Rolls Royce staved off mass redundancies and skills shortages thanks to its partnership with unions, the conference heard.
A time-banking arrangement kept staff on full pay during the downturn a year ago until business picked up again. This avoided a large-scale skills shortage later in the year.
Paul Victor, change management director for Rolls Royce & Bentley Motor Cars, said without the plan 400 redundancies would have been unavoidable.
"Five years ago we would have dealt with it by means of redundancy," said Victor. "We did not want to do that this time so we looked at possible solutions.
"We came up with 17, the most significant of which was the one that developed into the time banking agreement," he said.
Under the scheme, staff were sent home on full pay when there was no work. In this way the firm had a ready supply of skilled employees and did not have to recruit when business picked up.
"We had not treated industrial relations as a partnership in the 1980s," Victor added.
"We recognised the futility of this. Most of our time was spent head to head playing hardball. We recognised that this adversarial relationship had to go. We had to recognise the validity of the union representatives."
Rolls Royce is now planning an 80 per cent increase in staff over the next five years.