Richard Law, CEO of GB Group

The Megabuyte Interview: Richard Law

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 13.38.58Richard Law is calling from the back of a taxi, currently moving through the streets of London towards Euston station. Law is on his way home to Manchester: “The capital of the Northern Powerhouse, as it was.” Law may have announced his upcoming retirement, but the CEO of identity data specialist GB Group is still very much a busy man. But what’s it like to be in charge, while also having one foot out the door?

While the captain of the good ship GB Group is changing, the course has been set, asserts Law. “GBG has always had a five-year planning cycle. We started 12 months ago on what we call VOS 2020 – Vision, Objectives and Strategies to 2020. I don’t want to sound as though it’s inflexible, but it’s a process we go through. [It’s] a clear strategy to internationalise all our product lines, establish presence on all six continents, grow our business to £300m in revenue by the financial year March 2020, and have 1,500 people in the business helping us do that.”

It’s a good plan, says Law: ”The new leader will bring different skillsets and a different approach, which will enhance it.” So no, being on the final stretch hasn’t changed his approach to the job: “Not at all.” One element to Law’s confidence is making sure the plan lives within the company, as opposed to just in the boss’s head: “We’re probably working together a bit more closely than we would have done historically, but it’s amazingly seamless. … I’m not going anywhere until the handover is done. I’m pretty flexible on that.”

Law first joined GBG in 1995 as finance director, taking over as CEO in late 2001. Lauded as a key architect of his company’s success during 14 years at the helm, does he find himself thinking about that thing called legacy? “I’m very proud of what the business has achieved. Though I really believe that I may have been the conductor, but I wasn’t responsible for the concerto! I’ve always believed that you come up with a vision and you share it, and you encourage people to embrace that vision and have a very clear plan.” The VOS master plan has been around ever since Law took over, he says, and it’s based on his big picture ideas of how businesses would embrace the internet:

“The plan, which was literally on the back of a sheet of A4, was this: there will be huge amounts of data, and we need to negotiate access to all of that data. Then there will be a need for intelligence, which will be extracted by search-, match-, analyse- and score- algorithms and software programmes. That’s effectively what we’ve done, and that hasn’t changed in 14 years. The only thing that’s changed is the amount of data available, and the number of applications we’ve delivered.” This trend is only going to continue, asserts Law: “I think intelligence will be much more important in the future, but the bar is going to be set higher. We see that, and we understand that.”

The trust business
Everything Law says about how GBG is run is underscored by what he highlights as his key business lesson: teamwork really is key to success. “Lots of people talk about [harnessing the value of the team] and it’s almost flippant, but it’s very, very difficult to do. You have to have an absolute commitment to it.” For example, Law is the only person in the entire company who can approve a compromise agreement to someone leaving, and he’s only done this two or three times in 14 years:

“My observation is that a compromise agreement is the business equivalent of taking someone outside and shooting them. There’s no due process. … It’s always the wrong answer to take the easy option without understanding why you got the problem in the first place. Not always, but often, when when a manager says a person is disruptive or ineffective, it’s because the manager is ineffective.” Not cutting corners is key to building trust in a business, says Law – this is what it means to “build engagement through communicating”. GBG measures its success on this front every six months, using the Gallup Q12 employee engagement survey: “[Strong engagement] generates huge discretionary efforts, commitment and loyalty. … Those small things are really, really influential [to success].”

Not that every move Law’s ever made has been one harmonious melody. Law remembers when he’d just taken over as CEO, having inherited a loss-making company with a £5m market cap and a single product: “I had to convince the board to back me on a £3m investment, out of a total cash balance of £5m, to develop a totally new product based on the concept that companies were going to embrace the internet within the business environment.” This went against all the surveys: GBG’s customers said they were too concerned with security to be interested in such things. “But at some stage, if you’re going to disrupt things, you have to ignore what the crowd is telling you. That’s how you steal the march and make an impact.”

Law turned out to be right, although he says this was a very unpleasant time for him, “because I do believe everyone should be treated with respect”. The business was losing money and had to be rationalised before things could move forward, “but that was very difficult for me, personally.” So what was it that made him so sure that this was the right move for GBG? “It was an instinct, and some particular real life examples that convinced me. The first was Holly and Jessica, the Soham girls murdered by a janitor who should never have been working at the school.” Criminal records in the UK weren’t joined up back then, says Law – every police force had their own records. School was delayed that autumn as everyone across the country was re-checked, and GBG helped with some of that work. Law realised that data consolidation, and proper search engines, would be key to solving the problem of security verification. “Now, 14 years later, we can check criminal records of anyone in the United Kingdom. We can’t yet check the record of someone who’s come into the country from Poland – but we will.”

From the coalface
Law has arrived at Euston station, but we can keep talking, Law says over the train announcements. Law tells me how he grew up in Barnsley in Yorkshire, and left school to become a coal miner at age 17. “When my grandfather joined the industry there were 1.2 million coal miners. When my father joined there were half a million miners. When I joined there were 200,000, and now there are none. That’s the way things went,” Law says, matter-of-factly.

Though Law remembers the coalface experience fondly: “The reason the coal is there is because it was a forest, now a mile below ground. It was preserved more than 450 million years ago, and I’m the first person to stand where those living things were, all that time ago. I just fell in love with it.” Law won a scholarship from British Coal to study mining engineering at Imperial College, a fact he’s still proud of: “My dad talked about Imperial College and the Royal School of Mines as something he really wished he’d done. He spoke in awe about it, and it captured my imagination. … So I did my A levels at night school, and won the scholarship.”

Law went on to work in mining all over the world for eight years afterwards, but the mining recession in the 1980s made advancement difficult. So he decided to move sideways: “I joined Ernst & Young, as probably one of the oldest articled clerks they’ve had, and qualified as a chartered accountant.” After a stint in corporate finance, Law became finance director of his first tech company, Phonelink: “It had a very entrepreneurial Chief Executive, who I was really taken with. So I joined him.”

Law (56) is married to Ceris – they met at Ernst & Young, where she still works. They have two teenage boys, who’ll still come with their parents when they go on their many trips around the world – it’s all about picking the right activities, says Law: “We don’t go to just one place and stay there. … One [trip] was going ranching, and then riding across Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota.” Law was recently in Seville: “I love history, and understanding how things have ended up being as they are. We’re going through political upheaval at the moment, but when you look at Seville, which was Roman, Muslim, and Christian influence, what we’re going through is an infinitesimal blip on the radar of history.”

A busy retirement
Law’s retirement isn’t going to be about sticking pins in a world map, though. “My mum is quite ill at the moment. My sisters and I have all decided we’re giving up full-time work and spend quality time with mum.” That’s the principal reason for Law’s retirement, and it’s a hard-learned lesson: “I was made CEO of GBG in December 2001. My dad was diagnosed with cancer the following April and they thought he had about six months. He died in May. I saw him quite frequently but … I thought I had time.”

Law plans to work part time, assembling a portfolio of chairmanships and investments. He already has two businesses on his docket: car finance specialist Zuto, and consumer behaviour tech outfit RealityMind. “They’re both run by vibrant, young entrepreneurs, where the principal theme is using intelligence to automate and disrupt.”

As Law’s train is speeding north to Manchester, it’s fitting the conversation comes back round to the so-called Northern Powerhouse – the need for which Law believes is spot on: “Part of the reason we didn’t call the [Brexit] referendum correctly is that we don’t really understand what’s going on in Barnsley, Sheffield, Sunderland, Middlesbrough.” The last deep coal mine closed in January, Law points out – there’s a need for skilled jobs and wealth creation to fill the void. “I do think there’s a phenomenal opportunity for whoever runs the country in the future, irrespective of political persuasion, to get this rebalanced. We can only do it through technology. We’re not manufacturers anymore.” Manchester could well be the tech capital of not just the UK, but also of Europe, concludes Law: “I think that would keep me pretty busy too.”

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