John Moger Woolley

Doctor of Laws

13 July 2005 - Orator: Professor Eric Thomas

Mr Pro-Vice-Chancellor: Moger Woolley

Every year I give the after dinner speech to the Honorary Graduates Dinner, as I will again this very evening.  During it I always stress that there are three reasons for us giving honorary degrees: to celebrate achievement, to say well done; to remind our audience how the honorary graduands exemplify the values we hold dear and finally to exemplify to our graduands the sort of people this university would like to see them become.  We also like it if they have some links with the University or the city of Bristol and the surrounding region. I would like to present to you Mr Moger Woolley, Chairman of Council of this great University as eminently worthy of an honorary degree on all of those counts.

John Moger Woolley was born 70 years ago near Williton in Somerset to a mother who had great ambitions for him; whether he wanted them or not.  His father died when Moger was 15 but at his mother’s insistence he had worked for and won a scholarship to Taunton school.  There were 12 scholars and Moger readily admits that he must have been number 12 as he had already showed where his real ambitions lay – in sport.  Sport is a constant theme in the narrative of Moger’s life: Cricket for the Public Schools, Rugby for Somerset, Cricket for the University and at County level, Athletics at White City, Hockey and Football for the regiment and University to name but a few.

He was first influenced by a housemaster at Taunton who had played cricket for Somerset and knew all the things that go through a sportsman’s mind.  He took Moger to one side one evening and said to  “Now little Woolley, I hope you don’t think that you’re going to be a professional sportsman”. He advised that Moger simply use it for enjoyment – wise words and they informed Moger’s approach to life and work from then on.  Not that simply treating sport as enjoyment didn’t mean it wasn’t taken seriously and Moger is legendary amongst his friends and opponents for his competitiveness on the field; perhaps exemplified by the fact that he scored his last 100 in a club game at the age of 49!  Perhaps this approach was hard wired into Moger by the selfsame housemaster who gave him a roasting for throwing his wicket away towards the end of a game of cricket which was drifting to nowhere – never, ever throw your wicket away whatever the circumstances – it has to be fought for.

After school Moger at age 19 was to be found with a Commission in the Army doing his national service and posted to Famagusta in Cyprus.  Was this posting a result of Moger’s high scores during his passing out exams including coming first in ballistics – no, it was because the Colonel there wanted a cricketer.  His arrival in Cyprus coincided with the start of the troubles in 1955 and in the ensuing few months Moger really grew up.  Here he was, a young subaltern, in a war having to lead a group of lads who relied on him, a group of lads from very different backgrounds to that of a public school in Somerset, having to lead them on dangerous missions in Kyrenia, experiencing the death of a friend and real fear and fatigue.  Most of us have annealing experiences in our lives and this was clearly thus for Moger.

He left the army and came up to Bristol University to read Physics and graduated in 1959.  He readily admits that university was his salad days and that Coombe Dingle, our outdoor sports ground, was his Mecca.  It was during his second year that he had the best fortune in his life – he bumped into Gill his wife.  The result is two children and they are also grandparents – it is a pleasure to welcome Gill and the family here today.  All those who know her will vouch for the fact that Gill is as straightforward as they come, punctures all pomposity immediately – just the right life companion for Moger as he navigated the business and then the university worlds.  He admits she is one of the four mentors in his life – two others being his housemaster and mother and more of the fourth later.  It is Gill who regularly reminds Moger that he certainly spends more of his time in the University as Chairman of Council than he ever did as an undergraduate.

Still, 1959 came and Moger entered the world of work.  He joined ES&A Robinson here in Bristol as a worker in the lab but rose through the managerial ranks under the mentorship of Lloyd Robinson, later Pro-Chancellor of this University and the fourth important influence on Moger’s life.  A merger with John Dickinson in 1966 created a company called DRG and Moger was appointed to the Board in 1979 and made Chief Executive in 1985.  This was no small post in an obscure company.  At its height DRG was a FTSE 100 company and a top world 500 company employing about 30,000 people with a turnover of £1 billion (about £2.5 billion in today’s money) operating 167 business units in 22 countries.  Its business covered Engineering, Packaging, Stationery, Papermaking and Sealants.

As Chief Executive Moger introduced and led a major change programme based around setting ambitious business targets, having a clear view of the direction in which the Group had to travel, the relentless pursuit of agreed goals, a proper perception of excellence and high performance, efficient organisation and a good management style. – leadership, leadership, leadership.  And it worked.  In 10 years, seven of them under Moger’s leadership DRG moved from a slow moving, inward looking, largely low tech manufacturing company with high debt, poor cash flow, break even profits, low return on capital invested with a stock price of 69p per share to a fast moving, customer orientated, high tech manufacturing company with much reduced debt, strong cash flow, returning 8% profit to sales, a return on capital invested of 22% and a share price of 590p.  Such success would alone be worthy of consideration for an honorary degree.  I would like to quote Mihir Bose in Director Magazine in 1992.  “In a mature and cyclical business Woolley’s performance was unrivalled”

But then fate intervened and what Moger describes as his first career ended.  It was 1989; the days of Gordon Gecko and Wall Street, lunch is for wimps and greed is good.  Banks lent money dangerously, highly leveraged hostile takeovers were the order of the day by groups who seemed intent on little else but asset stripping.  A combination of the use of a tax haven, an untimely stock market plunge and the fact that the city favoured focused business rather than diverse ones such as DRG resulted in a successful, high debt, hostile takeover with bidder believing selling the parts separately would exceed the value of the whole.  Nothing could have been further from the truth. The takeover was made up of £100 million equity and a £600 million debt and ended with no company, substantial losses for the investors and no job for Moger.  He describes this as transforming for him – DRG had been run along traditional responsible business lines with recognition of its duties to society and its demise had occurred because it had encountered, and I use Moger’s words “vagabonds and thieves”.  Some of Moger’s writings at this time about the responsibilities of businesses and banks encapsulate the values that moral business should follow – and which I stress, many do.

So after 30 years rising to Chief Executive of a global business Moger found himself, through no fault of his own, out of a job and badly bruised.  His business success meant that the Woolley family would not want but as I’m sure you will already recognise, a quiet retirement was not an option for Moger.  He began his second career.  In his own words he had to construct another life, to re-invent himself.  Since then he has been non-Executive Director and Chair of 8 businesses and an acute hospital trust.  He is a Deputy Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, has been High Sheriff of Gloucestershire and Master of the Merchant Venturers,  He is a governor of Colston’s Collegiate School and recently finished as Chair of BRACE, our very successful local charity for research into Alzheimer’s and Care of the Elderly.

However to the great fortune of everybody in this room – he has been instrumental in the development and success of this University and this is where we owe him our greatest debt.  He has been a member of our Governing body, our Council, since 1987 and Chairman since 1997 – the first Bristol graduate to ever hold the post. 

The role of Council and its Chair have been transformed over the last eight years.  The post is now directly comparable to Chairmanship of the Board of a large company – and in fact the University is now the largest company in this city with over 5500 employees   Not only does are there the normal responsibilities of a Chair but there are numerous interfaces with partners such as the City, local businesses, the NHS, Whitehall and Westminster. Moger has shown himself mightily skilled in navigating the different cultures and values that each of these partners possess.  Then, worst of all, there’s a Vice-Chancellor to control and keep on the right track!  And of all of this is done for no remuneration.

Moger has shown himself to be the ideal Chair.  Ambitious for our university but wise and experienced about how quickly we should move forward.  Tough when has to be but generally hands off.  Always available for advice and always very helpful with that advice.  He never interferes but is very supportive.  Hugely networked and experienced.  Finally, if you cut through the middle of Moger Woolley you will find the words University of Bristol carved out just as in candy rock.  He is motivated by the success and future of this institution, his alma mater.  When he steps down next year, Moger Woolley will have been Chair for nine years – nine years which will have seen the transformation of the University – nine years for which he will have the gratitude not only of the current staff and students but generations to come.  You are remembered for what you create – Moger’s name and values will be quietly inscribed in the bricks of all the new buildings you see and the ones to come over the next few years.

Mr Pro-Vice-Chancellor it is particularly apposite that today, at our Civic ceremony with many of our local friends and partners present, that I present to you Mr Moger Woolley, son of Somerset and Bristol, successful businessman and local leader and son and servant of this great University as eminently worthy of the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


Edit this page