From ‘abject poverty’ to Post-it note millions
The rags to riches trajectory of Sheffield’s greatest businessman
Good afternoon members — and welcome to Tuesday’s Tribune.
As someone who thinks there is more to life than money, I’ve never been particularly impressed with great wealth. However, I do like a decent story, and George Buckley’s is one of the most compelling I’ve ever heard. Born into a childhood which sounds borderline Dickensian in Pitsmoor in 1947, he grew up to be one of the most successful business people Sheffield has ever produced. I spoke to George (now Sir George) from his home in the United States last week to talk about what the Sheffield of the 1950s and 1960s was like — and how he owes everything to education.
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From ‘abject poverty’ to Post-it note millions
“Even I look at my life and say to myself, ‘how could this ever have happened?’” says George Buckley. “It is the story of fairy tales.”
Buckley is describing his journey from Pitsmoor slum to star CEO. If you’re not familiar with Buckley — or to give him his proper title, Sir George Buckley, after he was knighted in 2011 — he is one of the most successful businessmen ever to come from Sheffield. I’m speaking to him over a video call from his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Well, make that one of his five homes. Alongside houses in Minneapolis, he also has homes in Chicago and Florida, and two more in England including one near Hartington in Derbyshire.
It’s a far cry from the life he led as a child. Buckley was born at 78 Macro Street in Pitsmoor on 23 February, 1947. The road, which has long since been demolished, ran parallel with the railway line near Rutland Road, and Buckley came into the world during the worst winter in living memory. According to the Met Office, that February the mercury never rose above 4 degrees during the entire month and some parts of the UK recorded temperatures of minus 21.
But freezing temperatures weren’t the only issue that George had to contend with. Brought up by his grandmother, he was born into what he describes as “abject poverty” after his parents split up when he was just four months old. His grandfather was dead and in addition to having no money, his grandmother was crippled. Her financial situation was so precarious she rented out rooms in her house, a former pub called The Wellington. People would stay for a day, a week or a month depending on their circumstances. One family stayed there for 13 years.
Listening to him talk about his early life sounds like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. The house he lived in had just one outside toilet which was shared between everyone who lived there, lodgers and all. He says he didn’t eat meat until he was probably around six years old because they couldn’t afford it. Tea was generally bread and butter with sugar sprinkled on top. They couldn’t afford jam. There was also no bathroom at the house so to wash he visited the council baths on Corporation Street.
The surrounding area wasn’t much better, back then. Macro Street itself had been bombed during the Sheffield blitz, leaving several large craters dotted around the area. These bomb sites became George’s playground. His grandmother never had any money to buy him toys so some of his earliest memories involve rooting around in the ruins looking for pram wheels to make carts with his friends.
But life wasn’t entirely monochrome. While the environment could be unpleasant there was also plentiful work. Yes, times were hard but there was also a strong community and determination to help those in need. One example he gives is that of their next door neighbour Mrs Fowler. It was common knowledge in the neighbourhood that she made her living as a sex worker after her husband had been killed in the war and she had no other means of earning money. However, instead of judging her, people empathised with her plight and tried to help with money, food or offers of support. “She wasn’t just tolerated, she was accepted,” he tells me. “It felt like there was a lot of glue holding that society together.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the conditions he grew up in, George became a sickly child. He was just 4lb 9oz when he was born, which he calls “almost a death sentence” in those days. As well as chronic bronchitis from the air pollution, he had kidney disease, pernicious anaemia and a large growth behind his left knee which meant he walked with a pronounced limp. As a result of his multiple maladies, at the age of five it was decided that he should go to a school for physically disabled children, Springvale House in Broomhill, where he would stay for the next 10 years.
If he spent most of his early life in a school that was more about convalescing rather than study, how on earth did he end up having the stellar academic career he later had? He explains that his upwards trajectory was triggered by something very small, an off the cuff comment by his grandmother who said she wanted him to be an electrical engineer. This remark was made when he was very young, but it “planted a seed” in his mind, he tells me. It would prove to be a seed which grew and grew after he got a job working with an electrical contractor on what would later become Sheffield Hallam University. While working on the job, an older electrician tried to teach him about the basics of his trade, and within a few minutes George was totally lost. He realised that if he was going to succeed in the brave new world of electrical engineering, he would need a decent education.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘if you don’t do something about this, you’re going to be stupid for the rest of your life’,” he tells me. His epiphany as he calls it very much paid off. Almost as soon as he enrolled at Granville College (now Sheffield College on Granville Road), George found out he was good at mathematics and engineering. At this point in our conversation, I suspect George is trafficking in understatement. After all, “good” is coming in the top ten in your class on your maths test — not a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Huddersfield followed by a PhD.
He then worked at the Central Electricity Generating Board until he was scouted by US car manufacturing giant General Motors in 1978. His decision to move to the US was met with dismay at the British firm, where his bosses told him he could go to the top if he stayed. But George was sure his background would stop him from succeeding in the UK. “I was born in the wrong city, with the wrong parents, I went to the wrong university and I had the wrong accent,” he tells me. In America, those things didn't matter.
After General Motors he came back to the UK to run Research British Rail in the late 1990s before returning to the US, becoming chairman, CEO and president of 3M in 2005. The giant conglomerate, which is probably most famous as the inventor of the ubiquitous Post-it note, is one of the biggest companies in the world, and pays accordingly. I find the astronomical pay awards top executives in the US and elsewhere receive a difficult thing to justify, but the journey from the slums of Sheffield to a role where he once earned $23m in a single year is still an astonishing one to behold.
Before our conversation I worry that the interview might end up being a bit like Monty Python’s classic four Yorkshiremen sketch, with a highly successful man romanticising his poverty-stricken upbringing as evidence of his and his generation’s superior moral fibre. But George isn’t like that at all. He understands all too well how difficult growing up in those conditions was and that his story is very much the exception rather than the rule.
You might expect someone who owes everything to his ability to learn would extol the value of education as the best route out of poverty. But looking at the way universities are currently funded in both Britain and the US, with huge emphasis on students themselves paying for their own education, racking up huge debts in the process, a universalist approach to education currently seems to be out of favour — at least in the English-speaking world.
As a captain of US industry it would probably be a bit of a surprise if he revealed himself to be a red flag waving socialist. However, he does believe in the duty of the state to fund certain things, one of which is higher education. For Buckley, education is the only near guaranteed route out of poverty and he is living proof of it. If we are to ensure that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds like him succeed in industry and business, access to high-quality higher education needs to be a right, not a privilege. “I believe society has a duty to support the young, the old, the sick, the downtrodden and the disadvantaged,” he tells me. “It’s our moral duty to do so and I’m happy to pay my taxes to support it.”
Now 76, he is now chancellor of his alma mater the University of Huddersfield, where his aptitude for engineering first took flight more than 50 years ago. He also recently stepped down as chair of Stanley Black and Decker, the firm which still includes the tool-maker where he began an apprenticeship aged 15. “From an apprenticeship at Stanley to chairman of the board,” he says wonderingly. “How is this possible?”