Charles Gregson is Chairman of ICAP and CPP Group. He is also a NED for St. James’s Place, Caledonia Investments and International Personal Finance.
What changes would you make to UK boardrooms to make them more effective?
I don’t think UK boards are broken. The basic principles that govern the way UK boards operate are sensible and sound. The unitary board structure, a healthy balance between executives and non-executives and 9 to 11 board members are all solid principles that do work.
However I do believe that there is always room for improvement and board diversity is a prime example, diversity brings a fresh perspective to any boardroom. I think boards should better reflect their workforce and their customers so bringing more women into the boardroom is a step in the right direction.
I also think that too many of us ignore the potential of the Company Secretary. They have tremendous insight into how the board functions and often have good visibility of what is happening within the business. There are some very bright and talented Company Secretaries and I’m sure boards could make better use of their exposure and expertise.
Has the way boards operate changed much in the last few years?
Boards have definitely become more professional and cronyism is in the decline. Non execs take the job much more seriously than some did in the past.
What single government policy change would you like to make to support British enterprise?
I would invest in the infrastructure of our country - and before it’s too late. If we want the UK and London to remain at the epicentre of the commercial world we will need to appeal to the international community. At present our transport network, to pick a prime example, does not.
Politicians are all too keen to postpone the big, difficult investment decisions for the next administration to tackle, especially when the gains will not fall into their term of government. But if successive governments fail to tackle our national infrastructure then we will only address the matter once it is arguably too late to fix. This concerns me greatly.
Which companies would you back for the next decade?
I believe that the era of the large conglomerate is over. Size is no longer a strategy in itself. Today, technological advancement is the real source of competitive advantage and small companies can realistically challenge the stronghold that large corporations used to enjoy. I believe it is intellectual capital and not just financial capital that will define the success stories of tomorrow and the countries that are good at nurturing talent will thrive.
Intellectual capital is mobile, where a large capital intensive factory is not and the UK will need to work hard to attract and retain it.
What is the smartest business decision you’ve witnessed?
Saying no. It’s the hardest thing to do. Barclay's decision to say no to ABN Amro was a very smart move.
What business advice would you give to your children?
This is the only life you’ve got; make the most of it. Too many of my children’s friends are miserable in their chosen careers. My advice is to find something you enjoy. It may be corny but it’s true – this isn’t a dress rehearsal.
On a slightly separate note I would encourage my children to travel and work abroad. Many of tomorrow’s opportunities will be in Asia and Latin America and we should all expand our horizons.
I would also encourage young, ambitious people to network. Get out there, meet people and learn.
What book is on your bedside table?
I read a great deal, as I hold a number of board positions and that comes with the territory. But I haven’t read a book for a couple of years. However, the books I would like to have on my bedside table are 19th century novels. I love Trollope, Thackeray, Dickens and the great Russian authors.