Showcasing the Best of Welsh Business

Cardiff Business Club Interview: Tim Parker, Chair of the National Trust and the Post Office


On Monday 10th April, Cardiff Business Club welcomed Tim Parker, Chair of The National Trust, Samsonite and the Post Office for what transpired to be perhaps the most informative, insightful and intriguing presentation of the last 12 months or more.

It was a lesson in sound business practice that is often only found on the lecture circuit. And, while Tim’s may not be the most familiar of names, his track record in successfully transforming the fortunes of some of the UK’s most recognisable organisations is unequalled.

Tim also took time out to speak with us before his address. During the interview he talked about some the key challenges he has faced in his career, the key traits he looks for when recruiting senior teams, and the single most important piece of advice he would impart on aspiring business leaders.

Tim Parker (TP) was interviewed for and on behalf of Cardiff Business Club by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins (PMC), managing director at Clearly PR & Marketing Communications

PMC: You have been chairing The National Trust for a few years, how does this role fit with your previous roles?

TP: I have been a CEO for almost 40 years and in 2014 I stepped down from being CEO of Samsonite and decided then to spend the rest of my career working for different organisations.

I wanted to become involved with a charity and the Trust was looking for a new Chairman, which was a fantastic opportunity for me. Essentially, I have moved from being full time CEO to having what many call a portfolio career.

PMC: You took over from former Times and Evening Standard editor, Simon Jenkins whose background is vastly different to your own – his being newspapers, yours being strong on the corporate side. Do you think the Trust was looking for a different style of Chair?

TP: I don’t think it was a conscious choice but I do believe that most organisations can benefit from having a different style of leadership from time to time. Hopefully I bring things that are slightly different to the Trust from what Simon was able to bring. That is a healthy thing to do.

PMC: Having around 20 million visitors a year and a workforce of over 10,000 must bring with it certain challenges, what are the biggest that you face?

TP: The Trust itself is a very large charity, and a complex one at that. On the one hand, we are looking after some incredibly important historic mansions and gardens, and on the other hand we have over 250,000 hectares of land that we are managing too.

People do expect a lot from The National Trust and we are responding to a lot of different demands. But I have been surprised at how well run the Trust is as an organisation – we’re about to reach 5 million members, so we must be doing something right.

We’re creating experiences, and the challenge for us to make sure that our houses are not too static – some people are interested in history, some in the architecture, others just fancy a cup of a tea and a wander around the gardens while others want to make a day of it and take an extensive look around the grounds.

We try to make the visits interesting – people want a little more these days, so we’re now telling different stories and making these stories relevant to a larger audience.

PMC: How important is digital in telling these stories?

TP: That is the next big challenge. There is nothing to say that the next generation of twenty to thirty something’s will have as much interest in Georgian architecture as those in their sixties or older.

You can present really beautiful things at all sorts of different levels, so regardless of whether you want to delve into the detail or simply get a snapshot of something, then digital will let you do that.

PMC: Whilst at the AA, around one third of the 10,000 staff lost their jobs – a move that saw you subsequently dubbed the ‘Prince of Darkness’. It is a tag seems to follow you around since then, but is it a fair one?

TP: We faced quite a few challenges at the time. The key thing to understand about turnaround management is that there is always a cost-cutting element to it.

But fundamentally, you cannot say that a business is properly turned around until it is growing again. And you cannot create value in a business unless you can create a real growth platform.

The challenge of creating sustainable growth is there for every business, and a lot of the work that I have done recently is to take companies that have not been performing to their full potential.

Managing a significant change can attract a degree of criticism. Honestly speaking, most people in the business will see that their interests in the long run are aligned with the company’s ability to grow successfully and profitably.

Providing you explain clearly what you are doing, people will understand that what you are trying to achieve is actually good for them.

For me, turning things around in a race against time to make them fundamentally different and fundamentally better is both incredibly interesting and exciting. You have to make decisions quickly and rely upon your own judgement, which for me is the most cutting edge element of management.

I truly believe that being a CEO of any organisation is the most interesting job there is, because it has everything in it.

PMC: In an interview with Management Today, you said: ‘If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that it is far harder running small companies than big companies.” Can you elaborate on that?

TP: When I started out, I was given small companies to run with generally small market share. Big businesses tend to have stronger market positions and that is the one element of any business that is hardest to control.

For instance, when you have a 5% market share against three companies who each have 20% share, it is an incredibly hard environment to operate in. When you are a leading company in your sector, your market position is such that you are able to change the company internally.

So when you have to fight against bigger competitors in addition to striving to improve the internal workings of the business, that is really tough: it is hard to push a large company off its pedestal when it has a 30% or so market share.

PMC: When it comes to appointing senior positions, does having large business experience necessarily make someone a better candidate? Is there a ‘type’ of leader or does the nature of the industry itself call for different personality and leadership traits?

TP: There are two elements to this – are you are leading an executive team, or if you are looking at a Board level role?

For executive, of course you will want people who are experts in what you want them to do. Fundamentally they need to be team players, if they’re not it simply won’t work no matter how good they are.

That is also true when it comes to Board appointments to a certain extent. But the key difference here is that you are often looking for a broad mix of skills and perspectives.

I am always looking for people who can make a distinctive contribution and are enthusiastic. I am less keen in having a Board of ‘delegates’ where each person is responsible for clearly defined functions.

Another key element is how big a Board is.

The larger the Board the more difficult it is to have a meaningful discussion, so Boards of say 9 or 10 people are certainly more effective – it makes for a much better dynamic.

PMC: Given all the organisations you have represented, what you know and what you have leant, if you could pass on one single piece of advice to aspiring managers and business leaders, what would it be?

TP: Sometimes people think that the organisation is more important than the role.

What I mean by that is that I would encourage aspiring managers and business leaders to take on roles with smaller business rather than wait and be patient in the hope that something will come up in a large organisation.

Be prepared to take some risk when you are younger in order to get the chance to prove that you can do the job.

PMC: You dipped your toe back into the political waters as Deputy Mayor to Boris Johnson a few years ago, could we see you returning to politics anytime soon?

TP: I’m getting a little greyer nowadays. I am interested in politics, I do have views on a lot of things but I don’t have any immediate plans to return to politics any time soon – I have enough on my plate right now!

PMC: ‘Prince of Darkness’ aside, what would you most like to be known for?

TP: I like to see myself as someone who is good at laying down the foundations of success for businesses. If people understand that my role is fundamentally to create long-term success, which I like to think that my record shows, then I will be happy.

Most of the people that I have worked with will tell you that they would be happy to do so again, and one of the great enjoyments of managing businesses is having a really great and happy team running that business. I like to think that I have contributed to that too.