60 seconds with… Sir Laurie Magnus

Chair of the board

3 min read

Sir Laurie Magnus is Chairman of Historic England, the JPMorgan Income & Capital Trust and Windsor Leadership Trust. He is a Senior Advisor to Evercore (the investment bank) and a Non-Executive Director of Pantheon International, Aggregated Micro-Power Holdings and Fidelity Japanese Values.

What are the ingredients for an effective board?

Communication and openness are vital. You need a spirit of trust in the boardroom and an atmosphere which encourages directors and management attendees to share information and be transparent. You need directors who will listen – really listen – to the points shared around the table.

Of course, there needs to be challenge – but it’s important that this is supportive challenge of the executives. And whilst it’s healthy for boards to have at least one non-executive who asks the awkward questions, you don’t want too many of these! Ultimately, the Chairman has to be able to chair the board and foster that environment of constructive and open debate.

How have boards changed over the last few years?

The board appointment process is far more rigorous than it used to be. For instance, 15 years ago it wasn’t uncommon to be offered the job over lunch. But nowadays, any appointment is the result of a formal application and thorough vetting and interview process – and this added transparency is absolutely a change for the better.

Another change is that the ‘job for life’ idea just doesn’t exist anymore and this has filtered through to the boardroom. Whereas you might have once had non-executives who sat on boards for 20 years or more, very few now go past the 9-year mark.

Finally, I think our era of board reviews signals a real generational shift. Board directors 20 years ago wouldn’t have engaged with these, interpreting any ‘development area’ as a sign of weakness. Personally, I find board reviews incredibly valuable; I think we can all benefit from listening to feedback and I want my board reviews to capture genuine criticisms and development areas. There is always something to learn – if you think you know it all, you need to pack up and leave.

How important is information in the boardroom?

You have to have good information: it’s essential. It’s up to the Chairman, Chief Executive and Finance Director to ensure the important information is there and presented in a way that helps the board focus on what matters.

How will the UK’s global influence change over the next decade?

The UK has an extraordinary amount of soft power and I see that more than ever at Historic England. Our heritage is remarkable: we have a deep and rich culture, a distinguishing monarchy and parliament, world-recognisable architecture and the world’s universal language. This soft power is a fantastic advantage and the influence that comes from this legacy shouldn’t be underestimated.

With regards to Brexit, who knows what the effect will be? Anyone speculating is just staring into a crystal ball. That said, the capitalist system generally finds ways through things and I think “Project Fear” was a mistake, not least because the FTSE 100 index is now higher than it was. But the future is opaque – there are seismic changes happening all over the world, not just in Europe.

What is the smartest business decision you’ve made?

To get involved with raising limited liability capital to support insurance businesses at Lloyd’s of London.

Until 1994, Lloyd’s’ capital base was supplied entirely by individuals putting up capital on an unlimited liability basis. When Lloyd’s got into such deep trouble with asbestos and other environmental pollution claims, the unlimited liability capital base started falling way – which opened the door for new investors to come in on a limited liability basis.

I was at Samuel Montagu at the time and in 1993 we put together an investment trust which took participations on Lloyd’s’ syndicates. It was a great success: we managed to get institutional money into Lloyd’s which spurred the later growth of a whole number of successful businesses, including the likes of Amlin, Hiscox, Beazley and Catlin. By the end of the year, Samuel Montagu had raised the largest investment trusts of those which had launched.

What book is on your bedside table?

It’s often P.G. Wodehouse, but at the moment it’s The Odyssey. It’s surprisingly light reading and has the most wonderfully descriptive language.

What is your golden rule?

Always listen and never stop learning.

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