Frank Horwitz: 'What I have learned is the need for tolerance'

Michael Prest meets Frank Horwitz, the new director of the School of Management at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire

Grey cloud hangs over Cranfield University. Frank Horwitz laughs when asked why he has left sunny South Africa to be the new director of the School of Management. On only his second day in the job, he is still trying to work out how his passion for cycling can be indulged in so inclement a climate. But he is also already thinking about the future of one of the UK's leading business schools.

Horwitz brings an unusual background to the task. Now 55, he was born and brought up in South Africa. After graduating with a BA from the University of Witwatersrand, in 1974 he joined AECI, the local offshoot of ICI, the chemicals giant, as an employment relations manager. The job included two years seconded to the parent company in the UK. But academia was already beckoning.

"I was always conscious, even when working in industry, that an academic career alternative was something that excited me. It was not a sudden decision to give up working in business and earning an honest living and make the transition to academia. It was a phased decision", he says. While at AECI he took an MA and a PhD studying part-time at Witwatersrand. Then in 1984 he joined the University of Witwatersrand Business School as a senior lecturer in human resources and employment relations.

International human resources management is his speciality. Horwitz has published widely in learned journals and books and is on the editorial boards of journals such as the International Journal of Human Resources Management. After Witwatersrand he joined the faculty at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, becoming director of the school in 2004. In all he spent 23 years at Cape Town, with spells at the Rotterdam School of Management, Nanyang Business School in Singapore, the University of Calgary, Canada, and Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

But relocating lock, stock and barrel to Cranfield has been a big decision. "It's not just a career choice. We've had to make important choices in terms of the family," he says. His wife, Dianne, had her own career as a pre-primary school teacher in South Africa. One daughter, 26, is staying in South Africa. Their son, 19, is applying to universities in the UK. Another daughter, 28, works in London and lives not far from Cranfield. She has just married a Brit. Horwitz laughs again: "We had to arrange a wedding in Cape Town a week before our relocation to the UK."

The way he analyses the move sounds typical. Horwitz is relaxed but measured. He dodges agreeing whether it is fair to describe him as deliberative, but he clearly deliberates well. He was coming to the end of his second four-year term at Cape Town when Cranfield asked him to apply for the job after the incumbent, Michael Osbaldeston, decided to step down. Horwitz had been thinking of taking time off to consider what to do for the rest of his working life, but "I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to be considered by a university, by a school, of this reputation."

What about the intellectual challenge? "There are two aspects to the intellectual challenge," he says. "The first is one's academic field and discipline. One of the things that excites me about Cranfield is that there is a critical mass of experts in my field. The second is the intellectual challenge of running the school. One of the serendipitous aspects of my coming here is that the first director of the school I came from was someone from Cranfield." The result is that Cape Town and Cranfield approach education in similar ways.

The question now, however, is whether what has served Cranfield well in the past will continue to do so in the future. Horwitz accepts that the economic crisis is a major challenge – he likes the word – for business schools. "One of the intellectual challenges at Cranfield is to find innovative ways of putting in place new opportunities, hew ventures, new programmes, as well as marketing the existing successful portfolio of programmes aggressively," he says.

A crucial part of the challenge is how to position the school internationally. Cranfield offers programmes in Dubai and Singapore and is strengthening its relations with Latin America and China. "This is a very important opportunity to increase the school's international footprint. Business schools have to make strategic choices about positioning, just like companies do," he says.

It is also important to reaffirm the school's intellectual weight. He is sensitive to the argument that business schools became too close to their clients during the boom. The conundrum is how to combine scholarly research and teaching with work that is pertinent – another word he likes – to practitioners, meaning business. "It is possible. It has to be possible," Horwtiz declares. "The relevance of intellectual independence is questionable if the work done under the banner of intellectual independence has no pertinence to the real world." That in turn could mean strengthening cross-disciplinary work in the school.

These are tough nuts to crack. But Horwitz believes his South African experience is valuable. "I have worked in diverse contexts and in complex contexts, having come from an emerging market like South Africa and dealing with the complexity of socio-economic transitions." Cape Town business school was in financial difficulties when he took over, riven by internal disputes and acrimonious relations with the university. Horwitz believes that his management approach of stakeholder consultation and involvement helped to turn it around.

"What I have learned is the need for tolerance and patience. Tolerance is not a value which is too common these days," he observes. Then he adds, laughing once more: "Having said that, I am a Leo and a Type A personality." But it seems to have worked. He is proud of seeing Cape Town rise into the Financial Times' top 100 business schools globally. Cranfield, of course, is already highly ranked. However, if the economic clouds loom as dark over Bedfordshire as the English weather, the school may greatly appreciate this compact, energetic director who has breezed in from the southern hemisphere.