Me And My MBA: Former students reflect on their experiences

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The Independent Online

David Pyott, chief executive of Allergan

It's hard to talk to David Pyott, chairman and CEO of Allergan, without casting surreptitious glances at his forehead. For a man of 50 in charge of a multi-national with 6,500 employees, it looks suspiciously smooth. And Botox, after all, represents one-third of his sales.

As he outlines his background - Glasgow Academy (no trace of an accent), boyhood on a sugar plantation in Poona, a degree from Edinburgh, another in German and European law from Amsterdam, and two years in the City with Kleinwort Benson - I double check the eyebrows. If they don't move, that's a giveaway, I'm told. And they're not moving much.

So why, all those years ago, did Pyott take an MBA? "I was 25 and decided I didn't want to be a banker. In a bank, big decisions have to go way up. You need grey hair and age. I've always enjoyed taking decisions. I'm really a marketer. I like creating brands and businesses. I like change." He plumped for the two-year full-time MBA at London Business School (LBS). "A lot of people who do MBAs want to make a career move. We used to refer to ourselves pleasantly as the 're-treads'," he explains.

"I'd just got married. LBS, at that time, was paid for by the Government and it was in the top ranks of European schools. The MBA was probably one of the best experiences of my life. I'm a mountaineer, so I'm a masochist as well. With no pain comes no pleasure, in my view.

"I felt I was deficient in mathematics and went through a pre-maths course before starting. I was convinced that I was innumerate, but I discovered I was the direct opposite." Though algebra and geometry remain mysteries, addition and subtraction come naturally. "If people can't get the numbers right at my level they've got a lot of trouble."

The course was designed to stretch people to the limit. "Anyone who was clever learnt that the only way you could get through the work was through a team or syndicate," he says. "We were put in assigned groups for a couple of weeks, then everybody chose their own work group.

"So the real learning output was group work, which of course, is like real life. If you think, as a senior manager, you can do everything on your own, it's kind of surprising you ever became a senior manager.

"I was also looking for the hard-skills toolkit, which was what I got in the first year: accountancy, marketing, finance - the building blocks. In the City at that time, there were a lot of old-boy networks and people flying by the seat of their pants. I'm uncomfortable with that. I like to feel well-versed and knowledgeable."

For his summer placement, Pyott worked for the consultants Bain and Co. in Germany. "It's a great company, but my final choice was industry rather than consulting," he says.

The second year was all about strategy and marketing. "The most valuable thing was the many and varied types of case studies. It was refreshing that different people had different solutions. The older you get, the more you realise that there are multiple answers to everything, and the knack is seeing the consequences."

Whatever LBS gave him, it worked. Pyott was swiftly hired by Novartis, a Swiss conglomerate, and rose through the ranks for 17 years before Allergan, a California eyecare company, headhunted him. He was only the third CEO in 58 years, but instantly reformed the business, astounding the founder by hiving off the eye-care division. He had spotted the potential of Botox.

Based on a bacterium called clostridium botulinum, it could stop an eyelid blinking, and Allergan had the patent. These days it does a lot of other things as well. "What most people don't know is that, last year, 57 per cent of the Botox sales had nothing to do with wrinkles," Pyott says. "It's all about movement disorders. With Botox, a muscle is being weakened or relaxed for benefit."

He has transferred manufacturing from California to Ireland, though the research is still done in America, and has set up his European HQ in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. "Everywhere I've worked in the world, the Scottish reputation is a good tool," he says. "People take you seriously when you say you need to save money. The first year, I asked for a 33 per cent world-wide overheard cut. That was greeted by bulging eyeballs (which was good for an eyecare company). I actually got 22 per cent. If you make people in bureaucracies very busy, they have no time to fight each other. The good people thrive on it because decision making is speeded up.

"Ever since the beginning, I never had any problem taking decisions. I could very quickly analyse my way through a situation. It's all about asking the right questions."

When Pyott was at LBS, half the class was British. Now, it's international. Pyott himself has lived in 10 countries and worked in seven. His advice to today's graduates? "Get an education and a good job, and regard that as the first rung on the ladder."

And so, the big question. Does he use Botox himself? "I've only used it once, about six years ago. It's about the same as pricking your thumb on a rose. I call California the land of fruits and nuts, but it's a great place to grow roses, which is what I do for fun," he says. "We have 10 months of summer."

Peter Brown

Antony Hichens, former chairman, DS Smith

'When it comes to management trends, I'm a bit of an old cynic'

This autumn, Antony Hichens relinquished his chairmanship of DS Smith, the UK-based paper manufacturer, and accepted that - at 71 - it might be time to take things a bit easy. Well, only a bit. He has every intention of staying on as a member of the takeover panel and as non-executive director of a couple of other companies - including a business he invested in when his neighbour bought the UK rights to develop a new kind of rowing machine.

"Its based on the blindly obvious principle that if you want to feel as though you're rowing, you need a machine that runs through water, which this one does, taking the rowing mechanism through a small, circular 'tub' attached to the front of the machine," he explains. "You can sit on it as though you were an oarsman about to set off for the Oxford-Cambridge race."

An excursion into the world of an entrepreneurial business such as WaterRower UK (now, as Hichens gleefully points out, making an annual profit of £1m a year) may be the kind of activity MBA graduates envisage for themselves. But when Hichens left the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s, graduates aspired to rise up the ranks of large corporations.

In fact, plans for UK business schools were still on the drawing board when he packed his bags for Wharton in 1963 and became one of the tiny minority of Brits to add the MBA to their list of qualifications. "In those days, studying for an MBA was considered rather an odd thing to do," he says. "I shared a house with someone who had been to Harvard. His experience impressed me and I was tremendously fortunate, because my employer agreed to give me two years off.

As it turned out, Hichens's time at Wharton helped propel him from an analyst's job in the mining industry to a series of more senior roles in the construction and mining industries, including finance director, managing director and chairman of public limited companies. The gritty and controversial world of mining was not the immediately obvious choice for an Oxford history graduate with two years of national service in the Royal Navy behind him.

After Oxford, he studied for the Bar, and a career as a barrister would have been the most logical choice. "I never had any intention of doing that. I joined RTZ [Mining and Exploration Ltd] because they were offering me the most travel. In those days, graduates wanted excitement and a company which would give you opportunities to be challenged."

Back in the Sixties, schools such as Wharton had a highly academic approach, concentrating on core subjects, including corporate finance and accountancy. The era of electives on everything from social entre-preneurship to ethics, now integral to business school teaching, was a long way off. But, argues Hichens, managers in the mining and oil exploration industries were aware of a duty to address ethical dilemmas way before the term "corporate social responsibility" had been coined.

"I can remember being deeply conscious of it. We started a copper mine at one point on an island among a virtually stone-age population, spending huge amounts of money, time and thought trying to help people live with the introduction of the industry," he says. "Mining and controversy go together. It would be nice to find gold in Hyde Park, but it isn't possible."

Teaching MBA students about ethics may, he concedes, be of value, but he believes experience and common sense count for more. "If there is one test for almost every situation - political or environmental or corporate greed - it is the 'smell test': if this became public, would I be ashamed of what I am doing?

"I'm a bit of an old cynic when it comes to management trends," he adds. "Not an awful lot changes, though the quality of people going into the system has gone up and business schools have played a big part in that."

As an MBA student, Hichens claims to have squeezed most of the value out of the course in the first year, and favours the European trend towards one-year MBAs, as long as students still get the chance to study one area of business in depth.

"Being in an MBA class with a group of tough young men and women teaches you all about competition, but whether it matters what you study is debatable. People waste too much time reading too many damned management books. I'd rather have something else on the coffee table, to be honest," he admits.

Hichens's own interests reflect his family's naval background. He collects naval paintings, some of which decorate the London flat that doubles as his office during the week. He studies naval history. And at his family home in Dorset, he played landlord to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of The River Cottage Cookbook fame, even appearing in a cameo role in the TV series Escape to River Cottage. But his passion for wine exceeds his love of food.

The urge to travel is still there; Hichens and his wife have managed to fit in trips to Antarctica and Vietnam. Too much finance, he insists, makes for a dull life. "I think broad intellectual interests are important in any leadership role. Coping with a business career while still reading, eating and drinking for pleasure - that's what really separates the men from the boys."

Kathy Harvey

Gemma Townley, author

'There are plenty of eligible men'

Gemma Townley's third novel, Learning Curves, the heroine stares up into the eyes of her future lover, blushes red and is struck dumb with emotion. Townley was inspired to write this romantic comedy, about an MBA student who falls in love with a lecturer, while she was studying at Henley Management College.

However, she stresses that all the characters are entirely fictitious. In fact, the MBA is merely the backdrop to what the publishers describe as a "rollicking" plot involving suits, sex and business affairs - hardly recommended reading for business students. But that doesn't worry its author. "I'm sure that some of my fellow students were tucked up in bed with weighty tomes on management fundamentals, but most people like a little bit of escapism," she says.

Townley decided to study at Henley while working as head of communications for the government schools inspectorate, Ofsted. "I realised I needed to be more strategic about the way I worked. It wasn't enough to rely on my natural talents as a writer."

Halfway through the course, she gained creative inspiration. "We did an integrated strategy project when you had to do an analysis of an organisation. It was like writing a story. We had a problem - which is how you start out at the beginning of a novel - then we had to explore all the options and reach a resolution. Business itself has plenty of suspense and intrigue." And it's not too far-fetched to suggest that the atmosphere of an MBA course is conducive to romance. "One of my fellow students hinted that one of the main reasons she signed up for the course was to find a partner," says Townley. "On an MBA you have plenty of men of eligible age, intelligent and likely to be successful, but all too busy to go out and meet anyone. Not a bad place to find a partner."

But writing a novel while dealing with management jargon was not without its problems. "I started to find the language very funny. People were spouting phrases like 'strategically focused core-centric offering,' which may mean something to the right person, but seems to have no regard for the English language," she says. By the time she came to write up her dissertation, on culture change in the civil service, she was " concentrating too much on the narrative," according to tutors.

Townley has now left senior management to pursue a career as a full-time writer and, it seems, the world of romantic comedy is big business. Only three books in and she is earning as much as she did as a senior manager. "Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction," she admits.

KH

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