Professor Paul Geroski

Applied industrial economist and Chairman of the Competition Commission
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The Independent Online

Paul Geroski was a leading industrial economist, from 1991 Professor of Economics at London Business School and from 2004 the Chairman of the Competition Commission. He was a big man in every way: large in stature, formidable in intellect, strong in opinions and charismatic in personality, yet simple and warm. His force of personality and drive led him to achieve much before his untimely death, but he will be remembered as much for who he was as what he did.

Geroski was born a New Yorker and, despite spending the majority of his life in Britain, he remained uncompromisingly American in tastes and manner. These ranged from a love for burgers and American football to an openness and friendliness to all, stemming from a deeply rooted sense of egalitarianism. Despite spending a life in or around academia, and achieving real academic distinction, this was no ivory-tower professor.

He commenced his higher education at one of New York State's leading liberal arts colleges, Bard College, where he read, thought, argued and lived prodigiously in the prescribed manner for students at such institutions in the early 1970s. He received grounding across the board - sciences, humanities, social sciences, drama and music - which provided the basis for a breadth of intellectual interest for the rest of his life, after his academic concerns had narrowed to economics. It was from this time that Geroski became a creature surprisingly rare in the contemporary academic world: a scholar.

He spent his junior year abroad in Manchester, where he met his lifelong partner Alice Sampson, who promptly disappeared for five years to sail around the world. For reasons that never became entirely clear, Geroski liked England so much he applied for graduate studies at Warwick University, and never returned to live in the United States. He was so gauchely American at that time, but had a fear of flying he did not conquer for many years - I used to argue that he was only in England because he was too scared to fly back.

It was at Warwick that Geroski identified his intellectual mission. He was one, perhaps the most eminent, of a group of economics graduate students working with Keith Cowling to apply the new statistical methods then being devised by econometricians in Britain and America to the traditional questions in industrial economics. These included understanding the relationship between the structure of an industry (in terms of the size distribution of firms) and its profitability and explaining why profits persist in particular industries for so long despite the processes of entry and exit.

Geroski was never a theorist, and was only concerned with theory in so far as it guided his empirical work. His method was resolutely econometric, and he discovered an unrivalled ability to sense intuitively the relationships in the data, and experiment across the range of econometric methods, both known and being developed, to find the ones that could bring those relationships into the light.

His first job was at Southampton University in 1977, as Lecturer in Industrial Economics. The Southampton Economics Department was quite large, with particular strengths in econometrics and modelling. There was also a vibrant group of young and irreverent academics trying to make a mark, collectively known as "kiddies corner". We competed and collaborated and worked. Mainly worked.

Geroski wrote dozens of academic papers in his years at Southampton, and established his reputation as an applied industrial economist. He was part of the group involved in founding a European Association for Research in Industrial Economics, and later became editor of its journal. He was also an awesome teacher, able to make the most complex issues simple and the most arcane arguments interesting. It was at this time that the mythical sailor Alice, in whose existence none of his friends believed, made a dramatic and permanent reappearance in his life.

He was a natural research collaborator. He worked immensely long hours, starting when most people were asleep, writing papers in the early morning, then reading voraciously for the rest of the day. Even so, he had more ideas than he could formulate alone, and he loved to develop points in argument. So he slowly gathered an army of collaborators - rarely because he needed the academic synergies, for he was fairly self-sufficient in technical skills, but because he was generous in spirit and liked the company. He was a great person to work with - ferociously organised and capable yet easy-going.

In 1987 Geroski moved to London Business School. This enabled him to build a passion for Charlton Football Club. But, as with everything he did, this was also a carefully evaluated change of gear, to attain specific purposes. He wanted to understand more about the functioning of the firms whose behaviour he had spent a decade scientifically measuring. He wanted to shift research emphasis from econometrics to more practical and policy work. Finally, always the pedagogue, he wanted to teach business students and executives.

Paul Geroski and London Business School proved to be a match made in heaven. His personal life also became fuller with the arrival of his two much-loved children, Rosa and Andreas. Geroski's research and academic reputation flowered in the early 1990s, partly because of the space and resources made available by John Kay's Centre for Business Strategy at London Business School and the School's Principal George Bain's careful nurturing of Geroski's budding administrative skills. His research began to address bigger and deeper questions. How did the innovation of new technologies diffuse through industries? How did incumbent firms manage to limit competition by preventing entry? How do competitive markets actually work?

In an environment of high-quality teachers, Geroski also quickly became a star. He compromised not at all in argument or style for the business audience. This was still the professor with the strong opinions, supporting government intervention and control over business abuses. And, to an audience in pinstripes and designer ties, this was the man in a rugby shirt and clogs, pacing the stage in his socks. But he had a philosophy for teaching economics in a business school; he could lead open debate to which all contributed while staying focused on his lecture plan; and he got people to learn and to understand. He could also regale audiences with stories about his children. In the classroom he was a phenomenon.

His love for teaching, and for students, led Geroski to accept the major pedagogic job at London Business School of Dean of the MBA. He was an inspired choice, bringing his usual combination of meticulous planning, charismatic leadership and absolute focus to the difficult task of combining scholarship with relevance in an increasingly crowded MBA marketplace. London Business School's current high position in the global MBA rankings was built on the foundations he laid.

By the late 1990s, Geroski was ready to make a further shift into the policy arena. He became a member in 1998 of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (which the following year became the Competition Commission) and loved the work. He was able to apply his technical skills and quality of mind to actual policy questions. He liked the range and variety, providing new challenges yet with deadlines to reach the solution. He liked working in teams and learning from others. Somewhat to his surprise, he developed a growing respect for lawyers. The work also drew on important aspects of his character that had been of less central relevance in his academic career - his fair-mindedness, his integrity and his passion for the less privileged who might suffer disproportionately from the abuses of monopoly power.

Geroski set his sights on a leadership role in the Competition Commission and was delighted when he achieved this in 2004, having previously been Deputy Chairman since 2001. One must be happy for him that he had the time to begin to shape this important institution in the way that he thought right. It is a tragedy that he did not have longer.

Saul Estrin