Me And My MBA: Tim How

The managing director of Majestic Wine tells Mary Braid how an MBA gave his world a boost
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The Independent Online

Can I get you a drink," asks the receptionist? An innocuous enough question, I know, but asked in the foyer of Majestic Wine's Watford warehouse, it makes you want to go a little mad and answer, "Can I have five please, and can you put them in a box so I can take them home and have them later?"

Can I get you a drink," asks the receptionist? An innocuous enough question, I know, but asked in the foyer of Majestic Wine's Watford warehouse, it makes you want to go a little mad and answer, "Can I have five please, and can you put them in a box so I can take them home and have them later?"

It's probably just as well that I stick with "No, thank you," because not only has the receptionist probably had the just-put-them-in-a-box response a million times before, but Tim How, 54, Majestic's managing director, tells me later that the consumption of wine on the premises is taken very seriously and is very tightly controlled. Clearly, no joking matter.

That might explain why every windowsill in the building is lined with bottles of Ribena and orange squash. No employee will ever be able to say they got sloshed because they were thirsty and absolutely stumped as to where to find something non-alcoholic to drink.

Eighty staff work in the Majestic warehouse and another 500 are deployed across the country running the company's chain of wine stores. Twelve years ago there were just 38 Majestic Wine stores; now there are 122. Majestic is a wine industry success story and Tim How shaped that success from the start.

How's career has come a long way since he decided to study for an MBA. Back in 1977, the business qualification was still rare in the UK and its worth not entirely agreed upon. The MBA is now ubiquitous - and, some argue, devalued as a result - but How remains a fan of the qualification that he believes has played a part in his own success.

How was five years out of Cambridge - he studied natural sciences - and already married when he decided to do a two-year, full-time MBA at the then prestigious (and now even more prestigious) London Business School.

"My parents were horrified at my decision," he remembers. "They got their idea of the MBA from the high-powered American business schools. They thought it would be terribly pressurised - a case study a night." It did turn out to be hard work, says How, but it was manageable.

Crucially, the broad-based management qualification did just what he hoped it would. When he applied for the MBA, he was already production, planning and distribution manager for a division of Dunlop but what he yearned for was more general management experience.

"I wanted to move more into management and I wanted more responsibility," he says. He wanted to be boss, I suggest. Yes, he laughs, you might also translate that as he wanted to be boss.

And indeed that's how it panned out. After leaving LBS in 1979, How went on to become marketing manager for Polaroid - the company that hosted his MBA summer project - then moved to freezer food retailer Bejam in 1983 and worked his way up to managing director before the company was taken over by Iceland in 1989. How and two other senior Bejam figures then bought Bejam's small wine store chain from Iceland and added to it two years later by purchasing the then modest Majestic chain.

"I took a huge drop in salary and considerable risk in order to grow something rather than manage something already there," says How. It has been a long time but he can see a connection between starting up a business of his own and working on a small business idea with another student - never commercially pursued - during his LBS studies.

That desire for a broader management role remains a big motivator of MBA students. "Before going to LBS, I could have just applied for jobs in other sectors," says How. "But without the MBA, I'm pretty certain that I wouldn't have been able to make the moves I did so quickly. On top of that I just found the study so enjoyable and stimulating. The MBA puts business in context."

One of the biggest differences between business school then and now, says How, is that there was more funding for MBAs back in 1977. His own fees were paid by a research body. Goodness, he even had a grant to help with living costs. "It didn't cost me anything," he says, adding that his wife - then an accountant with a top London firm - also kept the wolf some considerable distance from the door.

And in How's day, companies competed for the comparatively small number of MBA graduates. These days the MBA is no longer an automatic passport to a high-earning, high-flying career. "In my day there was pretty much no risk in the situation," he says.

These days most MBA students finance all or part of the course themselves. It can be very tough, especially where the student already has a family. As a member of the UK advisory board at LBS, How knows that finding the funds to study is one of the biggest disincentives to people who want to do an MBA. The fees for a full-time MBA at LBS are now £42,000.

How is keen to see more scholarships to help British students to study for MBAs. While it is heartening that so many overseas students rate the British schools highly enough to pay to attend them, How argues that it is important for the UK to attract home graduates into business schools. He's doing his best to get LBS's alumni interested in funding bursary and scholarship schemes.

Majestic's store employees are all graduates. Only one is currently studying for a part-time MBA, with Majestic sponsorship. How would be happy to see more. He knows it's a hard call but would still recommend it.

"What the MBA did was to give me a leg up into another trajectory," he says, as he strolls happily into the Majestic wine tasting suite where the Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina cupboard bears the name of a senior buyer called Matt. It's sad old Matt who has to go to Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina to do the tasting and buying.

Matt has a tough job, agrees How with a smile. But it's naive to think that working with wine - all the shop employees have to learn to be expert tasters - is all positives. Does How get wined out? Is there ever a time when he can't face another bottle?

"Never," he says before adding, "and even if I did, I'd be mad to tell you." Maybe LBS warned How way back in the 1970s of the danger of even slightly dissing his own product. If disgraced jewellery entrepreneur Gerald Ratner had ever done an MBA, he must have been off the day they taught that lesson.

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