Sir George Buckley is an irrefutable captain of industry: he holds the post of chairman at Smiths Group; was previously chairman and chief executive of American conglomerate 3M; headed up the Brunswick Corporation and served as chief technology officer at the multinational Emerson Electric Company.

He’s also the only British person to run an American Fortune 500 company.

Not bad really for the lad who grew up in a playground of poverty in the slums of Sheffield and left school with no qualifications.

“The difficulty for someone with my career is you end up either looking like a modern-day Oliver Twist or Superman, and neither one of those is right,” explains George, who splits his time between homes in Florida, Minnesota and the rolling hills of Derbyshire.

“This boy who left school with no training in algebra, trigonometry, geometry, or in any of the science subjects, how can he now hold 20 or so patents, have published more than 60 Learning Society papers, won international prizes and ended up running one of the most innovative and highest value corporations – how could that happen?

“It just proves that God has a sense of humour.”

Sir George’s illustrious career began aged 15 as an apprentice electrician with building firm NG Bailey. The company treated him ‘very well’ but following an epiphany while fitting cables in an unfinished science lab at Sheffield College of Technology, the young George knew he needed to bulk up his educational muscle.

“Life really isn’t about a single turning point. It’s about multiple turning points and realising I needed to get better educated was one of those turning points,” says the 74-year-old.

“It was a bit of an epiphany that came about on a day I was assigned to an electrician I had never worked with before. We were working in the labs at Sheffield College of Technology on Pond Street going through a ‘punch’ list of things that hadn’t quite been finished. As we were

fitting cables this chap turned to me and said ‘George do you know why we’re putting in heavier cables for the power circuits?’

“I told him I thought it was because the power circuits would use more electricity and that’s when he offered to show me how to calculate the power and to work out the relationships between current, voltage and wattage. ‘Sure’, I said.

“Looking back now, it was one of these strange, serendipitous moments that happen to people in life. “There we were, in a college lab that was still largely unfinished, and there just happened to be a blackboard with a piece of chalk. I look back and think how can this be possible? So, this man started to write a little bit of algebra on the board and I was completely lost. On the way home that night I realised that if I didn’t do something about my education I was going to be ignorant for the rest of my life.”

The following day, Sir George asked his company if he could take day release and although he wasn’t able to start until he was 16 (in fact he was almost 17 when he began) he signed up for a five year City and Guilds electricians course, attending Granville College one day and one night a week for three years, and one day and two nights for two years.

“I had a wonderful time being an apprentice. It was probably the first time in my life I realised I was actually good at anything. I was a good apprentice, a skilled apprentice. And I was a good student too. I never missed a class and I think I came top of every subject in every class because I was so motivated.”

His drive and ambition to become an electrical engineer took him to the University of Huddersfield in 1969 where he studied a BSc in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. His thirst for knowledge continued, later gaining a PhD in engineering.

“I think growing up in those days as a member of the working class you are trained to believe and treated to believe you are in fact inferior through social stratification. I believed that I was inferior and I think the pursuit of an engineering degree was about me trying to prove I wasn’t inferior. Not to anyone else but to myself.

“In a way the beauty of the story of my life, and other people like me, I think, is that we break the mould.”

The Yorkshireman not only broke the mould, he re-engineered it and took with him across the pond the land of hope and glory.

“When I moved to America it turned out my British engineering education was really very good relative to what I was surrounded by, and the standard was high. Over a period of years I got to be the one who was always given the hardest problems to solve; I became a kind of engineering Sherlock Holmes looking for solutions. It’s really bizarre and I absolutely loved it.”

Sir George moved to the States in 1978 after being offered a job by General Motors Research in Detroit.He went on to work for Detroit Edison and the Emerson Electric Company and, after a brief return to the UK with British Rail, he went back to America to take the helm of the Brunswick Corporation in Chicago.

“It was hypnotic to be able to work on ideas for new products and conceive of things that might be and then invent them. There’s a wonderful line from playwright George Bernard Shaw: ‘Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.’ This is the story of my life. Having that desire, the burning force inside of you.”

His advice for young people hungry to succeed boils down to two things: education and hard work; qualities he has seen in spades when taking part in the judging panel in previous years for the AMRC Training Centre Apprentice of the Year Awards. 

“I was looking at the future,” says Sir George, “Seeing these young folk who are just brilliant. I wasn’t that good when I was 34-years-old, never mind 20 or 24. I think to myself this is a wonderful melting pot for the future for manufacturing in Britain.

“And of course, what we are doing is giving people skills that can help that conversion from raw material to finished goods; we’re accelerating that conversion. That’s why I think places like the AMRC and the training centre are so vitally important to the future of Britain.”