Hermes chief messenger waits for the next post

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Alastair Ross Goobey, who recently announced he is to retire as head of the Hermes pension fund later this year, looks remarkably different to recent photographs of him. Traditionally, he has favoured rather long locks. Now, though, he is sporting a rather modish crop. This, together with his tall, lean frame makes him look a bit like a schoolmaster, and rather a stern one at that.

"I'm a child of the sixties so my hair was always quite long," he explains. "But my hair fell out when I had the treatment (he was diagnosed with having cancer three years ago). And my friends said 'oh, it was never your crowning glory'. I was rather hurt by that. But I think it looks much better short."

Mr Ross Goobey's illness was a rare form of blood cancer called myeloma. "I only missed four weeks of work in seven months of treatment," he says. "So far, touch wood, everything is fine."

He says he saw no warning signs. "I didn't think I had any symptoms. But thinking back, I had a terrible outbreak of mouth ulcers. I went to see the doctor and he said it could be tiredness or that my immune system was under attack from something."

Still a sprightly 55, Mr Ross Goobey says the health scare has not made him want a sudden change of lifestyle though he has become a trustee of CancerBACUP, the information charity for cancer patients. "I didn't suddenly want to go up the Himalayas or down the Orinoco. What I enjoy is my friends and family," he says.

He also denies that the setback was a factor in his announcement last month that he will step down as chief executive of Hermes later this year and hand over responsibilities to Tony Watson, Hermes' chief investment officer.

"It's been in my plan for three years when we recruited Tony Watson," he says. "My bout of treatment probably delayed it by about a year. At Hermes, we have always taken the view that companies need refreshment at the top.

"After nine years (as chief executive), it is time for a change. It's the right time to quit when you are ahead. Succession is something chief executives do very badly. They begin to feel they are irreplaceable. But if that's true then it means they have not been managing the business very well.

"I've worked in politics and politicians are particularly bad at it. From Thatcher down, I've seen too many sad people who have not gone on their own terms rather than waiting until things go wrong."

For Mr Ross Goobey, the importance of getting the timing right is exacerbated by his reputation as a high-profile campaigner on corporate governance issues. At Hermes, the former Postel group which manages the pension funds of BT and the Post Office, he led a successful campaign which ended long-term rolling contracts for boardroom directors. Hermes was also at the centre of specific company shake-ups such as the departure of David Montgomery from Mirror Group.

Though Hermes is principally a tracker fund with £47bn of assets under management, it does have some active fund management interests. These have been buying stakes in companies such as Smith & Nephew (now being sold down) and Tomkins. In the past few weeks, it has also bought an 8 per cent stake in Caledonia Investments, the investment trust.

The drawback of all this campaigning is that Hermes, and Mr Ross Goobey in particular, has to be whiter than white. For this reason, he discloses his pay (£250,000 plus bonuses) even though he doesn't have to, as well as that of other directors. This caused a few headlines the other week when it emerged that three directors (excluding Ross Goobey) were in line for bonuses worth £5.5m.

It is also the reason why Mr Ross Goobey never claims any expenses unless he is travelling outside London. "It's a puritanical streak I think I inherited from my father," he says. "It's in the genes. If I take someone out for lunch, I don't claim it. I pay it out of my own pocket. I don't expect others to do it but for us (Hermes) to have feet of clay would be very damaging."

Indeed, it is possible that Mr Ross Goobey's reputation as a corporate governance crusader could frustrate his next ambition. Mr Ross Goobey wants to take on the chairmanship of a big plc. But what company would want Mr Corporate Governance crawling all over their pay contracts and demanding "best practice" left, right and centre?

"It's a fair point," he says. "Some might say 'anyone but Ross Goobey.' But I think only an unconfident chief executive would be worried about it. I'm not the Ayatollah Khomeni.

"My ideal role would be a two to three-day-a-week position as chairman of a large company. Not a fund manager – I wouldn't want to compete with Hermes. But a serious, big business."

Mr Ross Goobey claims a lot of people misunderstand the role of chairman. "The key parts are to manage the board, to mentor the chief executive and to be an advocate of the business to a wider audience such as shareholders, the public, the media and in the political arena."

He no longer wants to work full time, with the whole idea of leaving Hermes being to take life a bit easier. He says: "My particular enjoyment is music. I play the clarinet and the piano. I haven't had piano lessons since I was 10 and I'd like to do that.

"I'd also like to spend more time at my house in France and with my family (he has a daughter, 23, and son, 20, who are still at home)." He may also take in a few more football matches. He is a keen Bristol City supporter though he now tends to follow Arsenal as he lives in Islington. "I'm an adopted Gooner."

Mr Ross Goobey was born to be a fund manager. His father, George Ross Goobey, was a well-known City fund manager credited with developing the "cult of the equity" in the 1950s and 1960s. "I can't remember a time when he was not really enthusiastic about his work and I thought, 'well this can't be too bad'," Mr Ross Goobey recalls. "But I was aware I could be standing in the giant's shadow so resisted going into pension fund management for some time."

After being educated at Marlborough and Trinity College Cambridge, he started as a graduate trainee with Kleinwort Benson before spells at the Courtaulds pension fund and James Capel. Mr Ross Goobey describes himself as a "card-carrying Tory" who stood as parliamentary candidate for West Leicester in 1979. He joined Hermes when it was still called Postel in 1993.

Now, after three decades spent grilling company chairmans, he is looking forward to becoming one himself.