Timothy Richie Thom
Doctor of Laws
18 July 2008 – Orator: Dr Moger Woolley
Next year the University of Bristol celebrates its centenary, having received its charter in 1909. Our principal benefactors then were the Wills family and some of you may have noticed a plaque in the Entrance to this Great Hall commemorating the gift of this building by the two sons of Mr H O Wills in memory of their father. The building was completed in 1925. One of the sons, George Alfred Wills, was the University’s first Treasurer. Our Honorary Graduand today retired as the University Treasurer in December last year having held the post for 7 years and having been involved in the University’s finances since 1989.
Timothy Richie Thom was born in Bombay in 1940 where his father worked for The Bank of India in a senior position. The family spent the war years in India, returning home for a visit in late 1944. Early schooling in Bombay was followed for Tim in 1948 by Bedford School. He enjoyed his school years especially his sport, but he makes no academic claims beyond doing better in the Sciences at ‘A’ level. His final school report shows that he played a full part in the life of the School and refers in particular to his genuine enthusiasm and loyalty, qualities which were to run throughout his business life.
On leaving school he was unsure of his career path. By a piece of good fortune he found himself articled to Price Waterhouse with whom he qualified as a Chartered Accountant. A major learning experience ensued with audits of multinationals and national listed companies, as well as Livery Companies and schools. Through various promotions his experience grew, working with the likes of Jimmy Goldsmith, for example, on the acquisition of a major supermarket and on a number of takeovers requiring Stock Exchange circulars. Special assignments took him all over Europe working in particular with the major multinational Unilever. He was appointed a partner of Price Waterhouse in 1975 and moved to Bristol where he became Managing Partner in 1983.
Our Honorary Graduand’s experience had another boost when he was invited to be joint receiver of a quoted building company. He began five years of part-time insolvency work which led to his becoming a Bank of England Inspector. During his time at Bristol the practice flourished, growing both in size and range of activity. He was involved in yet another flotation, that of South West Water when the Water companies were floated by the Government. All in all it was a time of high growth for the accounting profession – but when business became slack the Times reported in its financial column that PW in Bristol had joined up with the local radio station GWR to promote the Company by words of wisdom from PW’s Groovy Guru and Senior Partner Tim Thom answering questions on pensions, property, preference shares and whatever – just tune in at 5.45 pm on a Wednesday afternoon – and to everyone’s amazement they did!
I first met Tim about this time, Price Waterhouse being the auditors to an international business with which I was involved. Annually the auditors led by our Honorary Graduand would report their findings to us. Far less formal than today’s processes but we were still concerned about any surprises they might have uncovered. Tim delivered the findings in a matter of fact no-nonsense manner, no matter what. Fortunately, most of the issues related to Corporation Tax, another area he had specifically set about working on early in his career. During this period it became abundantly clear just how much he knew and understood about our business even though it was spread worldwide. Tim left no stone unturned. A man of detail who took extra pains to look after his clients.
Mr Vice Chancellor, in 1984 our Honorary Graduand joined the University Council as a lay member and for a while played a passive role. Lay members of Council are honorary posts and their holders come from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. However in 1989 the University found itself facing some serious financial issues when a forecast break-even for the year suddenly became a loss of over £4m. The then Chair of Council, Dr Stella Clarke, called for help from the one person, Tim Thom, experienced enough to clarify the issues. This he did and having completed his task reported to Dr Clarke, to Council, and also to the then Chancellor, Sir Jeremy Morse – rather like going to see the Headmaster, he recalls.
Dr Clarke recently commented “This is where Tim Thom came crucially into the picture. He was prepared to give unstintingly of his time, expert knowledge and advice, thus greatly benefiting the University when it most needed it.”
All Universities had difficult financial pressures throughout the 1980’s but this was a low point in the University’s financial history and the credibility of the financial department and its control systems needed to be restored. Gradually this was achieved and indeed progressively improved upon throughout the early 1990’s.
In 1991 Tim made his last career move. He was appointed Managing Partner of Price Waterhouse’s Middle East practice with the initial objective of deciding whether there was a future for the company in that region. The first Kuwait war had finished in March, and Tim arrived in August. His remit involved the whole of the region. Initially he was based in Bahrain where the firm had a strong banking practice in a country which had excellent banking controls developed with the assistance of the Bank of England. His appointment stemmed particularly from Price Waterhouse’s recognition of his skills as a banking specialist.
In spite of this overseas commitment our Honorary Graduand continued on University Council and the Finance Committee until 1994 when attendance became too difficult. Throughout the time he had attended Council and Finance Committee meetings wherever possible and had all the relevant financial information sent to him on a regular basis. He rang Dr Clarke weekly with advice. On retiring from PWC in 1996 he returned to Bristol and after a short while rejoined the University Council. In the year 2000 he became the Treasurer.
At the start of this oration I referred to Mr George Alfred Wills, the first Treasurer, and the importance of the role being recognised by the Founders. This was encapsulated in the Charter.
Within the Charter the Treasurer is an officer of the University, and the statutes which have been modified from time to time state that the Treasurer shall be Chairman of the Audit Committee; that the most important task in this role is to ensure that the financial management and propriety are of the highest standards and that the appropriate risk management controls are effective.
One issue has changed. Our Honorary Graduand was relieved to discover that although the early University Treasurers were expected to make up any losses out of their own pocket the rule does not apply today.
In the last decade Bristol University has been an exciting place. Whilst the income has doubled the capital expenditure programme has increased eight-fold to keep up with the pace and ambition and drive of the institution. In such a situation the experience and knowledge of the Treasurer has been quite vital, and a major asset in supporting the Finance Director and Senior University Team. Today the University’s finances are well placed to continue allowing academic ambitions in the core areas of research and teaching to be realised.
Outside of his business life and particularly since moving to Bristol our Honorary Graduand has been involved in many charities. They include: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Ltd and St Stephen’s Church Ecclesiastical Trust. He has been Chairman of the National Eye Research Centre and Chairman of the Finance Committee of St Monica’s Trust, an organisation providing care of the elderly in a number of homes in the Bristol area.
His range of interests also included a period as a Magistrate on the Bristol Bench.
For over ten years he has been constantly supported by his partner Myra Burroughs whom we are delighted to see here today We are also pleased to welcome his brother Paul and his wife and two of his six grandchildren, Alice and Flora, who are in fact the great great grandchildren of the first Treasurer of the University!
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Timothy Richie Thom as eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.