Doctor of Laws
Tuesday 17 July 2012 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,
At any graduation ceremony, the word “transition” infuses everything. In fact, successfully negotiating challenging transitions is one of the defining aspects of the human condition. In 1999 today’s honorary graduand, Derek Pretty, faced up to transition that few of us will have to, successfully navigated the change and went on to become an outstanding Registrar for this University over the next twelve years. University titles can be a little opaque, the Registrar is the Chief Operating Officer of the University, leading all the administration and support services. More of this later.
Derek was the youngest child in a close and loving family. He read Economics and Accounting at Southampton. In between school and university he studied at Kent School in Connecticut in the United States. In that summer of 1966 he bought a $99, 99 day, Greyhound bus pass and travelled all over the States. He says that he met many real people and did many scary things as well as simply drink in this land of vast geographical, social and cultural differences.
He had a wonderful three years at Southampton studying with an eclectic group of peers many of whom were completely different from those with whom he had gone to school. Like many of us he describes his time at university as transformational, although I don’t know if he wants everyone to know that one of his major achievements was to be crowned as the fastest eater of a shepherd’s pie in the University.
In his final year his tutor suggested an MBA and at Washington University in Seattle. So in 1969 we find the 22 year old Derek as a $360 a month teaching assistant in Seattle. He says he was quite affected by the West Coast ambience – and still admits to a fondness for the music of Woodstock; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Eagles. He returned to the UK in 1971 to join Price Waterhouse.
This was back to traditional England with a bump – the rigid office hierarchy at Price Waterhouse; none of this North American liberation here, if you don’t mind. He moved very quickly into the world of retail business. He was soon working closely with David, now Lord, Sainsbury and his first job was to be heavily involved in floating Sainsbury’s on the stock market. He moved very rapidly in the company essentially becoming Deputy FD before then becoming Deputy FD and Group Finance Director of Kingfisher. So by the late 80s and just 40 he found himself in the senior finance position of a FTSE 100 company.
But, as those of you who work in retail know, life is never predictable for long. He left Kingfisher at 41 and became Finance Director of Waterstones. From there to Kwik Save which grew from 700 to 1000 shops whilst he was there. But retail is a hard world and Derek describes himself as being “black bagged” at 50 – that’s the moment when you find the contents of your desk in a black bag in the corridor. At 51 he was in a working with a company that didn’t suit him wondering where he could go from here having worked in a sector that was his passion and had been his life.
At that stage Derek went to see Miles Broadbent who was the leading headhunter of the time. Coincidentally, Bristol had just contracted Broadbent to help find a new Registrar and he took the opportunity to draw the post to Derek’s attention. He was intrigued and Carolyn, his wife, was very enthusiastic. Mention of Carolyn gives me the opportunity to welcome her here today and also their sons, James and Angus. I know that Derek would say that his success in life reflects the love and support you, Carolyn, and the family, have given him.
As I mentioned earlier, at this University the Registrar is in charge of the whole administration, or support services as we now call them. These range from all the student support services to estates, planning, personnel, research support and enterprise, fund raising and alumni and in Derek’s day, finance. In the late 90s these services were run more along traditional civil service lines because they could be – universities were relatively small and the pace of change was slow.
Derek was appointed and thus into that transition. Universities may have to be business-like but they are not businesses. Our staff have the constitutional ability to disagree with their leaders and the mechanisms whereby they can make that disagreement count. Contrary to rumour, university leadership is not about telling people what to do; it is about obtaining consensus. I remember the Chief Operating Officer of a major bank in the 90s telling me that when they restructured the business, the first anyone heard of it was a paper from the board informing them of the new structure. Such dirigisme wouldn’t last a day in a traditional university. Into this new world, armed with behaviours and experience of that different world, stepped Derek.
He says that he was overwhelmed by the creativity and talent of the staff and students – the excellence. He felt the sense of place very acutely – of the buildings and the history. He was taken aback at some the outstanding work that goes on here. Some of our practices confused him – he wondered why Senate spent 45 minutes on the new name for the Baptist College – but he marched on, throwing himself into the work and the place.
What has 12 years of his leadership delivered? Nothing less than a complete transformation of the business services of this University. Bristol’s financial turnover has more than doubled in that period and student numbers have increased by 50%. Every support service has been modernized into a service orientated department with delivery as its main object. Derek ensured our support services had not only the structure to ensure the University progressed successfully but also the people. During his time here he re-appointed every Directorship bringing in new and very able individuals. They say the most important thing you do as a leader is the appointments you make as colleagues and Derek was outstandingly successful there.
What about the man. Passionate and committed would be the first two words that spring to mind. Follow that with unstinting loyalty and endless work ethic. Nothing is ever done by half by Derek and nothing is ever done for anything else but the right reason i.e. clearly in the best interests of the students, the staff or the University. He’s a great leader, yet for me he was the most supportive colleague, but wasn’t afraid to be challenging to the V-C and the senior team and he was right at the centre of developing the strategy for our journey into the future. Academic colleagues were initially suspicious – who was this man from a different world – but he slowly won them over as they realised that Derek only wanted to work in their, and the students’, best interest. Finally he was great in a crisis – and universities do have them.
I asked Derek if his time as Registrar was the defining job of his professional life and he replied unequivocally yes. For those who worked with him, that shone through. I quote from an interview he gave in The Grocer this May when he was asked to compare his life in retail to that in the University.
“Working in higher education is the best thing I ever did – helping to really change people’s lives rather than worrying about the price of baked beans is very rewarding”
Universities are great ships of state – they survive centuries. Those privileged to lead them are here for only a relatively short time. But that short time can make a huge difference. Through the transformation of our support services over the last 12 years, Derek has left this University absolutely shipshape to face the future challenges. Derek’s legacy is the future success of the University of Bristol and Derek’s dedication and professionalism, his spirit, will invest the bricks and mortar and structures of the University of Bristol for decades to come.
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I commend to you Derek Pretty as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.