Robert Swannell (M&S) – The Chairman’s Perspective
Last week we were pleased to welcome Robert Swannell, Chairman of Marks and Spencer and UK Government Investments, to BCKR. Since retiring from 30 years in investment banking, Robert has developed a broad and varied non-executive portfolio. He has been SID of both British Land and 3i Group, and, for two years, chaired HMV Group
Here is a digest of what he had to share with us.
Robert started out as an investment banker at Schroders in 1977 and stayed for 33 years. He came to the conclusion that managing large numbers of investment bankers was not what interested him. What he enjoyed most was advising companies. He found the dynamics and inner workings of the board room fascinating. So in 1990 Robert decided that was the direction he wanted to pursue and, alongside his role as banker, accepted an offer to join the board of British Land. His plural career grew when he was asked to join the governing body of Rugby School, where he went on to become Chair. He then went on to accumulate board roles joining 3i and then becoming chair of HMV which had 15,000 employees.
Finding himself at this point rather busy – he retired from investment banking having gained extensive board experience along the way.
In 2010 he agreed to become Chair of Marks and Spencer, who had been one of his clients. At that point he came off 3i and British Land but retained his chairmanship of HMV.
Within his first week as chair of M&S he found himself chairing his first board meeting, rem com and board dinner, whilst juggling a huge crisis with HMV over their insurance, answering to Robert Peston at a press conference. During the next 2 years at HMV, which was a searing experience with like-for-like sales decreasing by 30%, they managed to find a Russian billonnaire to buy Waterstones, at which point he left. After that he tried to keep additional roles very much lighter in demand: The Shareholder Executive, Kew, Investor Forum, Spencer Stuart.
Being on a board is a real investment. You need to feel passionately interested in how boards work and have a profound interest in their business. The lessons he would share are that:
• it takes a long time to prepare for plural life so start early
• your network is very important
• you need to find a way to illustrate your business experience as there is no doubt that lawyers do have that breadth
The approach to filling board roles at M&S is very systematic. They are always looking 3 years ahead for individuals who will fill the skills gap of their constantly evolving business. And they are often looking for multiple skills.
Though Robert has never sat on a board where they’ve said “I want a lawyer” boards are generally looking for people who have a broad range of experience. He is struck by how little lawyers value the businesses they operate within, their own law firms. If you are good at your job, working at the highest level with clients, you will have the essential EQ beyond the average, which is such a fundamental part of how boards work. The softer skills are very valuable as the professional advisor and on a board.
Don’t underestimate the value chairs ascribe to experience gained in not-for-profits. For instance, being a director at TeachFirst, would mean you are involved with what is now the country’s biggest recruiter. It is fantastic experience.
If you have the time and the passion, these can also be great experience.
Lawyers underplay their value as sensible people who can be trusted to give good advice and tend to restrict themselves to the law. A chair needs 1-3 people they can turn to in a crisis. In the US the lawyer is often that person. The conciliary. Whilst the investment banker may have the breadth of business discussion – lawyers also have plenty of experience if they chose to show it.
Though companies do usually appoint a search firm to source their NEDs Robert is endlessly meeting people. You tend to meet people off the main avenue that way and often it gives you the younger trustee. He finds this way he is always learning. He has no qualms sending the headhunter back to the drawing board – to come back to him with a more imaginative list of candidates. Probably does that 50% of the time. He met with 30 candidates for a recent trustee role. He will often come across people who may not be right for that specific role but who might suit something in the future.
Ultimately Robert really enjoys working with a group of people, in a team, to get the best result for the client. Small group getting to a common solution. Getting the best out of everybody. As chair you need to leave your ego at the door and synthesise the views of the whole board room.