Society Today – Britain’s Foreign Bosses

Society Today, Vol. 1, No.3, Summer 2006

With a new world order where money is placed above all else, British corporations are increasingly looking beyond the Great Isle – to the international market of talented executives – in order to recruit the best person to drive up share prices and maximise profits: the candidate’s professional competence and business acumen is judged to be far more important than whether or not he or she is native-born, a British citizen. A quarter of the FTSE 100 companies have foreigners at the helm, from an Indian American at Vodafone, to an Italian at Cable & Wireless, to a Canadian at Barclays.

And yet such companies would argue, perhaps quite justifiably, that they have little choice but to follow such a recruitment strategy if they are to survive and compete in the global economy. If they cannot find a Brit who is up to the task, then they must look for a foreigner who is. And should they not be commended for judging potential executives not according to their nationality but rather their track record? Patricia Peter, corporate governance executive at the Institute of Directors, certainly thinks so. According to her this ‘reflects an openness in the UK that isn’t there in other parts of the world. We are not hidebound. There are things we can learn from other people.’ This would certainly explain the appointment of Arun Sarin, who succeeded the very British, cricket-loving Sir Christopher Gent as chief executive of Vodafone. Born in Madhya Pradesh in Central India, Sarin graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur with a BS in Engineering in 1975, then emigrated to the US where he obtained a MS in Engineering, then MBA from the University of California. He rose rapidly up the corporate ladder and by 1997 was president and chief operating officer of US telecom company AirTouch, before heading up Vodafone’s US and Asia Pacific region.

It would also be fair to say that this growing preference for the gifted outsider is not simply about money and competition but about bringing a different cultural perspective and understanding to the board table, a fresh insight and wisdom. Gone are the days where the British corporation did not even attempt to consider and to respect the ideas and values of other cultures and merely imposed its colonial, authoritarian will on all and sundry: let us not forget that the East India Company ruled almost an entire country – it even had its own army – from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. With the spread of modern democracy throughout much of the world, the rules of the game have changed. It is all about cross cultural cooperation and understanding now, not imperial dominance and ignorance.

And yet it is not only in the business world that foreigners are in demand. Their skills are now also required in the public sector. In September 2003 the Boston supercop Paul Evans was brought in to run the Home Office’s police standards unit. Why on earth import an American to police British streets? Well, because the government was hoping to call on his ‘experience and knowledge of global improvements in policing methods’. And then there is the endorsement of Reba Danastorg, executive director of the Ten Point Coalition (the collaboration between the police and an alliance of churches conceived by Evans to tackle Boston’s epidemic of youth gun crime), who described him as the architect of a law and order miracle, who had ‘the ability and the vision not just to keep policing within a department but to bring it to the people. He believes in shared glory, and you don’t find too many people who want to do that. I don’t want to keep saying it, but y’all got a great guy going over there.’ Based on this assessment of the man, we would have been foolish not to want him to help us with our own policing.

The other notable import into British public life who we cannot fail to mention is of course the national football manager Sven Goran Eriksson. Australian-born media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper might be determined to get rid of him on the grounds that he is a ‘foreigner’– underneath all the politically correct Modern Britain rhetoric Rebekah Wade and her right-wing cabal will never be able to shake off their inherent xenophobia – and yet the cool, indefatigable Swede has done a better job than his British predecessor Kevin Keegan, winning 58% of games compared with Keegan’s 39%.

And so it would seem that we Brits just can’t hack it anymore. A recent survey by the Economist magazine found that eight of Britain’s top 20 companies were run by non-nationals, compared with four in France and just two in Germany and the United States. We cannot simply explain away this abundance of foreigners as an inevitable consequence of Thatcher’s free market meritocracy – May the best man win! – not least because such meritocracy more often celebrates an individual’s ruthlessness rather than moral worth. Perhaps we must concede that we no longer have the energy, the drive, the vision, the focus to run our own companies and institutions? We would rather leave this to others now.

Thus, maybe we are suffering from post-colonial fatigue? Raping and pillaging other countries has finally taken its toll on us. We just can’t be bothered anymore. Better that someone else do the work. We’re still one of the world’s richest countries, well … just about, with a national GDP of $1.782 trillion, the sixth largest behind the US, China, Japan, India and Germany. Not bad considering we are nothing more a tiny blip on the world’s surface area, though we continue to coerce cartographers into making our island look significantly bigger than it actually is. Or perhaps this is less fatigue than surrender, the uncomfortable admission that we must play second fiddle now?

The comments of Roger Parry, CEO of Clear Channel in the UK, the country’s leading outdoor advertising company, would seem to confirm this assessment. In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, he said, ‘As a generalisation, Americans are more energetic. They take business more seriously. They regard it as a contact sport, whereas some Brits regard business as an interesting amateur athletic event.’ And yet perhaps this simply points to a difference in style and belief rather than ability and determination. Philip Augar, author of The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, would certainly argue this. According to him, British companies are increasingly adopting the American belief that ‘business should [primarily] be run for shareholders and on the basis of shareholder value.’ And it is perhaps this aspect of the modern economy – now defined by the will of international corporations – more than any other that explains the growing apathy and complacency of the British in their own land.

And yet not all foreign chief executives have done a great job. We need only look at Ernest Mario of Glaxo whose culture of excess alarmed the board and shareholders so much that he was gone within three years. The company subsequently turned to Richard Sykes, the cerebral Yorkshire scientist, who pushed through the merger with SmithKline to create the world’s second largest drug company. Lord Hanson, who built up a huge industrial empire mainly via large-scale predatory takeovers, was also not wholly convinced by the merits of foreign recruitment and the need for broader vision and reach in the globalized world. In an interview with The Guardian before his death, he said, ‘For the most part, you are better off with Americans for American companies and Brits for British companies.’

However, despite this, it still seems that the people that lead the way in the formation of a modern industrialized economy would now rather be elsewhere: the British are governed more by corporate interest than national interest. And it certainly helps that English, for the time being at least, is the international language of choice. And though The Daily Mail, this bastion of old Britain – I stress the world ‘old’ – might bemoan this exodus, it was inevitable once Britain ceased to colonize and began to respect more the individual destinies of other nations and peoples. Nationalism is no doubt being eroded by globalization, and yet surely this is a good thing if it results in fewer wars and greater peace.

The face and character of Britain is changing rapidly as different people, many of whom were subject to British rule, now fill its streets and participate in its companies and institutions. And yet this influx of people from the former Empire regions of the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Africa and the Far East should be embraced rather than rejected: it has brought the country such richness, diversity and success. We need only look at the achievements of the Indian Gulam Noon, who arriving in London in 1978 went on to build a £100m business, Noon Products, which currently produces around 200,000 ready-made meals every day. And yet it is not only Noon who has contributed so much to British society. There is also the Kenyan hotelier Jasminder Singh, the Taiwanese property developer Victor Hwang, the Hong Kong Chinese entrepreneur Sammy Lee, and of course the Asian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, now the richest man in Britain, to name just a few. Let us forget about preserving the old culture – subjecting immigrants to Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’ – and focus on developing the new.

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