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Business Lesson from Former CEO of Visa

Friday, 24 June 2011

Sir Malcolm Williamson, former CEO of Visa International, returned to Bolton School and delivered a fascinating talk on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), before branching out to talk about business and economics and reminiscing on his own own amazing career.

It was the first time Sir Malcolm had been back to his former school in over 50 years, having been part of the same remarkable year group that had included Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Harry Kroto, the Nobel Prizewinner for Chemistry.  Sir Malcolm was knighted in 2007 for his work in the financial services industry.

In addressing a gathering of Sixth Form Business Studies and Economics students, Sir Malcolm's focus was on the real world, what is practical and what is not and how companies can find it difficult to get their CSR balance right.  He cited the example of a company that sponsored a wine producing factory in China, where whilst there might be some worry about the working conditions and the production of the wine, this had to be balanced against the positive aspect of giving employment to local people.  

CSR has certainly moved up the agenda since Sir Malcolm was at the school and he recalled how Greater Manchester used to belch out smoke and pollution when he was a boy.  These days companies have to take their CSR much more seriously and, as a board member, he would expect to review the company's CSR on a regular basis and hope that they are producing a balanced scorecard in terms of what they take out of the environment and what they put back.  He said it is important that CSR issues are addressed at an industry-wide level as companies can be tarnished by association even if it is a competitor that is acting unethically.  He cited the fur industry as an example of one that did not act on an industry-wide level and suffered the consequences.  He did not want the jewellery industry to go the same way and his current company, Signet Jewellers, the world leader in their field, worked hard with competitors to ensure that their industry remained ethically sound. 

He felt some companies, such as clothes ones, could use CSR in their advertising but others needed to be careful, particularly banks.  Anyone trying to come across as super-ethical can soon have holes picked in them.  Sir Malcolm felt football was currently too tarnished for companies to sponsor and that it was the duty of FIFA's sponsors to pressure them into cleaning their act up in much the same way that Visa International did when they were sponsoring an equally corrupt Olympic governing body, whist Sir Malcolm was Chief Executive.  

Sir Malcolm also talked at length about mergers and growth by acquisition.  He reminded the audience of the long list of failed mergers and felt companies were often too obsessed with getting the right price at the expense of not focussing properly on due diligence.  "The devil is in the detail" and you need to know what you are buying. 

He also spoke about economists and how they do not always get their forecasting correct but they do at least attempt to introduce some logicality to the world.  Whilst he would listen to economists, in actual fact, he found that traders can often predict future prices much better than economists! 

Sir Malcolm was President and Chief Executive of Visa International between 1998 and 2004 before which he was Group Chief Executive of Standard Chartered PLC from 1993 to 1998.  He is now Chairman of the Board of Signet Jewellers Ltd as well as Chairman of National Australia Group Europe Ltd and Youth Business International Advisory Board.  He is also Chairman of Friends Provident Holdings (UK) Plc, a non-executive director of National Australia Bank Ltd and Friends Provident Group plc, a member of the Board of Trustees for The Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum and Chairman of the Cass Business School Strategy and Development Board. 

Sir Malcolm was also back at school to hand out awards at the School's Prizegiving event.  He had very fond memories of the school, although he recalled he spent the last few years of his time at the school living in Stalybridge and making the long commute over to Bolton each day.  To this day, his recreational pursuits are ones that he developed at school, mountaineering and a love of the outdoors, chess and cross-country.

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Sir Malcolm Williamson back at Bolton School

Sir Malcolm Williamson gave a fascinating talk about corporate social responsibility