Sir Donald Wilson, who died this month, inspired fear and respect in equal measure. Paul Smith charts the career of an ‘NHS hero’, renowned for his passion, his flamboyance - and his dairy farm Aspirations to a New Labour no-blame ‘modern and dependable’NHS were unlikely to appeal to Sir Donald Wilson, who died this month aged 79.
The no-nonsense personality, who played a pivotal role in the Conservative health reforms - until well past retirement age - will not be forgotten by those who worked with him.
Some describe him as ‘a bit of a bastard’ - yet can’t hide the respect and admiration with which they still regard him.
One story sums him up. Back in 1993, while Sir Donald was chair of Mersey regional health authority, he apparently went ‘berserk’ over an HSJ profile of him. He was accused by some NHS workers of ‘macho management’, having an ‘explosive style’ and being generally feared by colleagues who became reluctant to take time off sick under his tough regime.
The source of this anger? The one-word description of him as a ‘pussycat’ buried in the article and made anonymously by one of his staff at regional HQ. Sir Donald was not pleased.
Following publication, another senior manager was immediately assigned to hunt down the looselipped mole. Fortunately, he was never found.
Sir Donald was born in 1922. A war veteran with the RAF and a farmer, he was a true-blue Tory.
During the endless rows over the alleged politicisation of senior NHS management throughout the 1990s, his name was often mentioned along with the likes of Roy Lilley, the late John Greetham and Lindy Price.
But any suggestions that he was a political stooge were undermined by his own performance: Sir Donald’s nine years at Mersey RHA, which he admittedly ran as his own fiefdom, are generally considered a success.
He was lauded for driving down waiting lists - turning in some of the best regional results in the country - and he helped in the push towards those centrepieces of the Conservatives’ structural reforms - fundholding GPs and the creation of self-governing trusts. Perhaps even current health secretary Alan Milburn would have respected him - Merseyside was also at the forefront of ensuring resources reached primary care level years before Labour’s pre-electoral pronouncements on handing cash to frontline services.
Naturally it made him a favourite in the ministerial offices under then health secretary Virginia Bottomley, who considered him among the ranks of her ‘NHS heroes’.
She told HSJ this week: ‘He was never afraid to speak his mind.
He was totally fearless with ministers when he would walk in and tell them what was what, and that was so refreshing.He is certainly the sort of man we need in the NHS today.He sorted out problems head-on.’
Notably in 1993. This was the year Sir Donald was sent in as a trouble-shooter to run the scandal-ridden West Midlands RHA, an organisation on the verge of implosion following a series of investigations into financial irregularities.
Unabashed by displays of wealth, a style which even the most flamboyant of today’s managers would think excessive for a public servant, he often arrived at his office in a chauffeur-driven limousine from his home in Merseyside.
Whatever the magic he employed, however, it certainly worked - the troubled RHA was taken by the scruff of the neck and turned round in six months.
‘The organisation was in a very, very bad state.He did a wonderful job, ‘Ms Bottomley remembers, with some affection.
The then RHA chief executive, Stuart Fletcher, says: ‘The fact is he did sort it out, and I think the legacy of his time there is still with us. It is fair to say he was a hard man, but there were two sides to his personality.He cared passionately about his staff and about the patients.’
Banging heads together was one typical approach.Midnight visits to hospitals to assess life at the front end was another. But there was also his infamous incentive system.
‘For people who had done a good job he used to award cheeses, which I think were made on his farm, ‘Mr Fletcher says.
‘Managers would become two or three-cheese managers when they had done particularly well under him.’
It was a mark of prestige, yet like the man himself the criteria were evidently tough.Mr Fletcher, currently chief executive of Pembrokeshire and Derwen trust, confesses to being ‘just a one-cheese’manager.
As for his own boss at the time, Ms Bottomley says she cannot actually ‘remember’ if she was ever a recipient of his ultimate accolade.
Bryan Stoten, now chair of Warwickshire HA, was chair of Birmingham HA while Sir Donald was at West Midlands RHA. ‘He was a visionary in many ways and he was brave too, ’ he says. ‘Some people didn’t like his style - he was a bully - but he had the ability ` to get talented managers in and let them get on with the job. The fact that he managed to turn round the authority so quickly was amazing, but he was that kind of man.’