Vic Holmes: “Senior management have to walk the talk.”

Chair of the board

6 min read

Vic Holmes is chair at Ocorian Administration Guernsey Ltd., and Utmost Worldwide Ltd. He also holds a portfolio of non-executive directorships and other chair positions, including at Next Energy Solar Fund Ltd. and Rothschild & Co Bank International Ltd. Here, he explains the importance of patience and respect in successful M&As, and shares his golden rules for the boardroom.

How can fund service providers maintain a personal approach with a global and ever-expanding client-base?

Fund administration is fundamentally about three things: people, processes, and software. You need good processes and good software to support your people, but if you’ve got the wrong people on an account, things can go wrong. Instead, if you get the culture right then you’re much more likely to attract and retain the right people, who’ll have job satisfaction, who’ll understand what good looks like, and who will have the right mindset to deliver a fantastic service for clients.

To achieve that, you need buy-in to the company’s mission from all staff, and this is where senior management have to walk the talk. I remember watching the president of a large company speaking to his workforce, and he was showing them the Company’s organisation chart; he flipped it upside down and told the hundreds of people listening to him that although senior management may have grand titles, they’re really there to support and enable everyone else to do a good job. That simple tactic has stuck with me as it was a clever way of getting the message across that senior management should do whatever they can to remove barriers and support their staff to perform well.

“Fund administration is fundamentally about three things: people, processes, and software.”

In five years’ time, how do you think technology innovation will impact clients’ expectations of fund services providers? And what impact will technology have in the boardroom?

The importance and role of technology is only going to increase, and I have no doubt that much of the software that companies use today will either be replaced or significantly enhanced in five years’ time. With better technology, I think automation will increase as businesses are able to deliver more with fewer people.

I also think that technology will continue to play a significant role in the boardroom itself. Thinking back to a time before board portals, the main time sink of administrators was in chasing, assembling, and distributing the materials for upcoming meetings. Now, we have software that greatly eases that admin burden, so the primary time sink for administrators today is in producing quality board minutes.

This is an area ripe for a technological solution, and I expect that eventually we’ll see an AI-powered platform that’s able to produce minutes which an administrator can review and modify in a fraction of the time they’d have spent going through the whole process manually – it wouldn’t surprise me if using a system like the one I’ve just described becomes standard practice in the next five years. However, it is fair to say that there are many obstacles that still have to be overcome to get there.

What do you think are the hallmarks of a successful merger or acquisition? And how can the board and management best ensure this?

Throughout my career, I’ve seen some bad mergers and some pretty good ones, too. Management and the board in both companies (acquiror and acquired) have a key role to play, and how they perform largely determines the project’s success or failure. Whilst both management teams work side by side to agree on the future vision of the consolidated company, it’s vital that both sides respect the other’s views; nobody has a monopoly on the right way to do things. That means the acquiring company can’t simply assume that their systems and processes are better. They need to tread carefully.

“It’s vital that both sides respect the other’s views; nobody has a monopoly on the right way to do things.”

Another crucial ingredient for a successful merger or acquisition is patience. Both sets of leadership need to understand each other’s business and work on establishing goodwill with each other – which takes time. Identify the key people in the business you’re acquiring and make every effort to ensure that they are happy and feel valued.

Once you’ve done this and arrived at a plan for merging the businesses, don’t be afraid to adapt that plan if the integration is not going as anticipated. I’ve seen so many acquisitions fall down over the years as a result of a decision being made from the ‘mothership’, as it were, without the necessary understanding of the business they were acquiring or how their integration plan was being received.

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Are there any golden rules you follow in the boardroom? And how do you think boards can be more effective?

The first rule is a simple one – all board members should thoroughly prepare for the meeting by spending time engaging with the papers, often on board portals like Board Intelligence’s, so that they arrive at the meeting properly informed.

Once you’re in the boardroom, make a point of being respectful of the views around the table; nobody should be fearful about raising a question, offering a different perspective, or asking for more information. To achieve this, you need to consciously work on generating the right atmosphere in which people feel both comfortable and valued, and this applies to anyone coming into the boardroom as a guest, too.

Additionally, board members should be inquisitive, not cynical. There’s a big difference between these two attitudes; whilst the former contributes to the discussion by asking probing questions which can move you forward, the latter will have a more negative impact and can make others hesitant to share their own thoughts and perspectives.

“Board members should be inquisitive, not cynical.”

What are the social or economic issues keeping you up at night?

There’s no shortage of issues keeping me awake at night. Firstly, climate change is a serious concern and it’s troubling that we’re seeing its impact already from recent uncharacteristically bad storms in the UK to wildfires across Europe. Although companies are increasingly active with sustainability policies and working with ESG specialists, we have to recognise that everybody has to do their bit to address this crisis – it’s not solely on businesses to instigate change, but also on governments and the people they represent.

As climate change is a truly global issue, Russia’s upending of the established geopolitical order with its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine certainly hasn’t helped clear the way for a global approach to tackling this issue or others. Moreover, beyond the war’s human tragedy and its significant impact on inflation and spiralling energy prices, I’m acutely aware that I can’t envisage what the off ramp looks like here. I can’t see a way out, and all this time China’s ambition towards Taiwan has been rumbling away in the background. How would the US and the West more broadly react to an invasion of Taiwan? Just how damaging might further disruption in chip supply chains be?

These are massive questions, and ever-greater polarisation and divisive politics in many Western countries makes the situation even harder to judge.

What has been the most defining moment of your career?

Coming to Guernsey as a young accountant stands out to me. I joined from the world of insolvencies with KPMG in Middlesborough. When I arrived, the island was full of opportunities, so much so that 3 years after arriving in Guernsey I joined Guernsey International Fund Managers Ltd as a director at the age of 29. That opened up even more opportunities for me, and four years later I was appointed managing director for Barings Asset Management’s newly established Irish-based company. Everything flows from my decision to come to Guernsey – I was in the right place at the right time to gain experience and grasp the opportunities there.

What book do you have on your bedside table?

I tend to read for leisure mainly when I’m on holiday, so my bedside table is empty of books. But my most recent read was Built on A Lie: The Rise and Fall of Neil Woodford and the Fate of Middle England's Money by Owen Walker. It was fascinating and made even more interesting by the fact I know some of the people involved in Woodford’s fall.

When I’m reading books like that, I like to wonder what I would have done had I been sitting on the relevant board at that time: would I have reacted differently? I’d like to think so – not because I think I’m smarter than those involved, but because I think there was a missed opportunity to arrive at a different outcome, and if the relevant board had consisted of an experienced group of independent directors, then it is quite possible there would have been a different outcome. I am a staunch advocate of the value a truly independent director can bring to a board.

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