Rolls-Royce boss Warren East is turning the firm around after years of mismanagement
Warren East wore his best suit in to Rolls-Royce this week.
His shoes were shined, his thinning hair combed and even the treasured Welsh dragon cufflinks he sports each day had been replaced with a more polished pair bearing the famous ‘RR’ logo.
To colleagues around Rolls’s Victoria offices, this was a sure-fire sign that serious business was afoot.
Rolls-Royce is arguably British engineering’s most glittering export, but at its helm sits a chief executive almost entirely without grandeur.
His daily uniform is normally a blue shirt and slacks, he drives a sensible Volvo and you’re more likely to find him taking lunch in the staff canteen than scoffing down the black cod at Nobu.
When not busy visiting Rolls-Royce plants around the world, he likes to relax by playing the organ in his local church in Cambridge.
The serious business which prompted his refined appearance was the firm’s annual results, and after reporting £4.9billion profits – up from a £4.6billion loss the year before – jolly encouraging they were too.
Three years since taking over, diminutive Warren, 56, is beginning to look like the right man at the right time to oversee the crown jewels of British industry.
Rolls-Royce’s global significance cannot be understated.
It is one of only three firms that power the world’s largest aircraft, from Airbus’s A380 beast to Boeing’s svelte 787 Dreamliner.
Its Merlin engines propelled the Spitfire to glory in the Battle of Britain. Its nuclear reactors power our Trident submarines which stealthily patrol the oceans.
But when East was appointed boss of the Derby-based firm in 2015, it barely looked fit to service a clapped-out Cortina.
Years of mismanagement, culminating in a £671million fine last year for long-running bribery and corruption charges, had left the company teetering on the brink.
After East’s gawky predecessor John Rishton presided over a string of profit warnings, urgent action was required.
When not busy visiting Rolls-Royce plants around the world, he likes to relax by playing the organ in his local church in Cambridge
Jobs were slashed, some 700 management positions cut. East ditched his chauffeur-driven car, opting to make the 90-minute commute from Cambridge each day by train.
The company flat was also sold. He’s not a natural slash ‘n’ burn man, however.
An engineer by trade, he spent 20 years helping to grow ARM, the Cambridge software firm which designs iPhone microchips.
Born in Aberdeen to a Welsh mother (chemist teacher) and Aussie father (lab technician), he was raised in Monmouth, forging a misguided devotion to Welsh rugby union.
After an engineering science degree at Oxford he took a job at Texas Instruments. In 1994, having risen to European marketing director, he was faced with the prospect of moving to Dallas, so wrote to Sir Robin Saxby asking for a job at ARM. Seven years later, he replaced Saxby as chief executive.
Over the next 13 years, East turned it from an engineering minnow into a FTSE 100 giant.
After retiring in 2013, cushy directorships followed. But the opportunity to take over at Rolls convinced him he was still too young to be ping-ponging around the non-exec circuit.
East’s £1.7million pay is likely to be considerably more generous this year following the firm’s latest results, but he’s no poster boy for corporate greed.
He and wife Amanda – they have been married for 32 years and have three children – are generous patrons of the Cambridge Science Centre, a science museum for children.
When ARM was taken over by Softbank last year, he donated half his £1.7million share windfall to charity. As well as hammering away on the organ at weekends, he enjoys tending to his garden and seeing to DIY work.
He still reckons it could be six years before Rolls is back on a proper footing. Further job cuts look likely – a move which won’t go down well with the 50,000-odd workforce.
But if Rolls-Royce’s engines are to keep turning, they’ll just have to march to the tune of this modest organ-grinder.