Creed of change without conflict
The chief fixer in the Association for Colleges and the Colleges' Employers' Forum merger is sure that most things are possible without conflict. He says he likes dealing with trade unions and thinks they have an important role in good management.
In his five years as chairman of British Rail he boasts "I only lost two days through strikes. Annual negotiations I saw as a five-minute job in which you did a ritual dance round the Retail Price Index and fixed it". He got on well with union leaders like Richard Rosser, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staff's Association, who found him "always very polite and courteous".
Sir Bob who is also the Further Education Funding Council's quality council chairman finds FE's fraught industrial relations familiar. "There is the same conflict as existed in the railways. You can fight for the central contract, with all the bureaucratic underpinning that requires and face each other off, and all be dissatisfied with the deal that's reached, or you can have individual arrangements with a highly-intelligent centralised union which can service these things."
When appointed independent chair of the AFC-CEF merger committee, he immediately dismissed the stories of alleged clashes and rifts as "a storm in a teacup". In his characteristically emphatic style, he insisted the joint merger committee of 24 would not fail. "I won't believe so few people cannot find a way to get on," he said.
He appears to be right as the two organisations continue their relatively smooth path to merge this autumn, with the gradual phasing out of the two parent bodies.
He has also made strides as head of the FEFC quality committee. While others dithered over which was the best model for the future of FE in a world where jargon and obfuscation are used to justify consultants' inflated salaries, he brought in the European quality management forma, a model he followed in his BR years.
"It's all common sense. There's no need for long words," he said. "It's about trying to find out about how things go wrong. As long as people use the word 'we' throughout the organisation, it's a big step forward. It's when they use the word 'they' that you've got problems."
FE's managers can be forgiven for misjudging Sir Bob, after all, in 1990 the Government made the same mistake. The then Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson decided to bring in an outside businessman to run BR, to break down the traditional BR ethos. Sir Bob called for substantial Government investment in railways. He maintains his political masters were happy with him, but there were off-the-record ministerial mutterings that he had "gone native".
Sir Bob won't say the politicians undermined him - drama is not his style. The most dramatic moment in his life was when he was helping out in his father's butchers' shop in Cupar, Fife. He lost his right arm in what he calls "a difference of opinion with an electric mincing machine".
He wasted no time in coming to terms with his accident - in two weeks he learned to write with his left hand. Soon he became a golf fanatic, and got to the fourth round of the British Boys' Open when he was 15. At 17 he was playing in his school's first rugby XV.
He won a scholarship to St Andrews University where he read economics and modern history and got a golfing blue. There he met his wife Joan, a strong influence on him. "She had a broad socialistic view of things, still does, " he says.
In 1956 he joined oil giant Shell as a graduate trainee. Shell sent him all over the world before making him chairman and chief executive in 1985. In 1990 Cecil Parkinson headhunted him to run British Rail.
Shortly after he arrived, Newcastle station telephoned BR headquarters. A Scot with grey hair and one arm was wandering about the staff areas, talking to everyone and claiming he was the BR chairman. A senior headquarters official gently told the station manager "he is the chairman".
Sir Bob announced he wanted "the trains to run on time, to be safe, to give a good service and to improve morale". It was a straightforward approach but his critics say he had been too long in the private sector to cope with politicians.
They accuse him of fatal misjudgment - believing that his political masters wanted what was best for the business. By 1995 when he left he thought otherwise and attacked the Government's handling of rail privatisation. He predicted: "It will be inordinately expensive and intensely bureaucratic. It will be a nightmare."
Richard Rosser believes if Sir Bob had spoken out earlier he could have prevented the "nightmare". But Sir Bob has no regrets. He says: "When you're charged with a leadership position of 120,000 people and your main shareholder - in this case the Government - wants to take a particular line of action, then you are bound by the responsibilities of the role to accept their decisions and set about implementing them. What you can't do is run an internal revolution against the shareholder."
His wife was a major influence in the decision to involve himself with FE. She is a governor of two colleges. He says: "There are very few people who ever achieve their potential. Society loses out because it does not use human potential. This is dangerous because people who are not fully developed become negative. I have a determination to do whatever I can to keep people in education as long as possible."
He also believes strongly in competences and national vocational qualifications. "Every major accident is about competence at the point of action, whether it's closing ferry doors, cleaning escalators, checking the engineering work at Clapham. The colleges supply intellectual input into the NVQ system," he says.
He sees great value in his quality assessment role. "I was pleasantly surprised with the general acceptability of the quality assessment process. The change of coming out of a school and going to a college, and leaving the college and going into work, are important interfaces. We are also concerned about the pastoral care of the sixth-former, the things they would have got if they'd stayed on at school."
He is amused by his role as honest broker in the merger talks. "It's like touching bits of red hot metal, there's something burning down there, and it's all about territory, about old attitudes versus new attitudes. The fundamental question is, can you get change without conflict? I believe you can. You need transparency, cards on the table, a positive approach.
"Let's make the cake before we argue about who gets the crumbs. If a merger proves too difficult then what you've got to ask yourself is, what sort of institution would be best designed to meet colleges' long term interests? Obviously the most effective way is to have one voice. If you can't achieve it in a positive sector like FE what chance have you got?"