60 Seconds With… Jonathan Ruffer

Chair of the board

3 min read

Jonathan Ruffer is co-founder and chairman of Ruffer LLP and served as the company’s CEO until 2012. He has been a director for Electric & General Investment Trust, Odey Asset Management, Fuel Tech, CFS and Dunbar Fund Management. He is chair of Auckland Castle Trust, a Bencher of the Middle Temple and a research fellow at St John’s College, Durham.

What makes a great chairman?

I am extremely bad at chairing meetings. But I am a good member of a board. I like to fly kites and kick the sand up.  Everything I do I seem to be chairman of - it's the colour of my hair I think.  So I get my deputy to chair the meetings and that works well.

People who lack important skills tend to be contemptuous of them. And it is this contempt not the deficit that does the real harm. I am all 6s and 1s. I have great strengths and great weaknesses and I seek out others with the skills that I lack. I’d far rather a team of complimentary 6s, acknowledging they will each have their blind spots. But 4 is the killer.  A board of 4s and you’re on all fours.

How much has regulation affected the work of the board?

Regulation is something I once trod in.  Boards have been hugely affected by regulation which risks lending too much weight to the technicians and to people who are more interested in what you can’t do than what you can.

And what about diversity in the boardroom?

Diversity is the whole point of the board, gathering together people who are aligned in purpose yet see things differently. But I don't like categorising, whether objects or the people on my board. 

If you asked someone else who loves art to tell you about the paintings in this room they would start by telling you which period and style they each were. My mind has never worked that way.  Whether a painting or a prospective board member I have always looked at each in isolation and not as a representative of a type.  It’s just how my mind works.

What role do the board papers play?

It’s easy to zone out on receive mode. So the papers need to energise me. I like it when the first three sentences tell me why the paper is important. Why I should be engaged.

The papers need to ask and to answer the right questions. Even if I, the reader, haven’t worked out what they are yet.

How do you think the UK’s influence will change in the coming years?

I think we have seen the high watermark of internationalism and the UK will be more inward looking for a while.

Success in recent years has been winner-takes-all and that creates an underclass.  Throughout history you’ll see the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. It’s as natural as breathing in and out and we are due a correction. 

What are you most proud of when it comes to Ruffer?

I don’t see Ruffer’s success as my own. It’s like your children. You either see their successes and challenges as reflecting on you or as independent of you. And that’s how I feel about Ruffer.

But if you pushed me, then there is one thing I would say: we are unusually caring and I take pride in that. We demonstrate this quite materially. Once, for example, a client was underinvested in a bull market. We felt we could and should have done better by him and so we reimbursed him the difference.

How do you recruit the right people to maintain this culture?

I ask candidates the question: “Do you want to be rich?” And at Ruffer the right answer is no.  The last people you want to run a bar are the people who love getting drunk.

Even if a candidate is not driven by making money for themselves, they will assume that the right answer is ‘yes’, so I look for discomfort as they try to reconcile this. If I spot that, I know I am on to a winner.

What book is on your bedside table?

I’m reading Light of the Night: The Last Eighteen Months in the Life of Thérèse Lisieux by Jean-François Six. She died at the age of 24 but was one of the most popular saints of the last century. She was a good egg and I’ve been finding out what made her tick.

What is your golden rule?

You shouldn’t take yourself too seriously.

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