Anthony Fry is Chairman of DairyCrest, Chairman of Espirito Santo Investment Bank UK and a NED of the BBC Trust.
What changes would you make to UK boardrooms to make them more effective?
I would avoid ‘quick-fix solutions’ that don’t address the underlying issue. Take, for example, the matter of women in the boardroom. I wholeheartedly support the drive to increase diversity in the boardroom but the root of the matter lies in the under-representation of women in senior executive positions. Simply appointing more female non-executives may improve the perception of board diversity but if the executive directors are all men then have we really brought about the change intended?
The dynamic of a boardroom is hugely important and often finely tuned so getting the recruitment of new directors right is critical and not just for the skills that they bring. There is a tendency to default to externally-appointed Chairmen rather than recruiting from the existing board but in a boardroom with a good dynamic I think greater consideration should be given to existing board members. Headhunters may do well to observe the dynamic of a board meeting first-hand, before they begin a new search.
What makes a good Chairman?
High levels of emotional intelligence are important for any chairman and so too is the ability to provide guidance without stifling discussion. Beyond that there is no one attribute that makes a good Chairman and there’s no real training for becoming a better Chairman either.
The challenge is to work out what the business needs from its Chairman at that period of its development and just because an outgoing Chairman has been a success it doesn’t mean you should necessarily appoint a successor in their own image, if the business has moved on. And Chairmen should also be very clear at the outset exactly for how long they intend to serve — it avoids difficulties later down the line if he or she has outstayed their welcome!
How do you feel boards have changed in the last few years?
Over the last 20 years the number of non executive directors from advisory professions has diminished. Not only are lawyers and bankers often very good listeners and influencers — important qualities in a non-executive — having a leading professional at the boardroom table is an excellent source of cut-price advice!
What single government policy change would you like to make to support British enterprise?
I would simplify the tax system, particularly so that small businesses are not disincentivised from growing in the UK.
How will the UK’s global influence change over the next decade?
The UK punches above its weight in terms of global influence, thanks to four things: the City, the armed forces, an education system that welcomes international students, and the BBC World Service. The BBC World Service is the ultimate soft power and has historically been a vital part of British foreign policy.
What is the smartest business decision you’ve witnessed?
At Rothschild I witnessed Sir Ernest Harrison’s decision to split what was to become Vodafone from Racal. He realised that the small but rapidly growing company was better off outside of its larger parent company. It was a remarkable business decision, driven by a vision for value creation, not ego.
What is your golden rule?
Never be afraid to say exactly what you think. A good advisor gives advice they believe in whether or not it is what the client wants to hear. Either they’ll thank you six months later or you’ll have to put your hands up and admit a mistake but either way they’ll still trust you.
Who do you go to for advice?
This tends to be an easy question when you’re under 40 but much harder the other side of 40. When you’re under 40 it’s often a parent or a former boss but later on in life there are fewer people to turn to. Old friends are vital for difficult times and a good ’number 2’ that tells you the truth is invaluable.
What book is on your bedside table? What are you reading?
I always have about five books on the go. At the moment I have a tome on my bedside table about the American Civil War called ‘A World On Fire’ by Amanda Foreman. I have the biography of Sir Jack Hobbs by Leo McKinstry, ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell, the latest issue of the magazine ‘Slightly Foxed’ and a book of vignettes called ‘We could almost eat outside’ by Philippe Delerm.