Q&A with Tim Parker - Chairman at Post Office

Lynn Barlow
Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Creative and Cultural Industries Engagement | UWE
3rd May 2018

UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Tim Parker, Chairman at Post Office, before he gave his address:

1. Give me a history of your career to date

I started out in life as a civil servant.

I worked in the Treasury for a couple of years, and I decided I was not going to be a civil servant, so I went to business school, which back in the late 1970s was quite a novelty.

I then got a job with a big multinational called Thorn EMI Group, and very luckily for me I worked for one of the directors who put me into my first slot as a CEO at the age of 26 running a little business in Chicago.

Then I was basically a CEO for 33 years, I ran a succession of quite well-known businesses: Kenwood; Clarks; Kwik Fit; Samsonite, and spent quite a lot of my time working with private equity investment.

I ran businesses in the public domain and private businesses as well. I arrived at the age of 59 and decided that 33 years as a CEO was quite enough and took over as Chairman of Samsonite. Since then I’ve become Chairman of the National Trust and the Post Office.

I’m also about to become Chairman of some large government agencies, but because they haven’t announced it yet it’s a bit difficult to say which one.

I’ve become a pro Chair I suppose.

2. The Post Office and National Trust are part of the fabric of daily life – do you think about that as you chair the organisations?

Yes. I think what makes the Post Office and the National Trust fascinating as organisations, is that we’re trying to do a good job, but we’re not just there as an organisation to do well, we are owned by our consumers. We are there for the nation.

So, we are trying to do two things. 

On the one hand, we want to have effective and well-functioning organisations, on the other hand we need to have 11,500 post offices and keep open 3,000 post offices in community areas that are run commercially.

We do have an obligation at the National Trust to look after things for the nation. So having that sort of mentality where you’re trying to do a good job and ensure that you’re there for people, I find absolutely fascinating.

In the case of the Post Office the owner is Her Majesty’s Government, so they have a deep interest also in what goes on. There’s rarely a week that goes past where there isn’t some question from some MP in Parliament about the Post Office.

3. The chair is a different job to a CEO, can you explain the distinction?

In this country, there is a pretty clear distinction between the CEO, who has direct executive day to day responsibility for an organisation, and the chair, whose main role is to chair the board, but also to make sure that the CEO and the management team are right and are doing a good job.

An organisation fundamentally depends on decisions that are taken by the CEO and the chair has an indirect role, but it’s a very important role - making sure you have the right CEO and they in turn have the right management team. It’s absolutely crucial.

There’s another component to the job, which is being the guarantor of probity as far as external stakeholders are concerned. These days there is a lot of interest (understandably) in corporate and social responsibility and in a sense the public look to the chair as the guarantor of good behaviour, transparent management and all of those things we’ve come to associate with running a business well.

So, the chair’s role is a slightly umbrella role, a board in conjunction with the management team can produce a successful strategy.

4. Do you think there are lessons that can be learned by boards in the private sector from the charity sector and vice versa?

When I look at a board of trustees – and the National Trust has a very distinguished board of trustees - we tend to look at a mix of experience. I want people who know about conservation, I want people who know about the environment, but I need someone who knows about the piggybank as well, and someone who has a sense of how to operate what is a very large multi-site operation effectively.

So, charities, and indeed the public sector, benefit from having a mix of people. I do think the private sector and people who have experience running companies have a lot to contribute and can add a lot of value.

But you do need to understand that the environment is very different from being at a listed company or a privately-owned business.

5. What would you say to our students who hope to enter the world of business?

In common with many people, the first job I did was not going to be my career.

So, the first piece of advice I’d like to give people is to realise that your first move is not always where you’re going to end up. The second is, look for organisations that will give you an opportunity to stand out from a very large number of people who are out there looking for roles. 

I would also say, try and think – it doesn’t suit everybody – about doing something where you can become an apprentice and gain some specialist knowledge which at some point in your career will offer you the option to develop and run your own company.

My advice to someone starting out is always look for good organisations as employers, but also think about things you can do where that could be a springboard and a foundation for running something of your own.

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. You can discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures and view further content from Tim Parker's lecture here. For more information please contact events@uwe.ac.uk.

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