The Genius of Mr. Jack
Julian Critchley wrote on January 6th, 1969 in The Times about the founder and joint managing director of Lesney Products, the makers of “Matchbox” range of toys, lorries and cars, a certain Mr. Jack Odell. To quote Julian Critchley: “Mr. Jack, he’s very popular. He’s one of the lads—or at least a driver employed by Lesney Products told me.” Between Mr. Jack and the rest of the lads there is a little matter of £35 million, the personal fortune which he has amassed since Lesney Products was founded by three ex-servicemen in 1947 with a capital of £600. For the record, the first factory was founded in the “Rifleman”, a disused public house in London’s Tottenham. There are now said to be 13 factories; a million square feet of manufacturing space in Hackney Wick and Leyton. The firm employs 6,000 people. In East London such has been its growth, it is popularly known as the “Lesney Wick” or the “Hackney Empire”.
Lesney Products is a business success story of classic simplicity. It sells 150 million toys a year. Its profits in 1967 were £3m. after tax. It has twice won the Queen’s Award for Industry, 1966 and 1968; 75 per cent of its production is exported, selling to nearly every country in the world, including such natural competitors in the field, as Japan and Hong Kong. Return on capital employed is 56 per cent and profit per employee is £500. The value of the company is £250m. (Vickers is less than £100m.).
Having really warmed to his subject Julian introduces us to Mr. Jack’s early life and since genius is nurtured by environment, it should perhaps explain the engineering skill of “Our Jack” (to be on familiar terms), and similarly the marketing flair of his partner, a certain Mr. Leslie Smith.
Says Jack, “In my obituary I want it said, I was a damn good engineer”. Our genius is 48 and was a working class lad born in East London. He was expelled from his council school whose name he can’t remember, at the age of 13 years, 9 months. Vague as to the reasons for having been expelled, he is sure it wasn’t for theft or for chasing the girls—“Let’s just say I was a bloody rebel.” At 14 he went to work for Simms Motor Unit and from then until the age of 20 he drove a van, worked in an estate agent’s office and was a cinema operator. Note, up to now no hard slogging to acquire engineering skill for our rebel genius. In 1939, where we seem to have lost a year, Jack joined the Army serving in the R.A.S.C. “The Jam Stealers”, and in the R.E.M.E. Within the short space of five years the high rank of staff sergeant was achieved with the responsibility of repairing and maintaining fighting vehicles—what a pity they were not matchbox size, since they could have stolen up on Rommel without being seen on the desert terrain.
It is however a private on 3/- a day that we catch a glimpse of that developing engineering skill that was one day today to take British Industry by storm and set an example to all our working lads. Instead of living it up like his fellow squaddies in the notorious night spots of Cairo and Alexandria he took care to buy up spare parts for primus stoves, since, we are told, for a soldier a useless primus is a disaster, nothing can be cooked and nothing can be brewed up. Jack became a spare time primus repairer and by the end of the war had saved up by hard graft £300 with which, on returning home he was able to marry. Let’s hope you get the point. The secret of the British Victory in the Middle East was not due to “Monty” but to repaired primus stoves. And if you think this is stretching it a little there is more to follow.
On demob Jack takes a job with a small die casting firm in North London, not as a skilled engineer but as a floor sweeper at 3s. 6d. an hour, to learn the business. What better position is there in which to learn the business. What better position is there in which to learn how other people make it, and to quote Jack, “If they could make it on the quality of engineering they turned out, I could do better.” So our hero bought some moulds and set up on his own.
Now at about this time, by the grace of you know who, there enters into the story, a childhood acquaintance of Jack’s, a Mr. Leslie Smith, who no doubt will not object to us being on the same familiar terms and calling him “Les”. Les had set up business with a relative, Rodney Smith, and when the council refused to allow Jack to manufacture on his own premises (we are not told which premises, perhaps his two up and two down, back to back) they joined forces, Jack taking his moulds to the “Rifleman” in time to save the infant company from disaster. The firm set out to manufacture die castings for the electrical and car industry, making toys merely as a fill up for quieter periods. We are told that toy moulds struck up in 1950 were prevented from going into production because of government restriction on zinc due to the outbreak of the Korean War. With the lifting of restrictions in 1952, a toy coach suitably gilded heralded in a new Elizabethan age for Les and Jack, alias Smith and Odell. It cost 2s. 11d. and over a million are said to have been sold. Time follows, and to-day a range of 75 toys sell at a standard price of 2s. 3d.
In addition to toys Lesney’s make over a million castings a week for industry which includes such companies as Plessey, Vauxhall and A.C. Delta. 1960 dawned and this was Jack’s year to realise an ambition, the fruition of all that hard work and engineering skill learned while playing in the streets of a working class neighbourhood, under the hot sun of the Middle East and on the shop floor of that small die casting firm so long ago. In 1960 at the age of 40 Jack became a millionaire. “I made it with a few days to spare.” The company went public; today Jack’s stake is 6½ million 1s. shares which at the present market price is about £35 million. The offer to the public was 400,000 5s. shares at £1 each, if you please; the grateful public we are told oversubscribed 15 times. Leslie’s climb from rags to riches was no less spectacular than Jack’s but Les is the poorer, being worth only about £34 million.
To describe the early life of Leslie, since it closely resembles Jack’s, is pointless and anyway if the reader is at all interested, no doubt the Times will oblige with a back copy of the paper in question. One gathers from the article by Julian Critchley the tremendous drive, energy and skill of these two men—Jack’s down to earth untrained but inspired skill in engineering and Leslie’s genius as a super salesman. The way in which our two friends see eye to eye with each other is also interesting. Julian tells us that until last year both Jack and Les were entitled to draw £100,000 a year in director’s fees and emoluments; neither did so, preferring to draw up a new contract of £25,000 a year for five years; what is more, and this should interest those workers tied to an incentive bonus, their Directors’ fees were tied to profits as an incentive. “For,” said Jack, no doubt in all humility, “when our contracts came up for renewal this year we thought we should adjust them to a realistic figure. After all no man is worth £100,000.” Probably Jack was thinking that the dividends from his 6½ million 1/- shares would help to offset his wage cut.
Now it may be thought that the 6,000 workers employed by Lesney’s just sit around all day and watch the two partners get on with it and that as far as Julian Critchley is concerned they don’t exist. Not a bit of it, for although we are treated to more of the activities of the two friends who, when all is said and done, with the warmth and colour of their personalities, are the real subjects of the story, some mention is made of the workers who are indebted to the foresight of the founders of Lesney Products, so popular with them.
Of the 6,000 workers employed by Lesney’s we learn that none of them are in Trade Unions; there have been attempts to form them but so far such attempts have come to nothing. Jack and Les work an industrial democracy of their own, whatever that means, with every department electing representatives to a works’ council. They have been completely strike free. “We have not lost a day’s work in 21 years.” How’s that for a 21st birthday present from the workers! The company pays well and although we are not told how much, we are led to believe it is sufficient to dampen any enthusiasm for Trade Unions. Surely the result is a lesson for Barbara Castle — with more firms like Lesney’s she would have no trouble at all from the Trade Unions. As Julian Critchley says “Lesney’s growth has been steady, its products with their low unit cost do not seem to have been affected by the ebb and flow of demand, or by the vagaries of Government policy.”
Now, the above is all we are told about the working class comrades of Jack and Les. These working people for instance don’t hobnob with Jack and his family in Jack’s 10-roomed house, which incidentally Jack didn’t build as he was too busy making match box toys. This 10-roomed house has a swimming pool and an acre of ground. For holidays Jack takes 4 weeks a year in Barbados. He drives 3 cars, one of which is a Rolls Royce—”good publicity for the firm.” Apart from the foregoing Spartan existence, Jack appears to have no other life than that provided by his business and a little golf. “Pleasure passes the time, but work fills it.” What a glorious example he sets his six thousand workers. The real corker comes when questioned about his political views. He votes conservative but “remains a Socialist at heart.” Now as one socialist to another I would like to remind Jack that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is in need of funds and a little of his £35 million would greatly help to achieve his heart’s desire.
A. A. A.