Geoffrey Rowley

Doctor of Laws Geoffrey Rowley

Thursday 21 July 2011 - Orator: Bill Ray

Madam Chancellor,

We live in a time when change and uncertainty, particularly in relation to the funding of Higher Education, are accepted as the norm. When it is perhaps more usual to ask: what can I get from an institution rather than what can I contribute?

It is therefore my great pleasure to present to you a man who used his passion and the education he received at the University of Bristol to build a world class company and to become a life long philanthropist.

Geoffrey Rowley was born on 10 November 1935 in Harrow in North London. His parents were unable to continue funding a private education and so Geoff applied for and won a scholarship to Mill Hill School in 1948, leaving after his ‘A’ levels. 

As an early sign of his determination to succeed, he joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1953 at the young age of 17, and with a rank equivalent to Ordinary Seaman. Unlike today, Britain had several aircraft carriers in service in 1951, including one, HMS Implacable that was solely dedicated to training new recruits. Geoff’s arrival in the Fleet Air Arm happened to coincide with, but was presumably unrelated to, an uprising in British Guiana. So with all other vessels of the Royal Navy otherwise engaged, HMS Implacable, together with Geoff and 2,000 other new recruits, set sail for that country to suppress the uprising. Perhaps more fortunately for Geoff and his colleagues rather than the people of Guiana, merely the arrival of HMS Implacable with its raw contingent, was sufficient to avoid any unpleasantness. From British Guiana, Geoff sailed the Caribbean at her Majesty’s expense, from Trinidad and Tobago to Jamaica and Barbados – should we all be so lucky! - and as a result acquired a love of travelling, particularly in exotic and sultry locations where new experiences, not to mention the weather, were somewhat more pleasant than a small island off the coast of Europe. He was commissioned the day before his 18th birthday, receiving his Observer Wings and remained with the Fleet Air Arm until 1955 flying Fireflies and Gannets in anti submarine exercises at the princely sum of 4 shillings a day.

Geoff chose to study ‘Economics & Government’ at the University of Bristol from 1955 to 1958, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts. He lived in Burwalls for 3 years and became a close friend of Mr. Moger Woolley, a previous Chairman of Council who, I am delighted to say is here today with his wife Gill. He was an active member of the Student Union Council as Chairman of Debates, and clearly recalls a debate entitled ‘This house disapproves of the invasion of Suez’ – although he does now feel that he was perhaps on the ‘wrong side’ of that particular debate.

Geoff has wonderful memories of lunch in the Victoria Rooms and walking over the suspension bridge in early morning sunshine, although perhaps surprisingly he does not remember the same walk in the rain! Further, not content with simply walking across the suspension bridge in an orthodox manner, Geoff explored other innovative and creative ways of making the crossing that regrettably decorum and the Health and Safety Executive prevent me from describing.

After graduation, and a brief spell as a management trainee at Lewis’ department store, here in Bristol, he joined Pirelli, the tyre and cable company, and worked in the central buying office. Geoff thrived in this group which was responsible for servicing Pirelli companies around the world and was put in charge of all graduate trainees, a move that was to mark an awakening in his passion for Management Education.

To pursue this interest, Geoff left Pirelli in 1961 to attend Glasgow University, obtaining a Certificate in Industrial Administration.  The following year he won scholarships from the English Speaking Union and the Johnson Wax Foundation to attend an MBA program at the Harvard Business School and it was during this time, that he met his wife Susan whom he married in 1967.

Susan has been a great support to Geoff throughout his career and it is a great pleasure to welcome her here today together with Geoff’s brother Ted and his sister-in-law Barbara.

At this stage, an important event occurred which had lasting implications for the University of Bristol.  Having graduated, Harvard invited Geoff to make a donation, and he made a gift of $50. However, he felt that he owed at least as much to Bristol and made a similar gift to our University – a pivotal moment and the start of a continuing philanthropic relationship with Bristol.

With his interest in employee relations and an MBA from the Harvard Business School, he joined the Associates for International Research Inc. in 1964. At that time AIR was a 20 person consulting firm in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, specialising in expatriate compensation for the US Air Force and private industry. These two businesses were however very different and under Geoff’s leadership, the company was reorganized in 1968 to focus on private industry. As a result of this reorganization, Geoff became an owner (1/3rd), Director and Executive Vice President of the company and spent the next 35 years building it into a very successful global company, working as a consultant in primarily the oil and gas and extractive industries.

The seventies and the eighties were periods of intense globalisation in these industries and AIR grew rapidly. The company location in Harvard was beneficial, providing the necessary resource of talented and highly educated graduates, and Geoff consulted with major multi national companies all over the world from Angola and the Congo to Sudan and the USSR – indeed until last night I was unaware of Geoff’s interest in Wadi bashing in the Middle East!

By 2001 the company employed 80 people and AIR had one of the best client portfolios of any HR company in the world including American Express, BP, Chase Manhattan, Citibank, Eli Lily, Merrill Lynch, Monsanto, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble and Texaco and many others. When Toyota decided to invest in Kentucky and Australia, THEY contacted AIR.

Madam Chancellor, at this point I would like to reflect on the fact that throughout his career and in addition to building a very successful company, Geoff found time for something that really mattered to him, giving back to our University.

In the 1990s the University had founded an alumni relations office and had launched a fundraising campaign. When the then-head of fundraising turned his sights to America, Geoff immediately offered his help, first by making a gift, secondly by providing advice on the creation of a US foundation and later by becoming its Chairman. Geoff travelled to the UK each year to chair the Foundation’s AGM and under his leadership it flourished. He guided it through a period of significant growth, including a peak in 2009 when the University celebrated its Centenary. 

In addition to being a generous personal donor, Geoff has been a tremendous ambassador for the University and an invaluable advisor. However, most of all, his energy, charm and leadership have helped create a Foundation, which in its 14 year history has funded dozens of scholarships and bursaries for less privileged students by giving more than $1 million to the university.

In 2005 Geoff left AIR and is now formally retired both from business and the Foundation.

However, before concluding, I would like to mention one more reason to celebrate all of the degrees conferred during this academic year, because although the University celebrated its Centenary in 2009, it did not grant the first degrees until the following academic year in 1910 / 11 and it is therefore 100 years since those first degrees were conferred. The first degree Congregation was held in the Victoria rooms in October 1910 and I would like to read a couple of extracts from the Nonesuch magazine from that time: “There is always something reminiscent of the tumbrils and the guillotine in a degree ceremony. Batches of victims are trundled up, promptly despatched, and then a short pause ensues before the presiding official seems to say “Next, please”. Further, the proceedings were conducted in English and were hence intelligible; at least in so far as the words could be distinctly heard above the running stream of comment from the benches immediately behind the Vice Chancellor’s chair”.

I feel we have made progress on both counts!

Madam Chancellor, it is my great pleasure and privilege to meet many alumni who, like Geoff, inspire others not just to be a member of a community, but who support that community and make it stronger.

I began by suggesting that Geoff asked not what Bristol could do for him, but what he could do for Bristol and his contribution to building a legacy that will serve this University for decades to come speaks for itself.

So in recognition, we say, ‘Well done’ for everything you have achieved in your career and ‘Thank you’ for your contribution to the University of Bristol.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Geoffrey Rowley as eminently deserving of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Edit this page