Roger Holmes

Doctor of Laws Roger Holmes

Friday 12 July 2013 at 2 pm - Orator: Tania Jane Rawlinson

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

Graduation usually heralds the start of a new phase in life and we naturally ask “what next?” I would like to posit the theory that, before us today, are the makings of more than 275 leaders. Every Bristol graduate here has the inquisitiveness, the capacity to learn and the sensitivity to become a leader, if they so choose.

So it is most fitting that the honorary graduand who stands before us, Roger Holmes, is himself a shining example of leadership. Roger, whose name may be familiar as former Chief Executive of Woolworths and of Marks & Spencer, has been a leader of thriving businesses. And since 2008, Roger has also been the leader of Bristol’s 100 million pound Centenary fundraising Campaign. As our graduates consider their own ambitions, they can learn much from Roger’s example.

Roger was in this room himself thirty-two years ago, graduating from Bristol University with a degree in mechanical engineering. But his leadership qualities were in evidence long before then. 

When Roger was just six years old, his family moved to rural Shropshire. Think of “The Good Life:” Roger milked cows, and rode tractors. He loved the country, but he also remembers resolving at the age of ten to find a career that would take him to the bright lights of the City.

But as an ambitious teenager in the 1970s, Roger’s route out of Shropshire wasn’t all that obvious. So the teenaged Roger did what leaders do. He developed a vision of his own future, and he drew a map to get there. He found himself work-study placements and, later, a sandwich course, in Birmingham and London. And he gained a place at Bristol to study engineering, believing that that degree could lead to a useful vocation.

Another very important thing happened while Roger was a teenager. On a family camping holiday, he met Kate – who is here today. She remembers how amazed she was by his focus and drive, when a few months later he arrived for a date in London in a suit and tie, with a copy of the Financial Times in hand. Remember, Mr Vice-Chancellor, that Roger was then just eighteen. Their relationship lasted while Roger studied in Bristol and Kate studied nursing in London. They married in 1984, and their partnership remains a loving and supportive one to this day.

Mr Vice Chancellor, I wonder what today’s graduates make of Roger’s life at this stage. By the time he’d graduated from Bristol aged 21, Roger had already met and wooed his future wife. He had gained experience at a range of companies and secured a solid vocational degree. And, he had a job offer to train as an accountant with Price Waterhouse, now known as PWC. The young Roger Holmes was focused and purposeful. He had a clear vision of his future and had already taken steps to achieve it. A leader was already forged.

Roger’s career has been spectacular. After making his desired move to London with Price Waterhouse, training as a chartered accountant, he next moved to a management consultancy role with McKinsey. There, 17 hour days were the norm. Even with that kind of commitment the Holmes’ still made time to start their family, and their children Ollie, a 2010 Bristol graduate, and Annabel are here today too.

Roger describes his time at McKinsey as pivotal. There, Roger was first led by, and then became a leader of, highly intelligent, driven people. He loved the process of getting to the heart of problems, before devising solutions. He describes his mentors at McKinsey as ‘smart, interesting, and world-class at gnawing away at issues.’ Those are, of course, perfect words to describe Roger, himself.

Success at McKinsey led Roger to be wooed away by one of his clients, taking his career path into major UK retail companies. He began as Finance Director of B&Q, then became Managing Director of Woolworths, and then Chief Executive of Kingfisher’s electrical division. But Roger’s highest profile move was to that beloved British institution, Marks and Spencer, in 2001. Roger began there as Managing Director of UK Retail and after just one year became Chief Executive.

It’s interesting to talk with Roger about what it’s like to be in charge of Marks and Spencer, which was then an 8.3 billion pound per annum global business, with 70,000 employees and more than 70 million customers. He doesn’t mention his successes, such as UK retail profits doubling, and sales growing 15%. Instead, Roger talks about the nature of his role, which he says was: ‘to help the organisation envision where it wants to be.  To set out the current reality, and formulate the right steps to move us forward. Then to line up the right people to do it.’   Roger speaks as leaders do – of vision, of inspiration, and of the importance of the team.

In 2004, after an attempted takeover of Marks and Spencer, Roger moved to the world of private equity with his chairman from M&S. At Change Capital Partners they now buy European retail businesses – like Jil Sander and restaurant chain Rosso Pomodoro – grow them, and sell them on. Roger says ‘Mega businesses like M&S or B&Q are a privilege to steer, but in small companies you can make positive changes much faster.’ He loves the crystal clear measure of success: can they sell a company for more than the purchase price? How much more?

An inquisitive and open mind. Clarity of vision. Decisiveness. All of these are leadership qualities which Roger has demonstrated in abundance throughout his career.

And I have spoken at length of Roger’s career, but his leadership has extended too into a role of support for his university. Since 2008, Roger has chaired Bristol’s 100 million pound Centenary Campaign. He has truly led this Campaign at every step of the way,asking piercing questions which helped shape the way we thought about the Campaign. He helped academics shape storytelling about projects we hoped to fund.  He and Kate made significant personal donations, and Roger persuaded many other donors to follow his lead. Without his inspiration, without his leadership, we may well have fallen short of our target.

Mr Vice Chancellor, I am delighted to be able to announce that we have just passed the 93 million pound mark towards our 100 million pound campaign. With eighteen months remaining before we conclude, we now believe that we will exceed our original target.

But this campaign has raised more than money. It has raised sights for hundreds of students who have come to university through the Access to Bristol programme. Indeed, Roger and Kate’s first personal gift to Bristol funded a dozen Access to Bristol scholarships. The campaign has raised the bar in areas of life-changing research, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and stem cells. The campaign – including Roger and Kate’s second gift – funded important studies about climate change.  The campaign paid for libraries across the university to be refurbished. Many parents in this room have donated library books in response to Campaign appeals. Almost every student society and sports team has received alumni funding thanks to the Campaign.

In fact, every single graduate in this room has had a better Bristol experience because of Campaign funded projects. Roger Holmes is the chief architect of the Centenary Campaign’s success, and Bristol University will be grateful to him for decades and generations to come.

Mr Vice Chancellor, Roger graduated from Bristol in 1981 when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Controversial though she may be, her influence was significant, and she remains one of our most-quoted politicians. She once said: “Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It's a day when you've had everything to do, and you've done it.”

During their time at Bristol, every one of today’s graduates has had everything to do, and they’ve done it. Now is a time when they can each choose to step up, as leaders for positive change in our world, just as our honorary graduand, Roger Holmes, has done.

Roger has led successful retail businesses. He has led and been led by a loving family. He has led by personal example as a generous philanthropist. He has led Bristol’s centenary campaign to fantastic success. And he has been a great friend to you, Mr Vice Chancellor, leader to leader.

Therefore, Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Roger Holmes as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


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