Me And My Partner: Robert McHenry and Betsy Kendall

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Robert McHenry, 53, tutored Betsy Kendall when she was a psychology student at Oxford in the early Eighties. In 1985, after their bicycles collided, they ended up starting a psychometrics and consultancy business. Today Oxford Psychologists Press has 70 staff and a turnover of pounds 7m

ROBERT McHENRY: I was teaching experimental psychology at Oxford and Betsy was unusually conscientious and clever. She'd come to tutorials having done everything I asked. The subject concerned theories of personality and intelligence, and she was immensely serious about understanding how this might be useful. She was brought up on a farm and to her everything had to be practical.

I lost contact with her for three years, and one day I was cycling down a road in north Oxford and she was cycling in the opposite direction. I steered across the road, and nearly knocked her off her bike. I said: "What are you doing now?" and she was working for a student broadsheet. I told her I was thinking of breaking away from my university work and applying psychology in a commercial way.

I was interested in social psychology and individual differences and there was a wealth of interesting work that hadn't been translated into action. I thought I could create a distinct, leading-edge consultancy, because everything in the field was 20 years old.

Betsy had retained an interest in psychology, so the idea gelled. That catalysed a lot of activity in the next two years; we worked from a room in my house and set up an embryonic business, focusing on team-building and leadership. I had saved money from my own moonlighting consultancy, and we had a lot of good blue-chip clients from the start, including Cadbury. We had a word-processor but no other machines; Betsy would go off and do the faxing and photocopying elsewhere. My father always said he wished he had started his own business. Both my parents gave me a tremendous amount of confidence, but it took me a long time to give up some of my comforts. By 1987, the business looked so organised that I gave up the lecturing part of my academic work. In 1988, I took out a 15-year lease on 5,000 square feet of office space; I remember Betsy being aghast at the risk. Privately, I was aghast too.

We researched, in a very painstaking way, the best psychometric testing instruments and came up with three. We decided to start our business by distributing those. We have since developed and published new styles of tests, for example to measure someone's ability without assuming any knowledge. You teach something and you see how quickly someone can absorb it.

We've tried to set high standards and refuse to sell our product to people we think would be unqualified to use it. Some have ridiculed us and said "You're not commercial enough". We have strong values - that's our brand. We pay a lot of attention to detail, which binds Betsy and I together, because we really want to make a difference and we're not prepared to sacrifice in the short-term.

There's a high level of trust between us and we have full and frank discussions. She questions and questions my logic, to the point where she produces a practical idea from my idealism. She's structured, amazingly efficient and prudent, and tells me off for suggesting over-spending. Betsy looks to me for optimism and enthusiasm - I can be inspirational and I stay cheerful.

I was slower to see her potential than I should have been. Other people pointed out that she was capable of taking on even more responsibility. She became group managing director last October. I'm very informal as a chairman, and people here don't stand to attention. I often work for Betsy. She gives me projects and I'll go off and do them. We're quite jokey but it sometimes gets a little heated. As soon as we've discussed something, Betsy will start on it and will be disappointed that I won't - she'll give me a right wigging, but we've never really fallen out.

BETSY KENDALL: I met Robert in my second year at Oxford; I had eight tutorials with him and we had a great time. I was impressed by how organised he was in comparison with others - he'd put together these leading-edge reading lists for people, and he was good at feedback. I found him inspirational, and enjoyed the way he challenged established ideas. I was industrious; I would get my work done before I would play, and I loved to go into whatever I was studying in depth and really get to grips with it.

After university, I worked for a student information broadsheet while I thought about what I would do with my life. I was learning new technology and, as it was practical, it was very refreshing. But I was beginning to tire of it and thinking "I need to get on now". I remember cycling to the place I worked and suddenly someone swerved into me. I nearly fell off my bike - it was Robert. He told me he wanted to start a company. I thought it would allow me to carry on studying and at the same time, do something practical, finding ways to apply what I knew and develop people.

We were fairly quick to grow out of a tutor-undergraduate relationship. He's good at encouraging people to be independent; we'd go along and work with managers and he'd give me a briefing before and then be confident about letting me go for it. He has a lot of trust in people's capabilities - occasionally that feels like being thrown in at the deep end.

Robert's interests have focused on seeing the way ahead for the business, in creating vision. I've become more interested in management, the challenge of practising what I have preached as a consultant for so many years. And of course it is a lot tougher in practice than in theory.

Taking an organised, decisive approach is a big part of me, but when I'm with people I've known for a long time, like Robert, another side of me comes out which is much more open-ended and interested in exploring all the angles. Outwardly, it is Robert who explores the options and is more emergent in his thinking, though he does not always communicate to people what he is thinking or how he gets from A to B. That comes out more when we talk one to one. One of our strengths is the degree to which we are prepared to challenge each other's thinking, and others would probably be surprised to hear how heatedly we debate issues. But we have always had trust and respect for each other, and we generally present a united front.

Our different styles of working have become a bit of an amusement. At the start, we'd have to work on a project frequently at weekends. My preference would be to work for three hours on Saturday afternoon, and Robert's would be for Sunday afternoon, which in his mind would start at 4.30pm. That would cause a little friction, but nothing serious.

We'll not infrequently have dinner together, though only to talk about work. Robert is very conscientious about being with his family, and he'll religiously cook a dinner for everybody on Sunday night. But we're friends, and we trust each other enormously - that's why we work well together.