Matt Brittin, profile: Google's first line of defence in controversy over British tax deal

A former Olympic oarsman is the public face of the US search giant’s controversial deal with the British taxman, writes Michael Bow

Michael Bow
Friday 29 January 2016 23:25 GMT
Google's Northern Europe boss Matt Brittin leaves a British parliamentary Public Accounts Committee inquiry into tax avoidance at Portcullis House in London
Google's Northern Europe boss Matt Brittin leaves a British parliamentary Public Accounts Committee inquiry into tax avoidance at Portcullis House in London (Reuters)

Late in 1989, when Google’s current UK frontman Matt Brittin was nearing the end of his studies at Cambridge, he faced a dilemma about what to do with the rest of his life. The 21-year-old, who had just graduated with a degree in land economy and geography, had excelled at rowing during his days at Robinson College and wanted a job that allowed him to continue the life of a sportsman.

“I started work in property. I did that because I wanted to keep being a sportsman internationally and it was the only way to fund my sport,” he said in 2011. “When I finally stopped being sporty, I realised I wasn’t very good at property and I didn’t really enjoy it.”

Brittin has a British knack for understatement. He was more than just “sporty”: as part of the British rowing team, he took part in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and won a bronze medal in the World Rowing Championships the same year.

He also rowed in three Oxford and Cambridge boat races. Archive footage from the 1989 race – his last as a Cambridge blue – features an interview with him as captain of the losing eight, after a race marred by frequent clashes of oars and acrimonious post-race comments. “I thought the Oxford cox veered into us quite early and then quite hard,” said the self-assured Brittin, 6ft 3in and towering over the camera. “But it was just jostling for water, really.” He dismissed the official interventions as “a bit of dubious umpiring, I thought”.

Fast forward 27 years and, last week, Brittin was again facing the TV cameras. As president of Google’s business and operations in Europe the Middle East and Africa, the 47-year-old was forced on to the airwaves to defend a controversial “sweetheart” tax agreement between the tech giant and the Treasury.

Under the terms of the deal, the Californian business – which claims that its European base is in Ireland, a country with relatively low corporate tax rates – will make a one-off payment to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs of £130m, sparking criticism and further claims that the deal reveals Google’s undue influence over the UK Government.

Jeremy Corbyn asks David Cameron if ordinary people can pay the same rate of tax as Google

Rupert Murdoch accused the tech firm of a “brilliant new lobbying effort”, planting staff into government to knit a web of influence over policymakers. As Google’s highest-profile figure in Europe, Brittin has become a lightning rod for a growing tide of anti-Google sentiment from politicians and the public. Yet the man thrown into this sharp spotlight has spent much of his life behind the scenes.

Although he is of the same generation as many government ministers – at Cambridge he was a contemporary of both former deputy PM Nick Clegg and the current Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands – his ascent to the top looks as accidental as that of many of the political classes was calculated. Born to middle-class parents in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 1968, Brittin was educated at the local independent Hampton School. A teacher who taught Brittin said he always took his studies seriously. “He was a really good bloke,” the teacher said. “As a sixth-former he was always positive and committed and he was always very well prepared. He did a lot of rowing at the school and we always assumed the rowers were pretty well organised.”

He won a place at Cambridge and, after graduating, worked for six years as a chartered surveyor but kept his oar in by rowing semi-professionally. Eventually, though, like many former athletes, he channelled the passion and commitment that had fuelled his sporting career into a new obsession, this time as a tech champion.

He quit surveying and rowing and took the plunge into the corporate world with an MBA at London Business School, the same year he got married, to Kate Betts, a lawyer. They have two children. After graduation he won a place at the prestigious consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. The strange omertà of former McKinsey staff mean little is known about which companies he worked for, but during his seven-year stint he seemingly morphed into something of a tech strategy guru.

Former colleagues say he was always the consultant that businesses wanted assigned to their work because he was bright, hard-working and exceptionally good with people. He never seemed like a careerist, these colleagues say, but instead pursued things he was truly passionate about. He was well liked, and said one, a “great guy”.

Brittin has said his biggest career mistake was accepting a job he was offered immediately after McKinsey. He was appointed as director of strategy at the Daily Mirror publisher Trinity Mirror in 2004 to head the group’s advertising and marketing efforts, at a time when a slump in circulation was providing newspaper executives with a major headache. The move was out of character for Brittin, a man who follows his heart rather than his head. “At the point I was about to start my job at the newspapers I was approached by Google and turned them down... My biggest personal mistake was not going with Google three years earlier,” he said.

He was eventually made Google’s UK director of sales in 2007 but jumped up the ladder quickly, becoming managing director for Google UK in 2009, then vice-president for northern and central Europe in 2011. He was recruited to the board of Sainsbury’s as a non-executive director in the same year, bolstering his corporate profile.

Brittin’s accomplished TV and radio performances early in his tenure – defending Google’s Street View feature after complaints from homeowners – caught the eye of his bosses in California, Eric Schmidt and founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. He was made vice-president for Europe, Middle East and Africa in 2014. A reshuffle had him promoted to his current role as president.

Since taking the reins of Google’s UK operations, he has used his commercial nous to foster a culture of salesmanship at the company, bringing more closely together the tech side of the company – most of the company’s 1,000 staff in London are software engineers – with the smaller marketing and sales arm. It’s these people who bring in the money, and Brittin has helped them to flourish. He says his rowing background helped him to bridge this organisational gap, by building a single team. And his strategy has worked: sales revenue from UK customers has soared to £4.6bn – although without a corresponding increase in the company’s UK tax bill.

No doubt the energy that once used to drag him out of bed at 5am for freezing winter training on the river has played its part in his success. The former Olympian still cycles 22 miles three times a week to get from his home to Google’s offices and back. He does Pilates to help with a bad back, and has used a stand-up desk.

Now he has been drawn into the public eye again, but over a tax feud. The revelation that ministers held 25 official meetings with Google between January and September 2015 has fuelled accusations that Google’s relationship with the Government is too cosy. The backlash at the tax deal – which some say amounts to a taxation rate of only 3 per cent – presents one of the biggest challenges of Brittin’s career.

Rowing revealed a capacity to commit unswervingly to a cause. That cause is now Google. The coming weeks will test his commitment to the full.

Matt Brittin: A life in brief

Born: 1 September 1968, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.

Family: Married to lawyer Kate Betts and has two sons.

Education: BA in land economy and geography from Cambridge; MBA from London Business School.

Career: Junior partner at consultants McKinsey & Co in 1997. Commercial development director at Trinity Mirror Group in 2004. Joined Google in 2007 to run UK operations, rising to president of Europe, Middle East and Africa in 2014.

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