne. ‘Combining with Dana is good for our businesses and for our stakeholders — employees, pensioners and shareholders.’
On the matter of research funding — GKN has, for example, developed the world’s leading technology for car electrification — Anne questions whether Melrose would have the desire or capability to plough money into such long-term projects.
‘I’d say they wouldn’t have the expertise. They wouldn’t understand the technology,’ she says.
For a woman who has progressed to the top in a notoriously macho industry, she has a surprising sweetness of manner. She combines grit and graft with empathy, and says her management style is: ‘Push, push, hug.’
‘Although recently it’s been about five pushes before the hug,’ she laughs.
She has reached the zenith in her career a year shy of her 70th birthday when many are settling into retirement.
Workers from engineering firm GKN are joined joined by (L-R) Ian Lavery, Steve Turner(Asst.Gen.Sec, UNITE) Bambos Charlambous, Tony Burke( Asst.Gen.Sec. UNITE), Jack Dromy MP), Bill Esterton MP, Grahame Morris MP and Clive Efford MP who will be lobbying the unwanted potential takeover of firm
Indeed, her husband, Bill, 74, currently at home in North Carolina, is enjoying leisurely games of golf since retiring from his job as a supplier of auto parts.
Meanwhile, Anne, living in a rented flat in Kensington, is firing up for her next challenge. ‘Age?’ she says. ‘It’s a number. Irrelevant. Churchill won the war when he was older than I am.
‘I’ve no intention of retiring. I think if I told my husband I was going to he’d get the shakes. I’ll just carry on. Why wouldn’t you if you love what you do?’
Anne found her vocation by a circuitous route. Born into a blue-collar family in Pennsylvania, there was no expectation that she’d go to university.
Her dad worked in a dairy. Her mum, who early in Anne’s life became disabled with Lou Gehrig’s disease — a form of motor neurone disease — worked in a factory stitching seams into stockings.
Anne, an only child, was a tomboy, who dates her fascination for cars and speed to early girlhood when, aged three, she first watched stock car racing: ‘I remember feeling a thrill at the speed of the engines and the dirt flying up.’
Later, in a pre-feminist era when girls were not allowed in the pit stops, she disguised herself in baseball cap and baggy shirt to watch the mechanics service the cars.
After school she trained as a nurse but quit on her first day at work, realising she wasn’t cut out for a caring profession.
Next, she got a job in the engineering department of a telephone company, where she met Bill. They married and had two children, Jennifer, now 48 and an engineer, and Jon, 46, a master carpenter. Their children had barely started nursery school when Anne and Bill decided to sell their home, using the equity to fund their university studies. Both read engineering at Drexel University, Philadelphia.
‘People thought we were mad,’ she reflects. ‘Why would we do that? We both had good jobs, a nice home.’
For years they shopped in thrift stores, scrimped, got by. She and Bill shared a job in the physics department — working for six months each — and studied in between.
‘If I couldn’t get a sitter for the children, I’d take them to the lab with me,’ she recalls. ‘They had a very rich childhood. They knew the art museum; they had a name for all the animals at the zoo; they went to the planetarium.’
Jennifer, in London for a conference with Anne on leaders and daughters, tells me she has no memory of her mother ever being absent. Anne smiles at this.
‘I know when I wasn’t there,’ she says. ‘But that tells me we often feel guilty about not being there but our children won’t remember.’
When advising young women today, she tells them to view their career like a light dimmer switch: sometimes they’ll be on full power, at other times turned down.
‘And never feel guilty about what you can’t do,’ she adds. ‘Just out-source. Get caterers to cook for a dinner party. Ask someone to take your clothes to the dry cleaner. You don’t have to do everything.
‘When my wonderful mother-in-law told me my windows were dirty, I said: “There’s Windolene and rags under the sink,” and she cleaned up for me.’
Anne’s talents are diverse. A self-confessed adrenaline junkie, she loves racing cars and has flown an F-16 Viper fighter plane and military transporter. She’s also earned what the American’s call a 9G pin, an accolade U. S. Air Force pilots get for experiencing a G-Force of nine times the force of gravity — the maximum a human body can withstand — sitting alongside a pilot looping the loop. She’s some woman.
I wonder whether she eats a special diet or follows a superhuman keep-fit regime?
She smiles at the idea. There is no secret formula. She just walks briskly to work, and enjoys a glass of wine and a fine malt whisky.
She’s up by 4.30am or 5am weekdays and eats Marks & Spencer or Waitrose ready meals. ‘And I love the Mayfair chippy,’ she says.
Pre-show spectators look over the Italian/British EH101 Merlin Mk3 helicopter at the Farnborough Air Show, July 2000
I ask if she misses her dogs — a pair of Dobermann Pinschers who are back home in the U.S. — and she says she hasn’t had time. Then we laugh because I’ve omitted to ask if she misses Bill.
Their marriage has sustained long absences. When she last worked in England, for four years, he was working in Germany. ‘You have to be careful you don’t grow apart,’ she says. ‘Maybe some couples give up too soon. I don’t. I don’t think Bill has either.’
Anne is a woman of impressive capabilities. Her firm but quiet leadership is coupled with a prodigious capacity for hard work.
GKN (formerly Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds) has known only one other woman like her. Lady Charlotte Guest became chairwoman of the company in the mid-19th century after taking over the business when her husband died.
Charlotte went down a mine and faced down the striking miners. She re-built a rundown plant. She ran the company and cared passionately about investing in it and improving it.
Today, in Anne Stevens, it seems GKN has found her equal.