Kai Peters is well aware that his new role as chief executive at Ashridge Management College comes with a few perks attached. A former stately home on a 100-acre estate in Hertfordshire is a stark contrast to industrial Rotterdam, where he was dean of the School of Management for six years before accepting the Ashridge job. On his first day in the post he could be forgiven for looking forward to spotting deer and jogging round the grounds as much as to the serious business of running the organisation. "It's a beautiful place," he admits. "But it's going to be a challenge for me here. Ashridge has a great reputation but it also needs to do more in the sales and marketing of itself. I'm looking forward to waking what is a sleeping giant".
Outsiders are certainly watching with interest to see how Ashridge's new boss - thought to be the first dean to cross from continental Europe to a UK business school - shapes his domain. Competitors point out that the management school is heavily dependent on income from corporate education courses at a time when budgets have been tightening and business schools have been looking at ways of boosting their position in ranking tables through more prestigious research. One academic with long experience of business school life says Ashridge has to decide how to sell itself in the future - as an academic institution or a centre for corporate education. Its new CEO, however, doesn't think the choice so stark. "Our strength is always going to be our closeness to business. There always has to be a balance between professional depth and academic depth."
It is over four decades since Ashridge transformed itself from the family home of the Duke of Bridgewater to a centre for management learning. The list of corporate clients is impressive, from Deutsche Bank, to the BBC and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. And while Ashridge's MBA programme is small, it attracts a steady stream of high flyers from a broad range of backgrounds.
Professor Peters points to the school's expertise in areas like virtual learning (there is a very well equipped resource centre which sells its services to clients), management consulting and to its research centre on business and society as evidence that Ashridge is at the cutting edge of management thinking. He is convinced, however, that it could do more to promote its research profile. "As I talk to people around the building it's clear that we have some very interesting experts carrying out research into areas which haven't had a lot of publicity. I'm hoping I can encourage them to collaborate, and to get more recognition for what they are doing at the moment."
Ashridge has no powers to award its own degrees and the MBA - offered as a full or part-time programme and as a consortium MBA for a group of German companies - is awarded by City university. So will the new chief executive try and speed up the process of receiving these powers from the UK government? "I'd like to see it happen, but it won't make a difference to the Ashridge brand. Customers build the brand."
The customers for the Ashridge MBA are a small but experienced group. They tend to be in their early thirties and may already have been on an executive education course at the management college. They - or their employers - are also willing to pay top prices. The one-year Ashridge MBA costs £30,000 - making it more expensive than Cranfield and only £12,000 less than a two-year programme at London Business School. Former students praise the small class sizes (around 30 in each group) but Kai Peters, who oversaw a huge expansion of the MBA at Rotterdam, believes the Ashridge MBA could expand without losing the personal touch. "We don't want to be huge but I do foresee expanding the MBA provision. I think there is an optimum batch size of around 60-65 students. We want to keep attracting experienced managers but we could do more to attract people in their late twenties, for instance."
There's no doubt that a big part of the new chief executive's job will be to look carefully at the financial health of the management college. The past two or three years have been lean ones for executive education as companies cut training budgets. Ashridge itself - with an annual turnover of £27m - is far from cheap to run. "We've done well to capture new business over the past few years and build the brand," he says, "but we need to keep growing."
Kai Peters' own background is a long way from the academic profile of some business school deans. "I've run MBA programmes at Rotterdam, so I'm not a business person being parachuted into academia. But neither am I an old-fashioned academic." A German citizen who grew up in Canada from the age of four, he returned to Europe in his twenties to run his family's publishing business. He also worked with IBM and Volkswagen before doing an MBA at Rotterdam and opting for an academic career. After graduation he stayed on at Rotterdam and eventually became dean of the internationally renowned school six years ago.
Now, with young children to settle in schools in the UK, he says he has no intention of making Ashridge a fly-by-night experience. "I'm hoping to be here for a good few years."
This may be his first day at Ashridge but a series of introductory trips to the college have alerted him to the need to streamline and improve its marketing efforts. "I think we could do more to sell ourselves and the special skills that people here at Ashridge have to offer." Listening to people's opinions will take up a lot of his time in the first few weeks in his new post. "Everyone must be seen to pull together and it's my job to motivate them. We should all be contributing to the Ashridge name. Perhaps even the chauffeurs who drive people here should have a card. It's important."
Regular jogs around the grounds are one indulgence he allows himself. But the businesswoman and chef Prue Leith, who chairs the Ashridge board of governors, would doubtless approve of his other form of unwinding after work. "I spend a lot of time cooking. All of us learned to cook at home because my mother was so busy running the family business", he says. So, does this mean that he returns home each night to cook the family meal? "I'm afraid that I like the firework approach of the special meal," he says. "I like going for glory."Reuse content