Sir Graham Day: Former CEO of Land Rover and Hartt Shoe Salesperson.
In The Shoe Guys, we bring you insight and experience from some of the most prominent figures in business, politics and beyond. We talk business, we talk style, we talk shoes. We caught up with Sir Graham Day, a man whose career started with selling Hartt Shoes in Halifax and led to him to hold positions such as CEO of British Shipbuilders, the Rover Group, British Aerospace and more. Day’s powerhouse career landed him a spot in the Canadian Business Hall of Fame and saw him receive a knighthood.
The year was 1987. A 54-year-old Graham Day went to get the mail. He pulled out a letter from the Prime Minister's private secretary. Day hurried to open it. The letter read “The Prime Minister is minded to recommend to Her Majesty the Queen, that you receive a knighthood.”
The letter asked if Day would consent to such a recommendation. Indeed, he did consent. The next year he was officially known as Sir Graham Day, knighted for “Contributions to British industry.”
To understand how a bright young man from Halifax, Nova Scotia came to kneel before Queen Elizabeth II, transformed the UK shipbuilding industry, became CEO of The Rover Group and was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, one should start at the beginning.
Growing up in north-end Halifax, Day learned the value of hard work early. “I came from a family who with the best will in the world, could not have sent me to university,” said Day. “Early on, I knew that I had to work and save money to get there.”
Graham’s career started with a job at the Simpsons department store in Halifax. He worked the shoe department, featuring none other than Hartt Shoes. Thanks to his job selling Hartts, Day paid for his law education at Dalhousie University.
He graduated in ‘56, moved to Windsor, Nova Scotia, and began practicing law. Eight years later, he was headhunted by Canadian Pacific, a large company involved in shipping, railroads, trucking, aviation and more.
“It was a wonderful place to work but I was headhunted again to manage a shipyard in the U.K. that was going bankrupt. We turned that around and I came back to teach at Dalhousie University. I worked in the oil patch, I ran a shipyard in Quebec and then went back to the U.K. to help Mrs. Thatcher,” said Day.
Back in the United Kingdom, Day was named Chairman and CEO of British Shipbuilders. At the time, 1984, British Shipbuilders was an unsuccessful public corporation that was costing the state a large chunk of money.
Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher wanted out of that industry and looked to Day to complete the colossal task.
“That was shipyards from Devon in the south up through Scotland employing around over fifty thousand people,” said Day.
Relying on the experts he surrounded himself with, his personal business philosophies and his leadership expertise, Day pulled it off.
As if the privatization of British Shipbuilders wasn’t enough, from a new position as CEO and Chairman of British Leyland, Day went on to privatize the automotive company in ‘86, which was renamed The Rover Group and eventually, Land Rover.
Under Day's leadership, The Land Rover brand was repositioned as a luxury brand. He was credited with a number of changes, including rebranding the company, selling Mini to BMW, and many more.
It was then that Graham received his nomination to be knighted. “There are two knight sessions annually, Queen’s official birthday and the New Year’s list. Lo and behold there I was on the list in 1988 for the New Year’s honour list,” said Day.
When Day stepped into Buckingham Palace, they checked to see if he could kneel, something all knights-to-be are checked for. “They told me to speak when spoken to,” he said.
In this case, Queen Elizabeth II did have something to say.
As he kneeled before her, she said “Do I understand correctly, you are changing employment?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” replied Day.
“And to what?” she said.
“Cadbury Schweppes, your Majesty.”
“Jolly good. Very sweet,” she said.
“She tapped me on the shoulders, I stood up, backed away and exited… You get your photo taken and the deed is done,” said Day. “I was born and raised in North End, Halifax. It’s sure a hell of a long way from North End, Halifax to Buckingham Palace.”
Day went on to act as Chairman of Cadbury Schweppes, British Aerospace and Powergen. He was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 2006, was named a member of the Order of Nova Scotia in 2011 and became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2014.
“My wife would have said it was far more adventure than either of us needed,” said Day.
From his home in Hantsport, Nova Scotia, in the Annapolis Valley, Day has had time to reflect on his career, his travels and his adventures. There’re many lessons to be learned from such a successful career and life, successes that Day chalks up to his work ethic, ability to calculate risk and a little bit of luck.
When it comes to leadership in business, Day is perhaps one of the most qualified Canadians alive. His words are spoken with intent and backed up by a life of hard work, discernment and success. When he gives advice, the wise take notes.
“You do have to work hard and it's very important that you have a sense of values. You do tell the truth, your word has value, you have personal integrity, you do treat people with respect and finally, it sure helps if you have some luck,” said Day. “I associate my personal luck with two things: First, I always worked hard and second, I took risk.”
Day says that a guiding light when it comes to risk assessment, is asking yourself “If this doesn’t work out, am I able to cope with the result?”
“It’s an essential underpinning for success,” said Day.
Throughout his career, Day was frequently invited to formal events with royalty, politicians and leaders from a number of industries. Something he learned from spending time in palaces and grand ballrooms with some of the world’s most powerful people is that one should always keep their feet on the ground.
“It’s sad but true, when Anne and Graham Day got invited to a formal occasion it wasn’t necessarily Anne and Graham Day, it was the job I held at the time,” said Day. “You had to recognize who you were, i.e. a couple from Nova Scotia, and you didn't get carried away with a false sense of importance. So we would be invited to dinner in the Mansion House in London… We’ve been to dinner in (Buckingham) Palace and private dinners with Prince Philip... All of that was lovely but to emphasize, it came with the job.
“You had to remind yourself that, while they were very pleasant, whoever was the host and hostess, they were doing their job and you were doing your job.”
Something that Day noted while spending time in the United Kingdom and Japan, is that one should be mindful of cultural dress codes. Business people dressed differently in the U.K. than they did in Japan and both were different from how they dressed in Canada.
“In Japan, they would be dressed in dark grey, not-quite-black suits, solid colours, no checks, no stripes, white shirts and very conservative ties, and there would be no exceptions. So I learned early on that if I was going to Japan, I would mimic that dress,” said Day.
When it comes to style in business, Day recognizes the impact it can have on a first impression and any business relationship.
“Clothes may make the man, I don’t think so, but they certainly help present the man,” said Day. “You have one chance to make an impression and you can't get away from the visual impression you create. Hopefully, you can get over that so you can have a more substantive discussion... I think shoes matter.”
Day says style in business has to be practical and versatile. One should dress to suit the multiple occasions of an average workday. You should be able to transition between a business meetings, a factory inspection and a dinner without switching shoes or suit jackets.
During Day’s career, he witnessed the casualization of business dress codes. We now see more coloured suits, louder ties and far more brown leather shoes in the workplace than we did back in the 70s and 80s. While Day says there’s certainly nothing wrong with a more casual dress code in an everyday work setting – as long as it matches the tone of the work you’re doing – he offers this piece of advice:
“You’re not a tailor’s dummy. You should always wish to look respectable.”