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Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Interview with Gillingwater, Dean of Cass Business School

Published By: The Independent - 14 Jun 2007

Richard Gillingwater, the new dean of Cass Business School, has his sights set high. In five years time he hopes to be well on his way to creating "a Wharton in Europe".

This is a great ambition. Wharton Business School, at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the oldest, richest, most eminent business schools in the world, known for its innovative teaching and global outreach. Cass, in contrast, is a relatively low-profile UK business school which, after 20 years of quiet development, has only recently started to flex its muscles.

Yet the potential is there. The school, based since 2003 in a light and airy building just off Moorgate, has an excellent research record, an unrivalled specialist Masters programme and an expanding overseas profile. Its executive MBA is ranked 15th in the world by the Financial Times.

"Cass is a research-driven finance and general management school, in the heart of the City," says Gillingwater. "So it's very well-placed to be an intellectual hub for what is going on there."

However, he knows there is work to be done. The MBA programme needs attention, the alumni network has to be galvanised into action, and the world needs to hear much more about Cass's research and array of financial experts.
Gillingwater, 50, is relaxed and quietly spoken, and seems confident he can do it. "I've got a banking background and I've spent time in government so I've got good contacts in both the corporate world, and in government. A lot of my job will be out and about, raising Cass's profile in the City."

A lawyer by training, he spent a decade at Kleinwort Benson, before being made head of corporate finance for BZW, a division of Barclays Bank. When that became Credit Suisse First Boston, he was made chairman of European Investment Banking.

Then came a stint in government, setting up and later becoming chairman of the Shareholder Executive, which manages the Government's day-to-day relationships with government-owned businesses.

This was, he says, a great culture shock. Not only do the wheels of the civil service grind far more slowly than those in the City, there were also large and highly-sensitive political issue to handle. "Apart from the day job of managing industries like the Royal Mail and British Nuclear Fuels, we had to handle the Airbus negotiations and the collapse of Rover." Then there was the challenge of working with ministers, some of whom, he says, "might have come from the Planet Zogg". However, he has unstinting praise for Patricia Hewitt, then Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, "who understood the issues and had a good commercial sense".

After three and a half years in Whitehall, he was planning to return to banking when the Cass job came up and he decided to join the growing number of new business school chiefs who come from outside academia. "I think I was seen as someone with the capacity to stand back and look at things with an outside perspective, and of course I've been exposed to a lot of strategy setting," he says.

"I've also been a keen observer of business education. I did an MBA at IMD when I was 26, which gave me confidence with financial concepts and a fabulous collection of friends who have all done well in life. And I've recruited MBAs extensively, and sent people to business school, and even sometimes paid for people to go to business school."

As a result, he is clear in his mind what constitutes a good business education, and how Cass's programmes might evolve to provide what today's companies need.

"We have a very impressive array of specialist MSc courses, probably the best in Europe. Our students get snapped up. However, our MBA and EMBA, are much broader groups. We offer a general business approach for people, some of whom go into financial institutions and some into general management. But we may need to think about that." One possibility might be to tailor teaching more towards the skills needed by managers working in the "high-intensity people environment" of the professional services sector, or setting up a separate MBA stream to focus on this.

He is acutely aware of the growing competition, and the need to get one jump ahead of the burgeoning number of business school rivals. "We're in a benign economic phase which is good for student applications and numbers, and there is also a general trend towards more vocationally-based education. So every institution is seeing business education as something to get into and there is a great raft of pressures both domestically and overseas."

Cass's own overseas operations are expanding with the announcement earlier this year of the world's first executive MBA in Islamic finance. The programme will run in Dubai, in partnership with the Dubai International Finance Centre.

Meanwhile his first task is to get on the academics' wavelength. Cass has a great professional staff and the quality of what's going on there is exceptional, he says. "We have David Blake who has done the seminal work on pensions. And we have the guru of gurus in hedge fund industry, Harry Kat. There's no-one like him in the whole of Europe. But we need to get more people to realise what we're doing."

In future he wants Cass to be a research-led institution, working in partnership with corporations, and rooting its teaching in hard evidence and insights.

He also wants to bring Cass alumni together. He himself feels he got a flying start in life by going from Chesterfield Grammar School to St Edmund's College, Oxford. "Teddy Hall did a lot for me. I love that place and I've always tried to do something in return." Cass alumni, he is sure, feel the same, and will be glad to give back to the school, and also to enjoy drop-in clubs in major cities around the world.