Foreman, Sir Philip Frank (1923–2013), engineer and chief executive, was born on 16 March 1923 in Exning, Suffolk, England, the only child of Frank Foreman, a farm labourer of Exning, and his wife Mary (née Chapple), the daughter of a Manchester police officer. His family soon moved to a farm near Soham, Cambridgeshire. He attended the local Church of England school before becoming a scholarship student at Soham grammar school. There he excelled at sport and won a British Empire Scholarship to Loughborough College, Leicestershire, in 1941. Graduating in 1943 with a first-class honours diploma in mechanical engineering, he was rejected by the Royal Navy for being colour blind and joined the admiralty research laboratory at Teddington in south-west London. He helped devise remote controls for artillery and transferred to the top-secret Admiralty Gunnery Establishment in Portland, Dorset. In 1953 he married a civil servant, Elizabeth Sheppard; they had no children.
He was a senior scientific civil servant by 1958, the year he designed the launcher for a ship-borne, short-range anti-aircraft missile called Seacat that was being developed by the state-controlled aircraft manufacturer Short Brothers and Harland (‘Shorts’) of Belfast. That autumn Shorts recruited him to join its guided weapons team based in Castlereagh, Belfast, where he oversaw the design and development of the equipment needed for Seacat. Favouring sound, uncomplicated design with a stress on practicality, he showed an aptitude for directing multidisciplinary teamwork and was promoted chief engineer of the guided weapons division in 1961. After entering the market in 1962, Seacat became the world’s best-selling guided weapons system by virtue of its simplicity, cheapness and adaptability.
Foreman was appointed chief engineer of the entire company in 1964, transferring to the main factory in Queen’s Island, Belfast. The British government had tired of subsidising Shorts and sought to run it down by withholding military contracts (in aviation) and by discouraging other aircraft companies from giving it work. Quickly realising that Shorts could no longer make large aircraft, he prioritised the development of a small turboprop freighter, the Skyvan. Following the first customer deliveries in 1966, it emerged that the engine was unreliable at high altitudes in warm weather. He seems to have clashed with the managing director before being elevated in his stead in January 1967. He convinced first a divided board to proceed with finding a better engine for the Skyvan and then a doubtful government to finance it. The re-engined Skyvan went into production in December 1967. Shortly beforehand, the British government sacked Shorts’ chairman for thwarting its attempts to push the company out of aircraft making. As a result, Foreman was too combative in his subsequent dealings with civil servants and Westminster politicians even as they became more supportive. The Skyvan sold steadily through its ability to cope with rugged landing terrain, and 150 were still flying worldwide when production ceased in 1986.
Admired by staff for his technical knowledge, receptiveness and straightforwardness, Foreman provided the leadership that Shorts needed. He allowed the profitable missile facility at Castlereagh free rein and focused on transforming an aviation division where marketing was non-existent and price was secondary to performance. Immersing himself in detail to the point of doing other people’s jobs, he installed better managers, stopped the most egregious factory floor ‘fiddles’ and travelled extensively seeking business. He developed Shorts aircraft components business, the relatively low wages prevailing in Belfast being an advantage in sub-contracting for labour-intensive forms of engineering. Whereas other British manufacturers were wary of partnering with the large US plane-makers, Shorts could afford no such qualms and was by 1969 doing work for each of the so-called ‘big three’ – McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing. Shorts carved out a high-tech niche building pods for large turbo-fan engines. It became reliant on Boeing, which, seeing political benefits in having a European partner, helped Foreman overcome Shorts’ technical and managerial deficiencies. In 1971 he decided that the general engineering division – then producing goods including carpet sweepers, fork-lift trucks, medical instruments and machine tools – was taking up too much of the management’s time for little profit. The closure of its plant at Newtownards, Co. Down, was one of many tough decisions that shrank his workforce from nearly 8,000 in the mid-1960s to 5,200 in 1973. In the early 1970s Shorts made trading profits, that were, however, overwhelmed by its debt charges.
Shorts’ workers, who almost all hailed from east Belfast’s loyalist community, distrusted Foreman as an Englishman, particularly once the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ from 1969 led some to support or join paramilitary groups; unsurprisingly, less than five per cent of his employees were catholic. He had to be given police protection in 1974 when Shorts’ workers became the mainstay of the violently enforced loyalist strike that toppled Northern Ireland’s new power-sharing executive. Shop stewards then ruled the factory floor at Queen’s Island for the rest of the decade, bringing inefficiencies that were exacerbated from 1975 by state-imposed pay restrictions. In 1977 Foreman’s senior managers repelled 100 workers intent on storming his office in pursuit of a wage claim. The government avoided further serious unrest by lavishly funding Shorts, which lost money consistently even as turnover quadrupled between 1973 and 1980.
Foreman’s team exploited this backing to crack the US commuter airliner market by developing a stretched version of the Skyvan, the SD330. Launched in 1976, the thirty-seater SD330 lacked speed, but it enabled previously unviable short-haul routes because it could use short runways and was cheap, reliable, comfortable and easy to maintain. Sales boomed as small operators proliferated upon the US air market’s deregulation in 1978. In 1981 Shorts launched an improved thirty-six-seater version, the SD360. Over 300 SD330s and SD360s were sold by the early 1990s, mainly to the USA. Yet the strong pound sterling and Foreman’s refusal to raise prices accordingly made these sales very costly. Moreover, the complicated financing arrangements agreed with many buyers left Shorts holding significant long-term financial risks. He never had much interest or expertise in finance and relinquished this area in the late 1970s to his eventual successor, Roy McNulty.
While aircraft production was a loss-maker and components marginally profitable, the missile division, employing about 1,300 workers, was the money spinner. In 1975 Shorts produced Blowpipe, a portable guided anti-aircraft rocket launcher, which defied its disappointing battlefield record to become a commercial success. In 1986 Foreman defeated strong competition from British Aerospace by bidding aggressively for the British government’s high velocity missile project. This £225 million contract – Shorts’ biggest ever – guaranteed the missile divisions’ future by enabling the heavy capital investment required for Starstreak, a missile capable of travelling three kilometres in three seconds.
Hailed as a beacon for a blighted economy, Shorts surpassed Harland and Wolfe to become Northern Ireland’s biggest industrial company; it was almost the only firm to hire in significant numbers during the ‘Troubles’, though the grim backdrop made the recruitment and retention of skilled workers difficult. Employment peaked at 7,600 in the mid-1980s. In 1983 Shorts turned its airstrip at Sydenham into Belfast Harbour Airport (later the George Best Belfast City Airport), which catered for small aircraft and thrived off its proximity to the city centre.
As a member of the Northern Ireland Economic Council (1972–88) and a well-regarded chairman of the Northern Ireland board of the Confederation of British Industry (1980–81), Foreman was friendly with trade union leaders and criticised the tough monetary policies pursued by Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister from 1979. Further to receiving a CBE (1972) and a knighthood (1981), he was amongst other awards and appointments given the British Empire Gold Medal by the Royal Aeronautical Society (1974) and made a deputy lieutenant of the city of Belfast (1975), a freeman of the city of London (1980) and president of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (1985–6). He received an honorary diploma from Loughborough College (1983) along with honorary doctorates from QUB (1975) and the Open University (1983).
Ever hostile towards state subsidised enterprise, Thatcher invariably greeted him with the words ‘what have you been up to now?’ (Warner, Shorts, 74) yet she made him Shorts’ chairman in 1983, a position that he held along with his managing directorship. Tired of being caught between an unruly workforce and a slow-moving civil service, he supported her wish to privatise Shorts, but on condition that it would continue as an independent aircraft manufacturer. This required a risky charge towards profitability, which Thatcher facilitated by backing Shorts’ successful tender in 1984 for building eighteen freight versions of the SD330 (with options for another forty-eight) for the US Air Force. Similarly, in 1985 she handed Shorts its first RAF contract for twenty-five years for building 130 Tucano basic trainer aircraft.
The US Air Force contract was won despite opposition from Irish American groups whose accusations of employment discrimination elicited strident denials from Foreman. Under pressure from the British government and American customers, he began a catholic recruitment drive in 1983, but the modest rise in such hires was truncated by an internal backlash. Several aircraft under construction were sabotaged in 1985, as was a company jet he was due to travel in. Amid media reports highlighting the intimidation of catholic workers in Shorts, he threatened in August 1986 to discipline employees who persisted in adorning their workspace with Union Jacks, loyalist regalia and pictures of the British royal family. Mass walkouts backed by aggressive picketing ensued, halting operations for over a week until he agreed to fly the Union Jack from the main building every day in return for the removal of the political bunting. The pickets went up again in July 1987 when management removed loyalist flags that had been placed inside the plant. As had been the case a year earlier, Foreman and his managers were subject to veiled menaces from workers and received anonymous death threats. The militants were less well supported this time, allowing him to take a firm line by threatening to close Shorts indefinitely, and the strike petered out.
Shorts was then sustaining heavy trading losses. It had taken on too much while Thatcher’s reversion to the policy of denying Shorts sufficient capital left production hobbled by antiquated plant and machinery. The government lost confidence in Foreman latterly, mainly because he refused to accept that Shorts’ days as an aircraft manufacturer were numbered. After his retirement in March 1988, it emerged that Shorts lacked either accurate accounts or adequate financial controls and had under-reported cash requirements. The results for year ended 31 March 1988 disclosed a disastrous £142.5 million loss, £96.6 million of which corrected the optimistic accounting treatments of earlier years; off balance sheet losses of over £100 million subsequently arose. Readying Shorts for privatisation cost the British government some £900 million (£300 million more than anticipated) in debt guarantees, forgiven loans, grants, fresh capital and underwriting future losses on existing contracts. Shorts was sold to Canadian aerospace firm Bombardier for £30 million in 1989 and ceased aircraft production but was otherwise rejuvenated.
Nobody made much noise about Shorts’ ruinous privatisation: a generation of British politicians and officials had diligently ignored how Foreman was maintaining employment in a political powder keg while nationalists appreciated that he had lined up a catholic successor and that Shorts’ passing into private foreign ownership would weaken the power of its loyalist workforce. He departed with his reputation intact. Remaining in Northern Ireland, he set up an engineering consultancy, was a member of the QUB senate (1993–2002) and sat on various boards, serving as chairman of Simon Engineering Limited (1993–4), the Ricardo Group (1992–7) and the Progressive Building Society in Belfast (1987–2000). He was also chairman (1988–91) and president (1994–8) of the British Standards Institution.
Following the dissolution of his first marriage in 1970, he married in 1971 a Belfast woman, Margaret Cooke, formerly a secretary in Shorts. They had a son and lived in Helen’s Bay, Co. Down. After he died on 23 February 2013 at Richmond Nursing Home, Holywood, Co. Down, his remains were brought to Roselawn crematorium.