Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership

Work. – December 2014. Original article.

work coverInterview with Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership
For an institution so British to its very core, the Partnership inspires feelings in direct opposition to the stiff upper lip. Because who doesn’t love John Lewis? And for anyone on the fence there are those devastatingly charming Christmas campaigns. Of course, the John Lewis Partnership exists to serve much grander ideals than clever marketing. Company man that he is, Sir Charlie Mayfield is distinctly British too, in the sense that he may be clearly proud of the Partnership but he remains tastefully modest about it. Mayfield’s smile when the Partnership’s enviable reputation comes up suggests this matters to him a great deal, but of course, there’s no resting on laurels here:

“Our reputation is both a privilege and a challenge. It’s something we think very carefully about. The last thing I want is to appear as the smuggest retailer on the High Street. We have to work very hard, every single day, at getting things right.”

The first law of the John Lewis Partnership, and also to Mayfield, is to serve “the happiness of its members”. Not once does Mayfield refer to just himself in terms of the work he does – it’s all about the group. Actually that’s not entirely true: Mayfield points out more than once that the partners have the power to sack him if they think he’s not cutting it. We’re sitting in the Chairman’s office at Partnership House in London’s Victoria, on sofas surrounded by green plants and abstract paintings. Mayfield is in a salmon-coloured knit tie and crisp white shirt, his jacket left on the hanger on the unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon. Glasses dangling from the hand, he’s relaxed yet professional throughout.

The John Lewis Partnership is a story of how an employee-owned business can not only match the performance of its retail sector peers, but also beat it. People-issues are hard-wired into the organisation, but Mayfield is careful to stress how this, above all, is a business. Our conversation swings back and forth between these two elements – people and business – as if ethical practices were the enemy of growth. But as only 2% of British businesses are employee-owned, chances are Mayfield has had to explain more than once how a long-term holistic focus translates to a healthy bottom line.

JL1*** Now in its 150th year, the Partnership delivered a £129.8m profit at September’s results announcement, a healthy rise of 12.1% on the year before in what remains a squeezed market. But it’s something of a chicken-or-the-egg situation regarding what comes first: the desire to run a people-centric company, or to run a profitable business.

“Somewhat unhelpfully I probably won’t be able to separate the two out for you!” Mayfield laughs. “In essence, the focus of the business is the happiness of its members. We are really focused on partners through their worthwhile and satisfying employment – in a successful business. That’s our our ultimate purpose, and from that stems everything else.”

Certainly, this priority will affect how decisions are made: “We won’t say that the most important thing is to make a certain profit, each year. But what we do prioritise is having a sustainable business that’s well-balanced, reflecting the needs of partners, customers, and profit.” This may mean the company won’t slash costs to improve numbers in a single year, unless there is a strong case for long-term benefit: “But what we absolutely will do is take tough business decisions to completely remodel and reshape our business where we think that’s necessary.”

So what happens when these “tough” decisions prove unpopular? “Oh, there will absolutely be controversy!“ Mayfield got plenty of “vocal” feedback after the decision to take out an entire level of management from the John Lewis department stores, making over 360 roles redundant. “We don’t shy away from those issues. But the manner with which we carry out those decisions may differ from other organisations.” In the case of the redundancies, the changes were implemented over the course of a year, encouraging people to find alternative positions within the company, and offering payment cushions.

“What we always do is, we say: ‘Look, we’re not running this business for any one individual partner. We are running it for the totality.’ We’ve always recognised that the greater good will trump the needs of individuals,” says Mayfield. “Though what we will do is try to implement change in a way which respects the needs of individuals.”

jl2*** The financial advantage of being a partner is attractive: people get an average of seven weeks’ pay in shared profits every year. “But the fact that way we share profits is almost as important. It sends a strong message about collective reward for collective effort. It’s not about equality, but fairness.”

The other vital element is how the management is accountable to partners. Throughout our chat, Mayfield brings up numerous examples of what this looks like in practice, as this openness isn’t just culture, it’s structure. Human resources is an important channel for implementing this, but the Partnership is also putting in place a central shared-services team whose job is to make the sure the principles are enacted consistently across the group. Already, there’s an elected body of people in every single shop, distribution centre or office, holding the local management to account. Registrars throughout the organisation ensure the business is run in accordance with its constitution, a document which includes a commitment to sharing knowledge. That means keeping discussions out in the open instead of secret meetings behind closed doors, and keeping facts available for all to see, warts and all.

“We don’t have a referendum on whether we are going to reorganise a particular area of the business, open a shop, or stock green jumpers. But the responsible managers make those decisions in the knowledge they are accountable,” says Mayfield. That includes himself: twice a year he faces a council questioning him on the performance of the business, before they vote on whether they want him to stay: “That is quite a key moment. Now, I have never lost the vote, but it still focuses the mind.” He nods. “It really does focus the mind.”

*** Accountability doesn’t mean the management will never be in the firing line, though. The Partnership caught flack this autumn when CEO Andy Street described France as “sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat”. Street was quick to issue an apology, adding that his comments were meant to be “tongue-in-cheek”. Earlier this year, at July’s council session, Mayfield found himself at the receiving of complaints from partners unhappy about the stress and pressure caused by recent years’ restructuring:

“Fundamentally, the council was not very happy with where we were, and they made that very, very clear. I sat and listened; I didn’t particularly like it, and I didn’t agree with all of it either. But that is the view of the owners of the business, so whatever my views, I listen to those opinions.” The follow-up came in October, after Mayfield commissioned a report on how the changes were progressing: “That was a very good session, and as a consequence, we have decided to make a few adjustments. The direction is still correct – we are very confident of that – but we made some adjustments in-flight.”

A unusually hands-on Chairman, Mayfield took an oath to run the Partnership in accordance with its constitution. He acknowledges he’s probably more focused on people-issues than perhaps the average Chairman: “But I would really encourage you not to separate that from the business. We focus on the business, which happens to be run by 90,000 people. Therefore, the best way to achieve the best results is actually to focus on the people running it.”

Having said that, Mayfield will readily assert that the effects of the Partnership is vital to the success of the business: “There is now a good body of evidence which shows employee-owned firms outperform their PLC company peers in overall performance over the economic cycle. In areas like job creation, productivity improvements, and well-being, many do even better.” Looking at Waitrose, product innovation can often be attributed to long-standing relationships with suppliers: “Don’t get me wrong: we have very commercial relationships with our supplier base. But we try to put them on mutually beneficial footing.”

jl3*** Mayfield became Chairman in 2007, but he first joined the Partnership in 2000 as Head of Business Development. “Before this, I was working in management consulting [at McKinsey & co] which I … enjoyed?” Mayfield laughs. “I say that with a degree of hesitation, because I’m not cut out to be a career consultant. I just don’t think I’m designed to be solely in an advisory role.” Still, the experience of working across retail brands was useful: Mayfield now chairs the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and was appointed Chairman of the British Retail Consortium this March.

In the rare moments when he’s not working, Mayfield (48) lives in Newbury with his wife, a teacher, and their three teenage children. And yes, the kids have had a taste of the family business, with a bit of work experience at Waitrose before going off to university. “I spend lots of time at work, so when I’m not working I basically want to be at home with family. We have two large dogs that need a lot of walks, so it’s that kind of thing. […] It’s really important to defend the time away from work. My wife would probably tell you I don’t do it very successfully!” He laughs. “But I think I do, reasonably.”

Being in a leadership role within a partnership means potentially exposing yourself to a higher level of internal criticism: “Sometimes people find that hard to take. But I would say it’s a great strength to the business that we do that.” It may also take a little longer to implement change: “But this is not for soft reasons. We think doing so gives us a better long-term outcome. And it’s always the long-term that matters.”

This commitment to playing the long game cost the John Lewis Partnership £47 million last year, as the company discovered a discrepancy in holiday pay going back six years. The company could probably have got away with back-paying just part of the money: “But we decided that was just completely wrong. […] Rather than using the law as a device to avoid payment, we should actually say: ‘Frankly, we should have paid people more.’ These are the people who own our business. We just need to take this on the chin.”

This also goes to the heart of what the company means to Mayfield personally: “It sounds terribly cheesy, but I never cease to be impressed at the level of motivation and commitment [the partners] demonstrate – to each other, and therefore to the Partnership. We’re very fortunate to have an organisation which reinforces and encourages that.” The Chairman is usually recognised when he goes into a shop, where he’ll chat to partners who have been with the company anywhere between a week and 30 years. “They are working hard, are proud of what they do, and they are trying to do their best. That never ceases to be a tonic for me. […] There are thousands of people like that, who are impressive and deserve the best possible leadership we can provide.”

jl4*** Mayfield is careful never to say the employee-ownership model is better than the alternatives, but absolutely, he’d love for Britain to have more partnerships. “I would be delighted if there were more [employee-owned] companies,” he says. “But it’s not everybody’s cup of tea!” In any case, the John Lewis Partnership has been campaigning for five years to ensure employee-ownership is a financially viable alternative for entrepreneurs selling their businesses, as is now the case following October’s Finance Act. Next, the Partnership is running the ‘Inspire EO’ conference in February, aiming to educate company owners about the benefits of this model.

“I think there’s an increasing interest in not just how businesses perform, but in how they behave,“ says Mayfield; he would like to see the number of British employee-owned companies to reach 10%, up from 2% today. “Reputation matters, also in terms of very hard-nosed measures of financial return, and so it’s a key consideration. It’s probably a good thing that more businesses are thinking more seriously about how to preserve that.”

Despite his insistence that the John Lewis way is not for everyone, Mayfield is at his most enthusiastic when talking about his work to spread the word of its benefits: fairness for employees, the stability of a long-term outlook, and the benefit of plurality in a country’s business ownership. Maybe he’d be better suited to consultancy than he thinks? Clearly he has a desire to affect change beyond his own company. Mayfield laughs: “Well, that’s just being an advocate for a form of ownership I think deserves a greater awareness and following.” Again the company man, proud yet tastefully modest always.

Dixon Boardman: For the love of the game

Hedge Magazine, 2014. Original article (p43-46).

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For the love of the game:
Dixon Boardman, founder and CEO of Optima Fund Management

London mornings are a reprieve for Dixon Boardman’s busy schedule, providing a few hours of unusual calm. “I love being in Europe because the mornings are free, as everyone’s asleep in America So I can get things done in the morning which I wouldn’t normally be able to do.“

One of these things is sitting down with this journalist, although Boardman would never say this outright; the New Yorker is much too polite. Boardman’s reputation as a hedge industry leader precedes him: the founder and CEO of Optima Fund Management has been in the thick of it for 26 years, he knows everybody, and several of those people describe him as a “guru” without irony. What the research doesn’t reveal, however, is how this industry wizard a perfect gentleman with a knack for making you feel at ease, as he punctuates his stories with laughter.

Our luxurious surroundings are those of 5 Hertford Street, the private members club in Mayfair. You gain entry through an unmarked door, rendering the place unexpectedly difficult to find, considering the solid hint in the name. Of course, this is an exclusive place for a certain elite, and simplicity is not a requirement. Privacy, however, most certainly is, so the photographer must wait outside. The hedge fund manager is in a corner room in the labyrinthine building, where paintings and knick-knack cover every wall and shelf, the result being kooky yet curiously elegant. Boardman is equally stylish, in a charcoal suit with a magenta shirt and maroon tie, and tortoise shell glasses dangling from the hand. He tells his stories calmly with a smile, like a man with plenty to say and nothing to prove.

A good reputation
Boardman normally comes to London at least twice a year, visiting with clients and sometimes managers too: “I try and combine business with pleasure. I love it over here.” This feeling goes all the way back to the American’s school days at Stowe, which may be partially responsible for the crisp mid-Atlantic accent with only the rarest Americanism slipping in.

Founded in 1988, Optima Fund Management now has $4.4 billion in assets under management. The company advises on multi-manager portfolio as well as runs its own single manager hedge fund programme. Institutional investors now make up 70% of the client base. Boardman is known for playing a long game: “We’re risk hypochondriacs. We are quality-obsessed, we know our way around the industry so well. I think that’s helped us very, very much. We have a good reputation.”

What this also means is that Optima can get access to funds that may be closed to other investors. This is in part because this good reputation is not just among clients, who enjoy the returns, but among the managers as well. “We’re beginning to see managers who worked in some of the old funds, start their own new funds. Having been doing it for so long, when there’s someone good – we hear about it. It’s awfully nice when [Tiger Management founder] Julian Robertson picks up the phone and says to me in a Southern drawl: ‘Dixon, I got this really good new guy you got to come and meet!’ That’s good, that’s terrific.”

Asked how he picks managers to invest with, Boardman deems the question “unanswerable”, but he will try: “Sometimes you just know, when it’s such raw talent and such incredible analytical skill. Having been doing this so long, maybe one has an edge in being able to see it? Sometimes one watches them grow in their old firm before they have started their own firm, so that’s a huge advantage.” And recommendations from the likes of Robertson, or Chase Coleman of Tiger Global Management, will of course be an indicator that a new manager is worth considering. “I have befriended many of the managers we have money with. I’ve got to know them well and see them socially, and I know their children. It’s old-fashioned, but I think to know someone really, really well, to know what’s going on in their lives, means you know when they’re focused. […] But let me tell you, we don’t always get it right!” Boardman laughs. “But we get it right more often than we get it wrong.”

The best ideas
Still, Boardman’s experience as one of the very first hedge fund company founders means he has a keener eye than most. “When we started in 1988, it wasn’t even a cottage industry. There were 600 hedge funds and only 100 of them had more than $100 million. Today, in some regards, you could say it’s become the tail wagging the dog, investment-wise. The industry has got some very, very, very, very smart people.”

A commitment to innovation is arguably a key factor in Optima’s success over the years, as the company has, despite its resistance to risk, presented fresh investment ideas at times when few others were doing anything like it. This includes the Japan fund launched with Platinum Asset Management founder Kerr Neilson, and a healthcare fund with David Chan of Jennison Associates, “a super brilliant guy”. The award-winning ‘Best Ideas’ fund gave Boardman’s top managers the chance to execute their number one niche convictions. Now, Optima has established a fund of American farmland, diversified across geographies and types of crop: “Our plan is to actually take it public. People will be able to invest in farmland instead of having that as a different asset class, and not having the disadvantage of it being illiquid. I think that’s an innovative idea.”

Asked if his experience has left him immune to being surprised, Boardman seems to think it has, but he is quick to point to the position the hedge industry is currently in: “The awful blow to the whole investment industry was the Madoff scandal – I would say we’re still not fully recovered from that.” He thinks about it for a moment. After the Madoff scandal people would ask him how the business was doing, and he’d respond by telling them the funds’ gains. “Then I thought to myself: ‘They probably don’t believe me! They probably think I made the number up!’” He cracks up. “It changed the credibility of the industry. Not to be boastful, but if something’s too good to be true, it usually is. We have a whole set of rules before we invest, and it’s really not rocket science. One rule is that we insist that whatever hedge fund we’re investing with uses one of the top accountants to do their audit.” Madoff’s auditors were in a suburban strip mall. “So yes, we knew him. Yes, we looked at it. Yes, we were impressed with the consistency of the claimed returns. Did we invest? Of course not.”

The best managers
In Europe, one of the consequences for the hedge fund industry in the aftermath of 2008 has been an increased focus on transparency and liquidity. While expanded transparency is “universally appealing” and is happening across the board, says Boardman, increased liquidity is an effect felt more in Europe than in America. Boardman points to how the first hedge fund, founded by AW Jones in 1949, only allowed investors to get in and out once a year, in part to prevent them from acting out of greed and fear. “The Europeans have never really liked that, but the American institutions have accepted it pretty well. […] If anything, I would say the trend towards liquidity [in European funds] has calmed down a bit, and if anything it might be changing back to less liquidity.” Boardman thinks for a moment. “The best managers in the world, by and large with very few exceptions, don’t offer instant liquidity. I’d rather be with the best manager.”

While the office is under strict instruction to absolutely interrupt if they ever need him, Boardman does take time away from work on occasion. “I visit my wife’s family in the south of Spain every summer. This year, a friend has a yacht which we’re going to be on, cruising around Majorca. That will be lovely, I’m looking forward to that.” He pauses. “But two weeks is max before I get itchy! I love what I do.”

Part of this passion for the work comes from the thrill of being surrounded by “some of the smartest investment brains in the world”. Boardman is also active in charity, having donated a dormitory to Stowe, his old school. Optima also has a philanthropic foundation that benefits from part of the fees on one of its funds. “It’s very, very nice to give back. But the real honest answer, I just love my work. Love it.”

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Mike Tobin, CEO of Telecity

Megabuyte, August 2014.

Interview with Mike Tobin, CEO of Telecity
If the idea was to try and work out how Mike Tobin does the thing he does, then our lunch at The Wolseley was a failure. Not that there isn’t a pattern to Tobin’s approach, which has been the driving force for building Telecity Group into a data centre and hosting success story. It’s just that the way the CEO tells it, his management approach is more a series of happy accidents, driven by a desire to build something meaningful. And possibly, also by an urge to push some boundaries, as it involves several arguably crazy stunts, including leading staff to believe they were being abducted in Eastern Europe, and taking them to dive with sharks in Scotland.

“The point of that was to replicate the fear that they had of merging two companies and potentially losing their jobs,” says Tobin, who’s written a book on the subject: ‘Forget Strategy. Get Results.’ It’s a half-memoir, half-management advice tome on how to get better results from people by leading and inspiring them in a different way. “So after the shark diving, every time you go into a situation where you’re afraid, you can remember how you felt when you came out of it.” In the glossy surroundings of the Piccadilly restaurant, we haven’t even ordered yet as Tobin explains why worry is a waste of time: “You’re using up all this emotional energy stressing out! It’s very logical. It’s still hard to do sometimes, though. I find it hard to do sometimes.”

Data for the moment
Tobin is full of entertaining stories about so-called radical management, to the point where I jokingly ask if the company has assigned someone to keep an eye on him. But the CEO is equally happy to discuss the merits of the Telecity carrier-neutral data centre model: “We’re the non-virtual bit of the virtual economy. Initially, something like 92% of Britain’s internet traffic goes through my buildings. The Facebooks, the Amazons, the iPlayers.”

Asked about price pressure and rising competition, Tobin launches into a rousing explanation about “the misconception in many people’s minds about the data center industry per se”. All these data centres in the countryside are mostly for storage, no good for video on demand and other data that’s needed immediately, he explains. Nor do you get full connectivity out there: “If we turned this place into a data center, this would be highly connected,” says Tobin, indicating to the restaurant. “There’s a ton of fiber running down Piccadilly, it’s only a short dig from the road into here. You could have really highly connected site.” Of course, you’d never get regulatory approval to turn The Wolseley into a data centre, which is one reason the countryside is a lot easier to deal with. But Tobin thinks the regulatory hurdles are a good thing: “After 15 years, we’re quite good at this. I don’t mind those regulations because that’s my barriers to entry.”

Listening to Tobin talk about how much space you need to store all the generators for running a data centre, which requires over 30,000 homes worth of power, it’s clear there’s a significant physical cost to all those those YouTube videos and iPlayer catch-up services. But when I ask how much of the data swirling around is actually business, Tobin calls me on it right away: “Are you saying Facebook isn’t a business?” He continues, not unkindly: “Okay, so why do you read Facebook on the bus? Because you can!” And if your mobile provider won’t give you a good price on a data package that lets you to do this, you’ll go elsewhere. “Facebook is a multi-multi-billion business. So what we think of as unimportant, is incredibly valuable to them.” Big-Picture thinker that he is, Tobin sees this as just the beginning, as the Internet-of-Things will soon be enhancing our lives in untold ways: “The most important thing for me is that there will be so much data that you won’t be able to store it. Imagine you’ll have a window with data passing, and all you’re reading is what’s important right now. That data, when it’s gone, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Opportunity and luck
There’s a difference between data and knowledge, is Tobin’s point. This becomes a segue to how on-the-job training is often just as good a preparation to life as getting a degree; Tobin got his start as an apprentice. “Everyone is a product of their history. I was born in the East End of London, in a very rough area and I had a very, very difficult childhood. But for the many opportunities and lucky situations that befell me, I wouldn’t be here. Part of my charitable drive is to give people opportunity.”

Still, Tobin’s early years make for an incredible story, as he travelled with his mother to then-Rhodesia to escape his abusive father, before going to apartheid South Africa: “When we came back from South Africa, where we’d been petrol-bombed and shot at, we went to live in a squat in Brixton. We escaped with nothing.” His stepfather, a concert pianist, would break into condemned buildings which often had old pianos, which he would fix up. He and young Tobin would wheel them down the Old Kent Road to sell at the market for £10 each. He laughs at the memory. “You have to grow up and you have to have luck. Every job I’ve gone for everyone said I would never get it. To be fair, I probably secretly thought I couldn’t do it! When I recruit someone, I don’t look at their CV. I assume whatever process they’ve gone through to sit in front of me means they have the minimum requirement. All I’m looking for is the chemistry. Can I trust this person?”

This is also where Tobin offers up a rare nugget of straight-up management advice, which is to surround yourself with the most brilliant people you can find: “I’ve got an amazing team, all of them infinitely more intelligent and capable that what I am. I don’t manage them at all. Unless they have a problem, I don’t need to hear from them. I’m assuming they’re delivering. I think that’s empowering people.” Another piece of advice is to have a vision rather than a strategy, as this gives you the flexibility to react quicker.

Of course, this approach doesn’t always work. Asked for an example, Tobin brings up his first marriage. Although in a sense, that worked out too, as Tobin is very happy in his second marriage. He has three children, aged around the early teens, who also live in London. The young Tobins are having a very different experience growing up compared to their father, and Tobin is deliberate about involving them in charity: “I try to make them appreciate what they have by seeing what people don’t have. There’s no question about that. Their start is one thing, but what they do with it is obviously more important for me. I want them to be able to communicate with everybody at every level. I want them to have respect for everybody at every level. The ability to communicate is more valuable, in my opinion, than a degree.” Clearly proud, he tells me how his eldest daughter is learning Mandarin, his son loves soccer and cricket, and all the kids speak French and Portuguese.

Work-life integration
Lunch is over and coffee orders are placed, which is the point when seemingly apropos of nothing, Tobin tells the story of when he joined Telecity-precursor RedBus. It’s a story which more than any other illustrates the vision-not-strategy approach. Or maybe it was just dumb luck? Tobin doesn’t quite know: “I only joined Redbus because I didn’t do due diligence on the company. I never would have joined if I’d known!” The company was less than three months from running out of cash, his son was a week old and the family had just moved back from Germany. “We were opening a brand new data centre in Prague, and all I could think was, ‘Oh another quarter of a million a month going down the tube’. But then, ten days after we opened, Prague flooded.” The new centre was under water, and the insurance money was what Tobin needed to keep the business running long enough to find new investors. “Without that money there would be no Telecity today. Just those things – how lucky can you be? Or unlucky! That’s not in any strategy.”

What it’s all about, Tobin (50) says, is “doing stuff, engaging, being different, involving, going for it, being approachable”. And I’m pretty sure this approach works for Tobin because he seems to be completely into it, so genuinely committed to his actions, smiling through the telling of every story. He’s planning a new book, this time on work-life integration: “We talk about work-life balance, but if you’re going to be great, that’s impossible.”

Of course, the ability to give back is at the forefront of what drives him: “I do more and more on the charity side. I’m involved with the Prince’s Trust, Action For Children, the British Asian Trust. I did the CEO Sleepout, which was fun. There are many angles to this and there can be so much more. That will keep me going until I drop dead!” It helps that Tobin is one of those people who sleeps for about four hours a night. “But look, the business is a great environment. I’m surrounded by all of my management team, I consider them my friends and I call them my family. Again with the work-life integration. So where would I go, other than to work to meet my friends!”

We are islanders: Interview with Alicia Eggert

Lionheart Magazine, Home issue, 2014. Original article.

islanders1We are islanders: Interview with Alicia Eggert
“You are on an island”, reads the sign, in bright white neon lights. Then it flashes, and suddenly the message is different: “You are an island.” It’s so simple, yet the philosophical implications are severe. And it’s not like Alicia Eggert hid this work away in some gallery. Instead she, along with co-conspirator Mike Fleming, rigged it onto a lorry and took it on tour, first in the US, then in Australia and the UK. Unsuspecting bystanders would get a dose of existentialism right in the face as the lorry drove up the High Street. Does Britain feel like an island? Or is it the the world that’s the island? The poet John Donne said it first: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” This is true, but don’t we each live alone inside our heads?

Light and language are repeating features for Alicia Eggert, who lives in Maine, USA. Time is another, as several of her works have a kinetic element: watch the rotating blocks and every so often they spell out a word: “NOW”. Then it’s gone, but it will be back. A drum is rigged to sound out the number of heartbeats of the average person, and we know the instrument will “die” when the timer runs down. A clock has 12 functioning hands, so it’s always all the time. Asign in the middle of a beautiful scenery that reads “Panorama”. All of it is so basic, on the surface. But just on the surface, though, because where do moments go once they’ve happened? Why do we forget that life isn’t a state but a motion? And what is time anyway? See, that’s what Alicia does: she gets you going.

Jessica: Your work is based on strong, clean ideas. Is it important to you that the viewer gets what you are trying to communicate?
Alicia: It has always been very important to me that my work can be understood by all people on at least some basic level. As a conceptual artist, my work always begins with an idea, and the materials I work with are chosen based on their ability to communicate a concept as clearly and concisely as possible. I think this is why text has become one of my primary sculptural materials. Words are like found objects – they are easily recognisable and accessible to anyone who speaks the same language and has the ability to read. But single words can have many definitions, so they also have the ability to possess great depth and complexity. One word can be both simple and profound. My art practice is founded on my own sense of wonder, and my personal goal is to create works of art that inspire a sense of wonder in others.

J: Time is a recurring topic for you. It feels like time passes at a different pace depending on the situation – I realise that’s impossible, but I’m not always convinced.
A: I think each one of us lives in our own little time universe. Some people live at a significantly slower or faster pace than the majority, usually without even realising it. Culture is definitely an influence, but I think it’s more individual than that. Time varies from person to person.

J: “You are (on) an island” – I love this. Do you think living on a massive continent like the US, as opposed to an island like Britain, makes people different characters? Or is being an islander a state of mind.
A: This work can be interpreted very literally when shown on geographical islands, but I think people can also live on metaphorical islands … ideological islands or political islands. I can never really know what it’s like to be an islander in the literal sense, since I was born and raised in the US. But what I love most about this sign is the way that it forces you to zoom out and consider the bigger picture. Even continents are islands on a planet whose surface is 70% water. And if you zoom out even further, our planet is an island in a vast universe. The sign highlights the sense of isolation we all sometimes feel as individuals, but it also emphasises how that feeling is something we all have in common.

J: Does working with the same ideas across several projects feel satisfying? Or is it frustrating because the questions are never fully answered.
A: It’s actually very satisfying. Because I’m not trying to answer any questions. I’m trying to figure out a better way to ask them.

http://www.aliciaeggert.com

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Nick Bray, CFO of Sophos

Published in Megabuyte, November 2013. Original article here (£).

brayThe Megabuyte Interview: Nick Bray
“It’s a great place to be” – Nick Bray says this more than once about Sophos. The CFO is excited about the prospects, of pushing forward in the sweet spot of security software for networks and devices, servicing the mid-market. “It feels almost like a fresh start,” says Bray, referring to Sophos’ recent management changes where Steve Munford moved up to Chairman, Kris Hagerman joined as CEO, as well as new heads of marketing and sales. “I think we are taking it to a new level actually, with the team we now have in place. It’s the same strategy, but with a tighter focus.”

We’ve met in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in Sophos’ purpose-built headquarters. It’s one of the hotter days of the late summer, but Bray is in dark jeans and blazer over a subtly embossed white shirt. Walking me through the airy lobby he talks about the building’s green credentials, down to the lily pond out front and how there’s “quite big fish” in the water out back. Bray’s 2010 move to Sophos came after five years at MicroFocus, and while he’s quick to say he enjoys working with shareholders, he also admits it’s liberating to just get on with things in a private company. Not that Apax, which owns 70% of Sophos, doesn’t put pressure on the team, far from it: “They are on the board, but they have different questions to what an analyst or an investor would ask. It really is right into the heart of business, right into exactly what is driving the performance? What is the market doing? What are the customers doing? You have to be on your toes.” And this goes to the heart of what makes a good CFO as well, says Bray, listing it off: “Is he driving strategies? Is getting more engaged in the operations? But the heart of it … the numbers.” He stresses it: “You have to be in top of your numbers.”

The midfielder
So the stereotype of the CEO bringing the charisma and the CFO being the dry one with the calculator, is that true? I ask this hoping Bray will laugh, and he does: “Hah! I think CFOs can sometimes come across that way. But I don’t’ think I’m dry! But it’s the numbers, upside down, back to front, inside out. That’s for the seat at the table.” But, he adds, a bit of charisma is necessary too, because that’s how you get people to want to follow you. “I love being a CFO, it’s in my DNA. One of the things I pride myself in is knowing what I’m really good at, and knowing what other people can do better,” says Bray. “When I joined, Steve and I structured a great relationship which remains today. I also have that with Kris. Whether it’s a public or a private company, investors want a strong leadership team. I’m a big believer that a great CEO and a great CFO make a hugely powerful team. That´s what I enjoy doing: being in the CFO in the formula.”

After hearing this I don’t ask Bray if he wants to be CEO, but he tells me anyway: “It´s like saying to, let’s say Rio Ferdinand in his time: ‘Rio, do you want to become a great striker?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I’m one of the best defenders in the world, so why would I want to be a striker?’ The CEO is the striker but I think really great CFOs are the best midfielders in the world.”

A network of gadgets
Bray lives an hour’s drive away from the Abingdon site but spends a fair amount of time on the road; Sophos is a global operation employing 1650 people, with major outposts in Boston, Vancouver, Sydney and Tokyo, as well as a new office in Silicon Valley. Is that where this is headed then, I ask, to sunny Santa Clara? After all, the assumption that Sophos will float on Nasdaq is so widespread it’s hard to tell whether it’s a rumour or part of the plan. At first, Bray evades the question: “Who knows what’s around the corner?” But he can’t help but follow the logic through; the private equity owners will one day seek an exit, and that will mean either an IPO or a trade sale. “Personally I would love to float the company, as would the senior team and the employees. It’s probably more natural to go to the US to float, if that happens. […] But look, it´s down to us to keep control of our destiny. If we perform as a team, we’ll have a whole range of options.”

Regarding performance, Sophos is seeing good results especially in the UTM (Unified Threat Management) area, where the company has invested heavily over the last few years. The technical side of Sophos gets complicated fast, which is also part of Sophos’ selling point: to take something complex and deal with it on behalf of mid-sized companies who may have limited in-house resources. Sophos started out as a anti-virus company covering computers, before expanding to secure mobile devices. UTM security for networks is the latest addition, joining everything up: “We see in ourselves as really unique now. We can deal with both [mobile] end-user security and network security. There are plenty of companies that do either one, but there’s only us that do both.”

The network focus is a trend for the industry as a whole, as illustrated when Cisco bought network specialist Sourcefire earlier this year. Cisco and BT also published a study showing only 36% of companies have a BYOD (bring your own device) policy, representing a security headache as the word of work is moving away from being device-specific, to user-specific. Bray, a speedy talker at the best of times, picks up the pace when BYOD comes up: “How many devices do you have?” The gadgets in my bag provide a handy case study, as my smartphone and mini-laptop are constantly used via unsecured networks, accessing data stored mostly remotely. “In a corporate world, people now may have a desktop, a laptop, an iPad, an Android phone. We secure the user and the devices they use, rather than worrying about securing the individual laptop.”

The rise of BYOD
Bray believes IT security will soon become a core element for company boards to consider, along with corporate governance and the general risk register: “Any board, audit committee chair, or non exec who isn’t thinking about IT security really isn’t fulfilling their fiduciary duties. It’s that important now.” A company may have a plan for what happens if the electricity goes out, but if the website is hacked or customer data stolen, this could cause equally serious damage to the brand or customers’ trust.

But if allowing BYOD sounds like a prospect best avoided, Bray points out that it’s also a brilliant way to liberate company staff. Allowing for remote working is one thing, but also, a hugely popular initiative among Sophos employees is that they choose which gadgets they want for work, and the company provides them. “It has to be sensible and the right framework, but the more we liberate and empower staff to make good decisions, the better we all are.”

This ties in with fostering a culture where everyone is pulling in the same direction, as well as allowing people to learn from mistakes and do better next time. This applies to Bray himself too; he brings up his second marriage as an example: “Absolutely got it right this time!” He laughs. “Then there are things that went exceptionally well the first time: my kids.” Bray, 48, has four teenagers, making for an active family life along with two big dogs and a passion for the Basingstoke Bisons ice hockey club. Bray doesn’t play himself, but his wife Angela used to: “She is quite fit and feisty. A great skater.” Bray used to cycle to work at MicroFocus, but the roundtrip to Abingdon is a bit much, even for a cycling-nut like Bray who covers 60 miles most weekends. “I’m really pleased that Sophos takes part in the Prince’s Trust ‘Palace to Palace’ bike ride; last year we had 60 racers and this year we should have more,” says Bray, who joins in with this relatively leisurely ride, only 45 miles long.

Building a powerhouse
On the topic of MicroFocus, Bray is proud of the company tripling revenues during his tenure there, when the market capitalisation rose from £200m to over £1bn. “MicroFocus was a huge success. That was five years of organic growth, seven acquisitions. But more importantly, we turned around a company that was really staid, didn’t believe. It didn’t believe it could be a powerhouse, back when I joined with Stephen Kelly and Kevin Loosemore. It´s completely different now.”

So how does he feel about the way things ended at MicroFocus, I ask; Bray left shortly after Kelly’s surprising departure amidst some speculation about the goings-on. “Look, there was a bit of turbulence when Stephen and I left. Then Kevin took the reins, and absolutely full credits to Kevin and the team who stabilised the company. It’s back to a powerhouse it was.” Clearly having been quizzed on this before, Bray asserts things could not have worked out better in terms of his own career, as “the stars aligned” with the new opportunity opening at Sophos.

After all, for Bray there’s nothing more fulfilling than taking on a challenge and getting through to the other side. “The ultimate thing at MicroFocus wasn’t just the size of the company, but growing a company from 450 to 1500 people. That’s fun! That´s what drives me. How do you build great companies? How do you deliver great value? Ultimately that allows you to do the nice things in life. We can do the ‘Palace to Palace’, we can help, we can hire great people and give them a great career. […] I feel more positive about this company every single day. Sophos is the right company, in the right industry, on the right way forward. They are a great place to be.”

An interview with artist Sam Knowles

Published in Amelia’s Magazine, 2011. Original article here.

portrait-of-the-artist-by-sam-knowles3The eye at the centre:  Interview with artist Sam Knowles
Grand theories and big questions lie at the heart of Sam Knowles’ work, but what the artist wants more than anything is for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. ‘Fearful Sphere’ is showing now at the Simon Oldfield Gallery.

I’m a little early for my meeting with Sam Knowles, giving me a chance to wander the rooms of the Simon Oldfield Gallery by myself for a while. This means I’m all immersed by the time the artist arrives, slightly shy as he asks me what I think. For a moment I feel self-conscious at sharing my thoughts; this is a public gallery but what happens on the walls feels oddly private. But however personal the experience of viewing the art may be to the audience, this is Knowles’ first solo exhibition so it’s probably infinitely more precious to him.

The fact that the artwork is quite small in scale means you have to get quite close to take it in, adding to the sense of intimacy. But there’s something else to it as well, it’s a feeling that comes as you’re standing there, squinting, craning, wondering. The title of the exhibition is a reference to a quote by Pascal: ‘Nature is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ It was Borges who called it a ‘Fearful Sphere’ in an essay discussing Pascal – just as Knowles makes his art from found materials, all these different elements are pieced together and subtly manipulated to hint at something else, something bigger, to some sort of truth we think is there but we can’t see or touch.

It’s the grand themes of metaphysics, philosophy and science that lie at the core of Knowles’ practice. ‘Metaphysics has to do with universal principles that helps you understand the world. While metaphysics is concerned with science, it also has a lot to do with God, as in, the idea that there are pre-ordained rules for things. That is how I see it, although others may not agree,’ Knowles explains as we sit down for a chat. Knowles is a keen reader of philosophy, and as we talk it becomes clear how the art incorporates many layers of meaning. Still, Knowles stresses how he wants the audience to feel free to interpret what they see in their own way: ‘I like leaving things to interpretation, and not give people strict ideas of what to think.’

Knowles’ titles are usually drawn from the topics in the old books that provide the base for the artwork, such as ‘Orbit’, ‘The Great Enterprise’ and ‘On the Nature of the Universe’. The common thread is a reference to a centre – it’s there as a halo around the ballerina’s head, it’s the point from which gold rays emerge, it’s the eye that remains still in the middle of swirled-paper vortex. ‘In Byzantine portraits, you’ll find that halos are perfectly centred on the right eye. There’s this idea that the eye is taking everything in, and it’s a bit arrogant, really. I wanted to contradict this idea.’

While Knowles is happy to explain the theoretical concepts when prompted, I should point out there is actually very little about the 27-year-old that suggests stuffy professor. While he’s eager to talk about his work, he asks me almost as many questions as I ask him. As we get sidetracked from talking about inspiration, Knowles breaks out of the artist-slash-philosopher mode for a moment when he tells me a story about his girlfriend; ‘Oh but don’t put that in!’

Back to the topic of inspiration, he admits to borrowing from many sources: ‘I take a lot of different things from different people, in fact a tutor once described me as a magpie,’ says Knowles, who graduated from Wimbledon College of Art in 2009. ‘But most of my inspiration comes from reading, fundamentally. I find objects, mainly books, and I spend ages searching for the right ones, looking for imagery that will work and then coming up with an idea. I sit endlessly in my studio, a tiny room with stacks and stacks of books, and go through piles of images. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, it needs to be in that moment.’

One of the largest pieces in the show is called ‘Fundamental Principals of Metaphysics of Ethics’, where Knowles has laid out all the pages of a book by this name: ‘I absolutely loved that title.’ Painted in gold is a reproduction of Gustave Doré’s White Rose, an illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Knowles has fractured the image so it’s up to the viewer’s to make a judgment about what it is, but in the right light you can still see the angels, circling the sun. ‘Sometimes a piece can come really quickly, but this one took time as I kept changing the idea,’ says Knowles, as we’re crouching down to catch the light reflecting off the gold. ‘I wanted the artworks in this exhibition to interact with each other. That was very important to me; the circle, the eye at the centre.’

A certain process

Lionheart Magazine, Warmth issue, 2012. Original article.

TetrahedronA certain process
Beauty isn’t really a part of the equation for product designer Bernadette Deddens, but somehow it happens anyway.

“I don’t care about pretty things,” says Bernadette Deddens, as I’ve just asked her about the clean look of her work. Her considered and specific processes create something elegant and beautiful, but what it is not, and do take this in the best way possible, is pretty.

The product designer is fresh-faced and cheerful in spite of the freeze gripping London the day we meet. Fellow café patrons are huddled over hot tea, but Bernadette seems unfazed by the sub-zero temperature; her means of transport is a bicycle, imported from her native Holland.

“The beauty lies in the practicality, in the usability,” she explains, taking off her self-made leather bangle. “People say they like this, so it must be pretty. But for me, it’s a 1.2 metre long piece of leather. I considered the thickness of the leather, how to roll it up … that’s where the beauty is for me. It’s almost mathematical. It’s a simple object.”

I’d hoped to meet Bernadette in her studio, which I’ve been told is cold and cramped and speaks volumes of how one suffers for art, but alas. Bernadette, who makes up half of Study O Portable alongside husband Tetsuo Mukai, is in the process of moving to a bigger space: “At the moment we have small versions of the tools we need. A small belt sander, small drills, a puzzle saw instead of a big saw.” This is dirty work; the result may be elegant, but the process is anything but.

Of course, Bernadette realises customers may be less concerned with the method. This will sometimes result in requests for matching pieces, such as earrings, but this is problematic: “This process doesn’t apply to earrings,” asserts Bernadette, explaining that the hollowness of the bangle can’t be replicated for earrings: “The process was developed for bangles, and I like to be specific.” She runs her fingers around the inside of the bracelet, her voice soft again now, self-conscious after having spoken so adamantly. But she is certain in her intentions, meaning the product catalogue will never feature earrings alongside the bangles. But would she do it on commission? She shrugs a yes, probably. This is where artistic ideas meet the reality of rent.

On that note, Bernadette works part time in a gallery and as a university art tutor. “Tetsuo and I have always had other jobs to fund our work. The other jobs pay for the job I love. I never envisioned it any differently, but it’s starting to pay off now, seven years later.” While she loves teaching, Bernadette is quick to point out that not everyone is suited to become artists: “You have to have a vision of what you want to do.” I ask her if she has a vision, and she makes a face. And then: “Yes, I am capable!” She bursts out laughing, shy again for speaking boldly, but I think she knows this is the truth. Bernadette’s teachers tried to talk her out of going to art school, and she is not entirely against this advice: “You have to be extremely driven. You have to subject yourself to vigorous experiments.”

Bernadette and Tetsuo’s dedication to experimentation runs through everything they create. Take the newest works, a series of quartz crystal mirrors. Crystals are integral to transferring energy in technological devices, and the mirrors are a play on the idea that we see ourselves through the objects we create. “We didn’t know anything about crystal when we started. But if you want to know, you find out.”

Peering over the photos of the mirrors, I cannot but point out how neat they would be as pendant. Bernadette’s eyes widen: “The mirrors won’t be pendants!” Their function would be compromised if they were that small, she explains, laughing. What if someone commissions one, I ask, and she nods, well yes, probably: “Is that a cop out?”

I think that’s a reality of London rents, I say as we gather our coats to brave the cold again. Has she considered moving Study O Portable to a less expensive city? “No, I think we need London. It has amazing free lectures, for one, all the galleries, the opportunities to meet people. Elsewhere would be cheaper, but we’d miss out on all this. I think we need this flux.”

For a designer whose work is all about experiments, transferrable ideas and methods, it makes sense to want to be in the middle of the noise and grime of a place like London. For an artist who sees beauty through process and practicality, it must be paradise.