Interview with OM Jon Aisbitt
Jon Aisbitt is as impressive in person as his CV, with more than 30 years experience in the world of international corporate finance. He has advised companies and governments in over 20 countries and now sits on the Board of Directors of a number of interesting companies, which he points out have one thing in common - exceptional growth potential.
From 1986 until 2002, Jon built his reputation working for Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s biggest investment banks, as they looked to build a European business. He became one of the firm’s first European partners and the first head of the UK Investment Banking team. He worked across many industrial sectors, raising capital and advising on acquisitions and disposals but he always had a strong involvement with financial institutions.
He finished his investment banking career with a three-year spell in Sydney as Chairman of Goldman Sachs Australia, where he advised the Government on what was then the largest ever public equity offering in the country - the second tranche of the privatisation of Telstra, the media and telecoms giant. From 2007 to 2016, he was Chairman of the Man Group, which at that time was a FTSE-100 company and probably the largest listed hedge fund in the world. In 2016 he replaced Sir Mark Weinberg as Chairman of the fast growing UK specialist insurer Pension Insurance Corporation.
But beyond his successes over the last three decades as an adviser and financier, what is so striking about Jon is his passion to give something back, and to give young people the best possible start in life. We are immensely grateful that Jon is one of the biggest donors to the MGS Bursary Fund, which currently stands at £27m, which allows us to offer funded places to bright, deserving young men who might otherwise have missed out on an MGS education because of their financial circumstances.
As Honorary Treasurer of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 1999, Jon was instrumental in helping the charity launch the Full Stop Campaign - at the time the largest ever UK charitable appeal - which raised more than £250m to tackle child abuse and greatly improved the quality of thousands of vulnerable children’s lives.
He travels to East Africa three or four times a year and is an investor in, and Deputy Chairman of, New Forests Holdings, a sustainable forestry and timber processing business, that in the last 10 years has created thousands of jobs and planted more than 60,000 acres of new forest.
Now, 50 years after he first started as an MGS boy in September 1968, Jon looks back at his time here at Old Hall Lane, including his tenure as School Captain in 1974-75, and how the foundations for his success, and his philanthrophy, were laid at MGS.
What did it mean to you, and your family, to come to MGS on a free place?
The year before I came to MGS, the steel industry’s problems had finally crystallised and the private steel industry in the UK had to be nationalised. My father had lost his job at the steel plant in Openshaw, and was now lecturing in Metallurgy at Manchester Polytechnic. It was made abundantly clear to me that my parents could not afford to pay for me to go to school so I was expected to do well in my exams. I tried for the Manchester Grammar School and I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from Cheshire – what we used to call a “free place”.
My parents were very pleased and I was relieved that I hadn’t let them down. Looking back, I’m in no doubt that the experiences I had between the ages of 11 and 18 while at Manchester Grammar School laid the foundations for everything that I’ve been lucky enough to achieve in my career. It wasn’t until I went to Oxford (where Jon read English Literature at Pembroke College) that I realised just how much I had taken for granted the constant challenge, encouragement and support that I had received from the teachers on a day-to-day basis while at MGS. And then suddenly I found myself at Oxford and, frankly, I felt that nobody cared whether I got out of bed in the morning let alone achieved anything! But that, in itself, proved to be a great learning experience because I quite quickly understood that going forward I had to set my own objectives, my own priorities and exercise my own discipline over how I allocated my time. If I didn’t care - nobody else would.
Whilst at MGS, you became School Captain in 1974, captained the First XI football team and played for the First XI cricket team. Is sport among your fondest memories of life at MGS?
I had been a fervent Manchester United supporter since I was knee high. Football was not only my passion, but it was in the blood, because my grandfather had played centre forward for West Brom in the 1912 Cup Final. In 1966, I was a ball-boy at Portugal’s training camp in Cheadle for the World Cup.
At MGS, I was picked for the First XI football team a week or so after my 15th birthday, and so I played for the First XI for three-and-a-half seasons, eventually captaining the side and the English Public Schools XI. In terms of growing up, when you find yourself at the age of 15 playing for the First XI, you have to grow up pretty quickly because the boys from the other local schools were certainly not going to do you any favours!
I played for the First XI at cricket for two seasons, and played volleyball as well, so sport is inevitably at the heart of my memories of MGS. And I loved it. In fact, I was reminded of my time playing sport for MGS during the 2018 World Cup, because in my last year at the school I captained the English Public Schools team which beat the FA Youth XI 2-1, and their team included future Tottenham Hotpsur star and England manager Glenn Hoddle, and there he was all these years later still on TV as a pundit.
How would you describe yourself as a pupil at MGS?
One of my first memories of MGS is my parents coming home from a Second Form Parents’ Evening and my father telling me that Mr Hill, my Latin master, had opined that: ‘Jonathan is a born leader but he will soon have to decide whether he wants to be a leader of the goodies or the baddies!’ As I later became School Captain I hope he thought I made the right choice!
I took ‘Sapere Aude’ to mean that you should always question things. I fondly remember writing in The Mancunian (MGS’s student magazine) where I questioned the High Master’s policy that boys must wear sports jackets or lounge suits to attend school plays – and pullovers were strictly forbidden.
The first time the then High Master spoke to me was during a cricket game for the Under-15s. I was fielding at gully and preparing for the first ball of the over when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and there was the High Master. He said quietly: “You have an appointment with the Barber.” My hair was blonder and longer then, and it wasn’t John Le Carre type code (even though the High Master spent his War years in the Intelligence Services) it was an order!
But the thing about MGS was that we were encouraged to question anything and everything, anybody and everybody. I always felt encouraged to think for myself and question received wisdom, and that has stayed with me throughout my life and is one thing I feel I always bring to any situation. While I do want to understand how things have been done, and the logic behind it, that is not the same as saying I will accept it. It's not accidental that in my career I have chosen to work with people who are part of the establishment, but always seeking to challenge the establishment, and that was I think a clear legacy of an MGS education.
I’ll give you an example in my business career. In 1984/5, I was working as a junior merchant banker for S.G.Warburg and we were involved in restructuring Dunlop (a tyre company in Birmingham) which was in serious financial difficulty and the government had made it clear that the loss of thousands of jobs in the Midlands could not be allowed to happen. So the Bank of England had stepped in and replaced the senior management team. I had the job of modelling the different restructuring scenarios which involved sellotaping together pages of what was called graph paper so that I could have enough columns to show all the possible outcomes. I was allowed to use my trusty HP12c calculator but the spreadsheet had to be in pencil so that I could rub things out and start again if/when any of the assumptions changed! After a few weeks of this (my eyesight and patience were both failing..) I plucked up the courage to ask the senior Director who was the Head of Corporate Finance if I could buy what I understood was known as a ‘personal computer’ (I’d never used one but I’d heard about them). He initially looked at me in bewilderment as there were no computers at that time in our department but eventually I was given permission to buy one and the bank sent me on a day’s training course. I wrote a shockingly inefficient computer programme, basically just to add numbers up and calculate interest payments and debt repayments, but I went from having to spend hours rubbing out numbers on my graph paper and reworking everything to being able to sit in a corner of the meeting room with this computer and shout out the answers to everybody’s questions before printing off the revised version! After one meeting, a senior chap from the Bank of England came up to me and said: “This computer, do you think we might be able to use it at the Bank?”! When I tell stories like that, it’s as if I was at School 500 years ago! But that was the attitude inculcated in me at MGS, a spirit of ‘Yes, I understand how people do it, but is there a better way?’
What did you take most from your MGS education?
My time at MGS has hugely shaped who I am today, especially with regard to the fact that the only thing I’ve ever been afraid of in life is being bored. When I look back at an average week at Manchester Grammar School, regardless of what year I was in, it just filled my life. I would get a lift to school and the bus home, Tuesdays and Thursdays after school I had football practice, Wednesday I had volleyball, Friday night after school I’d have a volleyball match, Saturday morning was a football match for MGS, every second Saturday United were at home, Sundays I’d play in my local football Sunday league and then it was church in the evening. Between 6.30pm-8.30pm, every weekday evening, I’d be doing homework. It just filled my life and it was wonderful, I absolutely loved my time here.
In fact, the only time as a schoolboy when I would wish the days away was when it was the summer holidays – they were so long. I remember watching every ball of the Test match on TV until I eventually cracked and started keeping a scorecard!.
You have been a tremendous supporter of the MGS Bursary Fund, the NSPCC and even today in your role as Deputy Chairman of New Forests Holdings. What is it that drives that spirit of philanthropy and of giving back to others?
My wife and I are both tremendous believers in equality of opportunity. Back in the 1990s whe we had three young children, we made a real commitment to support the NSPCC because we were both aware that we had had very good family lives but there were many children who had grown up in really distressing circumstances. I was brought up to believe that I should use my success to provide opportunities for other people to enjoy what I’ve enjoyed.
To me, that’s the most natural thing in the world.
In the same way that it feels natural to want others to have the opportunities that I had, it also seems only right to play my part in helping people from very different backgrounds facing really very different challenges to anything I have experienced. I am a supporter of International Aid but it isn’t enough and as an investor I have sought out opportunities to try to have a positive impact where it is really needed.
I go to East Africa three or four times a year, and in the 10 years that I’ve been on the board of New Forests Holdings, a forestry and timber processing company that looks to address the need for reforestation and help the Governments of Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania tackle the problem of sourcing wooden poles for their planned electrification networks, we have created 1,500 jobs, a further 6,000 jobs in terms of outgrowers in the local communities, we’ve planted 28 million trees and we’ve created 25,000 hectares of planted forests – that’s 60,000 acres. I think we all have an obligation not only to try to provide people with the same opportunities we had, but we need to look outside our own worlds and think ‘what can we do to help?” I believe it’s for successful business people to engage with, and invest in, businesses in developing economies. Paying your taxes and relying on aid isn’t enough. I’m passionate about that.
There is a great story about how you got your first job at Goldman Sachs. Could you tell us about it?
It was 1986, the time of the so-called ‘Big Bang’ in the City. The world was changing and I was at S.G. Warburg, a London merchant bank. I had received a call from a headhunter asking if I would like to join a would-be global investment bank, Goldman Sachs, based in New York. I was interested so they flew me to the US and I had interviews with four or five partners. Then I was told I’m meeting the guy who runs the Corporate Finance department. I walked into the office of this very dapper Italian-American and he didn’t even let me sit down, he just said: “Let’s cut through this. I’ve read your life history. Everyone loves you, but I’ve got one question. If we offer you a job can you be in New York on July 4th?” That was five weeks away – I said yes, but why? He explained that the Corporate Finance department had never beaten the Mergers and Acquisitions department in the annual soccer game at the summer picnic in New York, and that if it was the last thing he did, he would win it, and with me in the team, he thought we could do it. So I resigned from Warburg, joined Goldmans, went over to Manhattan for a year, scored a hat-trick in the game in a crushing 5-1 victory over the M&A department and my Wall Street career was launched! I’d like to think my career progression after that had more to do with my investment banking skills, but it was a nice way to say hello!
What advice would you give to a young boy just starting as a pupil at MGS, what would it be?
One of the things I feel strongly about is that there is real merit in becoming the master of a particular field. It’s ok to experience everything on the curriculum and that’s great. But in terms of your future, what’s going to matter, is whether you can develop a real interest, a real passion for something, something that takes you below the surface and something you really understand so that you can think originally about it. That is something I developed here at MGS and is something that is with me today. The same mental processes that I have used successfully in the business world can lead you down interesting paths in your personal life too. For example, I know more than it is reasonable to know about idols from Antiquity (say 6,000 - 2,000 years Before the Common Era) from ancient cultures in the lands that to-day comprise what we know as Europe and Asia….but that’s a story for another day.