Sir William Barlow is best known for his role as Chairman of the Post Office and organising its division into two separate corporations, the Post Office and British Telecom (BT). Following a successful career in industry, the Labour government had to work hard to persuade him to become Chairman and Chief Executive in 1977. He soon realised that the two parts of the business were so different that they must be split up. The Labour government did not agree, but Barlow decided to press ahead with a major programme of telecom digital switching and optical technology. The new Conservative government elected in 1979 agreed to the split which he then organised in 12 months. He was then to have been Chairman of BT as a privatised company but the Thatcher Government refused to privatise it and in 1980 he declined the appointment and returned to the private sector to organise the merger of Thorn and EMI.
In 1984 he became Executive Chairman of BICC, one of the world’s largest cable companies, and its subsidiary the construction company Balfour Beatty. He was heavily involved in the concept and construction of the Channel Tunnel.
As Managing Director of The English Electric Computer Company in the 1960s, Sir William was involved in the computing boom in Britain. He pressed for the amalgamation of Britain’s competing computer companies which led to the formation of ICL in 1968.Within weeks of this English Electric decided to merge with GEC but Barlow disagreed so strongly with this move that he resigned from English Electric after 21 years' service. He was not alone – many senior people followed him including Lord Caldecote, the Academy’s second President.
The government then asked him to combine the three British strategic bearing companies which created RHP. He led a programme of modernisation and rationalisation which created a world-class development and manufacturing company.
Never one to hide his views on the importance of British industry, Sir William used his Presidency of the Academy to campaign for investment in transport and environmental infrastructure to support the engineering sector, particularly manufacturing, which he saw as vital to the country’s economic stability. He did much to raise the Academy’s profile within government and industry by promoting engineers’ achievements.
1924 Born 8 June in Oldham
Attends Manchester Grammar School
1944 Graduates from UMIST with a first in electrical engineering
1944 Royal Navy three years minesweeping and clearance
1947 Joins the English Electric company electric traction business
1950 Manages a large scale electrification project in NW Spain for Spanish National Railways
1958 Manager of English Electric’s Canadian operations including hydro-electric projects and turbines for the St Lawrence Seaway
1962 Managing Director of English Electric’s Liverpool operations
1968 Managing Director of English Electric Computers and formation of ICL
1970 Founder Chairman and Chief Executive of new ball bearing company RHP
1977 Knighted for services to industry
1977 Chairman and Chief Executive of the Post Office
1981 Chairman of Thorn EMI Engineering Group
1984 Chairman and Chief Executive of cable and construction group BICC
1988 A founder non-executive director of Vodafone Group
1991 President of the Royal Academy of Engineering
1992 Chairman of Ericsson UK
1997 Chairman Parsons Brinckerhoff Europe
2012 Dies 19 May aged 87