Monday, November 10, 2014

Sir Roland Smith, Lancastrian

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I’m looking forward to Thursday evening in London where I’m delivering the annual Professor Sir Roland Smith Lecture hosted by Lancaster University, where I am an honorary professor of creative leadership. I met Sir Roland briefly in the nineties but the memory is indelible.

Roland Smith was a marketing pioneer and businessman and fellow Lancastrian. He died in 2003 after a hugely energetic life that saw him ascend to the top of both academia and commerce in the UK. The son of a police sergeant, he had the northern work ethic drummed into him at an early age. Growing up in one of the toughest parts of Manchester where survival is the name of the game was an unlikely route to studying economics at Birmingham University, but he clearly thrived and went on to complete a PhD at Manchester and then to an economics lecturer position at Liverpool.

In 1966, in his thirties, he was appointed Professor of Marketing at Manchester, the first appointment of its kind in the UK. In his obituary The Guardian noted “this was at a time when Britain was only beginning to become accustomed to the notion of business as a suitable subject for academic pursuit, and when the US style of business study was seen as a possible answer to Britain's chronic management shortcomings.” "I was in the right place at the right time," Smith recalled. "Public companies were becoming interested in management science and there was a demand for business academics to speak at conferences."

Big in stature (he was 6’ 6”), and with a typical Lancastrian avuncular bearing, Roland Smith then bridged academic with directorships, dominating British boardrooms as chairman of House of Fraser (where he navigated the company through a legendary takeover attempt), Hepworth and British Aerospace and director of the Bank of England. A Manchester United fan, in 1991 Smith became chairman of the football club, where he was instrumental in building its strong commercial brand.

He was known for his “mindblowing” grasp of financial data and statistics, his depth of vision, his very shrewd brain and a constant sense of urgency. Former Tesco CO Sir Terry Leahy, who had been one of his pupils in the Seventies, said “It was tremendous to have a man at the peak of a business career in the lecture theatre taking us through case histories from real life. It made us want to get out there and do it.” In 2005, the widow of Professor Sir Roland Smith, Lady Joan Smith donated £500,000 to Lancaster University to fund a chair in strategic management. On Thursday, it will be my privilege to step into Sir Roland’s big shoes for the night.

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