THE new head of Newcastle University Business School has big ambitions for it, as he explains to Peter Jackson.
PROF John Wilson declares himself to be a big believer in the power of networking, but I’m not sure he has made a good start.
For the new director of Newcastle University Business School innocently tells me: “I was born and bred in Preston and was a devout Preston North End follower. I used to go to every single game but in 1968 we played Manchester United and it’s something I’ll never forget, with the likes of Best, Charlton and Law – a legendary team that had just won the European Cup – and I fell in love with Manchester United.”
I am, of course, only joking and I’m sure Prof Wilson will have no problems making fruitful contacts in the region despite his footballing allegiances. Indeed, he is a friendly, down-to-earth man with a friendly down-to-earth Lancashire accent.
We meet in an office high in the business school’s headquarters opposite St James’ Park where he explains that his love of Manchester United was such that when it came to choosing a university, he opted for Manchester so he could watch the team regularly.
Prof Wilson has come to Newcastle from the University of Liverpool where he was professor of strategy at the management school. His new job is a big one, with 2,800 students, 110 academic staff, 48 professional services staff and an annual turnover of about £25m.
He is 56, has taken a flat in Ouseburn where he lives with his partner and has a grown-up son who works and lives in Leeds.
He is a business historian and edits the academic journal Business History and he is currently working on the third volume of his history of electronics giant Ferranti and also a history of the Co-operative Group. Both volumes will be published next year.
After graduating, he stayed on at Manchester to do his PhD, then became an associate fellow before taking up a full time lectureship.
He was in Manchester for 21 years, leaving in 1996. During those years he developed an interest in, and acquired an expertise in, contemporary or recent history and industrial legacy.
“I was looking at related issues, like why are we de-industrialising in the North West and what’s happening to our business culture which isn’t engendering a vibrant entrepreneurial culture, which put me more in the business school line than it did in the historical line,” he says.
“Increasingly I was engaging with the Manchester Business School and indeed I ended up writing the history of Manchester Business School and from that moment on I never looked back, I was bitten by the business school bug.” So much so that his move in 1996 was to Leeds University Business School as a senior lecturer where he specialised in longitudinal studies, which, he explains, is business-school-speak for the study of events over the long term.
He has spent the last 16 years teaching business history. From Leeds he moved back down the M62 to take a chair in industrial business history at Manchester Metropolitan. From there he went to Queen’s University in Belfast. “Then probably the most important post I’ve had up until today was at Nottingham University Business School where I was asked to run a business history research institute,” he says.
He spent time at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and at Liverpool before taking up his current position in Newcastle.
So, business history is his subject. He is an academic. What can he have to teach business people?
“A good point,” he says. “Indeed, having studied the history of business schools in the UK and USA and Japan, one of the recurring accusations is that business schools are populated by academics with a highly abstract notion of what business and management is all about. In particular, in pursuing that abstract notion they ignore areas like creativity, entrepreneurship, social and ethical issues. They are more concerned, in other words, with frameworks than they are with reality.
“I accept that this is a recurring criticism from the 1950s when British business schools started right through to the present day. We deal with that by making our teaching and our research alive. I’m a great believer in action learning. One of our roles in the business school is to inform. In other words we disseminate the benefits of our research but equally important is the application of those ideas.
“If we don’t teach students how to apply those ideas in reality then I see the first part of the equation as completely irrelevant. I don’t see business schools as performing an essentially academic function, we are here to create knowledge and to disseminate it in an appropriate fashion.”
As a business historian he believes he can provide lessons from the past.
“What I’ve done for the past 20 years is conduct a mission which says, in very simple terms, history matters. History matters because it explains enormously where we are and where we are going.”
Despite his managerial role he will contribute to various teaching programmes and modules.
“I see my role as providing exciting case studies to illustrate both past and present issues. When one considers, for example, the whole area of crisis management, the lessons we can learn from the past are enormously important so I feed those in directly to graduate and post graduate teaching.”
He cites the example of the North East’s shipyards. “Why is it that the shipbuilding industry has dwindled from what, in the 1950s, was the centre of the world to something which today is a sort of ephemeral, historical industrial heritage issue? What lessons do we learn?
“We look primarily at the engineering issues in terms of the nature of production. We look then at other functional issues, like marketing. How did British shipbuilders go about marketing their product? Did they take the easy option of just building ships for the Royal Navy, forgetting what was probably a much bigger market of tankers and civil shipping?
“Was there adequate training available not just in engineering but in managerial and functional areas like marketing and sales and human resource management? The other key issue is finance, was there adequate finance available?”
He grows animated as the story of shipbuilding leads him on to a theme he has clearly pondered deeply and feels passionate about – the decline of regional power in the North East and elsewhere.
“I’ve tracked this with colleagues – how the whole of business life gravitates away from regions into London. For example, 50 years ago the bulk of firms existing in the North East would have had a headquarters here in the North East. Today, of course, they are all in London, or sometimes in Tokyo or New York. In other words, the nexus of power gravitates towards other areas. That does two things: it sucks talent out of a region and it sucks out resources, particularly financial resources.
“I have studied this intensively in the North West. Manchester and Liverpool used to have vibrant stock exchanges funding everything from railways in the 19th century right through to electronics firms in the late 20th century. What is Liverpool’s stock exchange now? It’s a library.
“The North East, Central Scotland, South Wales, Birmingham – all the major industrial regions have suffered very similar problems and for very similar reasons – the nexus of power has gravitated towards London and, increasingly it could be anywhere these days, it could be New York, it could be Tokyo, it could be Shanghai or it could be Frankfurt. This is globalisation at work.”
He can see a possible alternative, drawing upon his experience at RWTH Aachen University where he also holds a professorship. Located in Germany near to its borders with France, Belgium and Luxemburg, Aachen is, says Prof Wilson, successful and vibrant.
“Why? Number one, the local government and local business community work in harmony with the university. RWTH University is a whole series of modern university engineering blocks, workshops, laboratories, all of which are working directly with the local chamber of commerce and local authority.
“There’s a third element in this: the savings banks. Germany has a savings culture and that is utilised to support all that innovation through the businesses and laboratories and engineering workshops.
“While, to a certain extent, I’m idealising this, as a model for regional development, one can only marvel at the way in which that works. Aachen has never suffered anything associated with the global financial crisis because it has that tremendous regional momentum and dynamism.”
In the UK, on the other hand, the regions have had talent and finance sucked out of them and this starves them of development.
Prof Wilson believes the North East, like the North West and other traditional industrial regions, has never been given the support and resources to adapt, ever since the 1930s.
He is scathing about the abolition of the RDAs, describing it as “probably one of the top three worst decisions of the 21st century”.
He says: “The UK generally needs to think more positively about the way those three key elements – the business community, the political establishment and the financial institutions – can harmonise and work more effectively as a unit. And I think business schools have a role to play in that in acting as a catalyst, or at least in providing examples.”
His strategy is for the business school to focus on three key areas, the first being knowledge creation and being known for it.
“If individuals ask: where do we go for expertise in strategy or economics or finance and accounting? They should think of Newcastle and think of us as a centre of excellence, which is capable of generating the kind of knowledge which is appropriate to our stakeholders – primarily our students.
“But we want the business school to be a place for regional business so they want to come and knock on our door and say we have this particular problem and how can you help? We must be seen as the first port of call for regional business.”
The second area is the dissemination of that knowledge and the third is growing that reputation.
“Then we expand that to become a national and an international centre of excellence in distinctive areas, so we become an intrinsic feature of the business, political, financial nexus.
“If we can achieve those three aims then that puts us on a very different level.”
What car do you drive?
I’m ‘Audi Man’ – I currently have a 3.0 litre A6 quattro – a dream of a drive!
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Pitcher & Piano by the Tyne
Who or what makes you laugh?
Morecambe and Wise just cannot be beaten!
What’s your favourite book?
‘Sons & Lovers’ by D H Lawrence
What was the last album you bought?
Coldplay’s Viva la Vida
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
The person who directs planes off an aircraft carrier I’d love to wave those paddles at a jet fighter!
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
Burning to death
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
KISS – keep it simple, stupid!
And the worst?
Plan for the long-term and stick to the plan.
What’s your poison?
Red wine, especially the Grenache grape.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£320 net take-home monthly pay as a Lecturer at the University of Manchester (1980)
How do you keep fit?
I walk (fast), cycle and do press-ups every morning.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Probably talking too much…
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most admire?
Guy Fawkes – never liked authority without representation
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Marilyn Monroe, Roosevelt, Eric Morecambe and my partner
How would you like to be remembered?
As somebody who made a difference to people’s lives, whether students and other stakeholders, or my closest friends and partner.