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The deal-maker: what it takes to lead the way

21 April 2016

The article at a glance

From his place at the top table of British banking, Sir Simon Robertson has worked with and for some of the biggest …

From his place at the top table of British banking, Sir Simon Robertson has worked with and for some of the biggest names in the world of corporate finance.

Sir Simon Robertson
Sir Simon Robertson

I am proud to belong to a rather exclusive club of people who didn’t go to university but have still done reasonably well. I flunked getting into university, so my father, who was in banking, arranged for me to go abroad. I worked for a bank in Paris, living with a French family, and later went on to work in Hamburg. The whole experience made me aware that there was a world beyond the cloistered existence I had led up until then.

Today the world of banking and industry is much more competitive, which is a good thing. I do believe that your studies are very important and my son’s degree in philosophy has helped him build his own career in financial services.

There really is no substitute to hard work. When my father got me my first job, really putting his own reputation at stake by trusting me, I made a commitment to myself that I would prove him right through sheer hard work and discipline. I have a rather addictive personality, and I found I had a taste for corporate finance and deal-making.

Stay focused on the task in hand. I was taught from very early on that it was my job to look after the interests of my client rather than my own. Money has given me security but it was always very important to me never to disregard my sense of personal accountability. My time as a banker has shown the importance of not losing sight of the purpose of banking. It is not a mandate for personal enrichment but exists to oil the wheels of society, by keeping businesses going and providing loans. You have to be prepared to say no to some deals, without worrying about the financial cost to your firm or yourself.

When the going gets tough… It’s relatively easy being at the top of a company when things are going well, but people act differently in difficult times and you need to be able to react. I am not outwardly a panicker but there is always more beneath the surface than meets the eye. I have learnt not to rail against a CEO who is not taking your advice on a deal. After all, he or she has to live with the consequence of their actions: as their banker, you are merely an adviser.

Don’t be afraid to be ruthless. I like to have good people around me – who doesn’t? But I also believe it is kinder in the long run to get rid of those who aren’t up to the job; it shows leadership to the troops around you.

I really get a kick out of mentoring. I try to do it as much as possible these days, when I theoretically have more time. To be a successful mentor, people have to be prepared to open up to you. I do a lot of work with Peninah Thompson, who runs The Mentoring Foundation. Unlike some in the City, I have no problem working with women who are better than me and I subscribe to the view that we shouldn’t disregard more than 50 per cent of the population. I am a keen member of the 30% Club and got Rolls Royce to join it when I was Chairman.

I was fortunate to have some very good mentors myself. Sir Ronald Hempel at ICI, Sir Martin Jacomb at Kleinwort’s and later BZW, and Bob Bauman at SmithKline Beecham were and are all huge influences on me and all taught me a lot about leading by example. I owe John Thornton a great deal as well, literally. It was he who really persuaded me to join Goldman Sachs. I was fortunate enough to make a lot of money through being there at the right time, even though I voted against the company going public. I felt we were grabbing the goodwill of the business, built up over one hundred years, although we did share some of it out, downwards as well as upwards.

I wanted my children to learn about charitable giving. I have set up my own charitable foundation, which they administer. We have regular discussions about investing in ethical businesses versus those that make the world work, such as energy companies. I point out that there are always choices to be made but we need to make money in order to be able to give it back to those who need it.

If I have one piece of good advice to pass on it is to change your job every 10 years. Bob Bauman told me that. He said it was a renaissance. When I was ousted from Kleinwort’s by the new owners after 34 years there I thought it was the end of the world. I had nothing but my pension and I had intended to be there for life. Since then I have been Chairman at Rolls Royce and Deputy Chairman at HSBC, spent time at Goldman Sachs, and I have set up my own business. Both my father and my father-in-law would have been amazed. But I have learned one shouldn’t be scared of change: for me it has truly been a renaissance. Or rather, several renaissances, quite late in life.

Sir Simon Robertson has a background in international corporate advisory with a wealth of experience in mergers and acquisitions, merchant banking, investment banking and financial markets. He was honoured with a knighthood in recognition of his services to business. Sir Simon joined the Board in 2006. His extensive international experience included working in France, Germany, the UK and the USA. He is the founding member of Simon Robertson Associates, a non-executive director of Berry Bros & Rudd, The Economist Newspaper and Troy Asset Management; and a trustee of the Eden Project Trust and of the Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. His previous roles included non-executive Chairman of Rolls-Royce Holdings; a partner of NewShore Partners; Managing Director of Goldman Sachs International and chairman of Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.

This article was published on

21 April 2016.