A renowned trouble-shooter, Jonson Cox has transformed the fortunes of some of the biggest names in the country.
I have to have a personal sense of strategy in any new job. Whenever I go into a situation, I start by writing down what I think needs to be done. For that I need to be alone: I once wrote an entire corporate strategy on a long train journey through the beautiful icy countryside of Norway. Then I put the piece of paper in a drawer for three months and forget about it while I go about the business, always keeping that narrative synthesis in my head, testing the business model. When I take the paper out again three months later, I need to see we are on track. If it is taking longer than that, then you are usually not going to get there. And if the strategy isn’t owned or can’t be articulated by the CEO, then it won’t work.
Most careers happen by accident, mine included. I went into the business sector partly as a rebellion against my own family’s background in the Arts. At the time, my first job at Shell had the international wow factor. My father was principal of Dartington College in Devon, where the approach to purpose in life was somewhat unconventional. I was brought up with a belief that anything you do has to have a social purpose and that doing something is more important than just thinking about it. At Yorkshire Water, when we were literally looking at running out of water, the chairman asked me what I’d do: I realised I had been sitting on the board watching the company going into meltdown, but I saw a way out for the business. You have to grab those opportunities.
I am not necessarily the easiest of team leaders and I am happy to admit that I sometimes get things wrong. I place great emphasis on getting to know each member of my team at every level, as well as the key stakeholders, on a person-to-person basis. For myself, I don’t have one mentor but I have learnt from many people at different stages of my career. And I hope I have passed some of that knowledge on. One of the nicest compliments I have ever been paid was when a city analyst described my times at Anglian Water and Yorkshire Water as management training schools for the water industry.
You need to be able to hold your nerve and have a bit of chutzpah as well. When I was appointed chairman of UK Coal by the shareholders and banks, we were running out of cash – which of course is much more important than profit. My finance director was jittery and I’d wake at 3am – there were 3,000 jobs at stake as well as my personal reputation. The impact on my personal life was horrible. But I got the government to back me on the germ of an idea and we made it, having been perilously close to going bust. As result the deep mines got an extra five years of life and many seasoned miners were able to stay at work until they were ready to retire.
People think I am easily bored because I have been in a lot of hairy business situations. But in truth I am bit fed up with my label of specialist in restructuring. I am now Chairman of the Harworth Group, a well-run, profitable company that came out of the break-up of UK Coal, and I love it. It’s quite nice not to always live your life on the corporate edge. In the future I intend to spend a bit more time on my farm (I own a hundred or so acres in Buckinghamshire) and the mountains (I have a place in the Haute Savoie in France).
If you couched my job as chairman of Ofwat as simply a regulator, then yes it could be dull. But the water industry was in a bit of a meltdown situation in 2012 and several colleagues suggested I applied for the position. In truth, I never thought I’d be appointed – poacher turned gamekeeper. Now I’m using my private sector skills within a monopoly, aiming to simulate competitive market situations and keep this massive industry on its toes. The thing I am proudest of in my corporate life is working in businesses that play a vital part in people’s lives; and nothing is more essential than water.
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Jonson Cox was the Cambridge Executive MBA after-dinner speaker on 22 May 2015. Learn more about the Cambridge Executive MBA
Connect with Jonson Cox on LinkedIn
Visit the Harworth Group website