Sir Howard Davies. (the Andrew Davidson Interview)

By Davidson, Andrew | Management Today, January 2002 | Go to article overview
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Sir Howard Davies. (the Andrew Davidson Interview)

Davidson, Andrew, Management Today

It's an impressive CV: special adviser to Chancellor Lawson, controller of the Audit Commission, head of the CBI, deputy governor at the Bank of England and founding boss of the FSA. His City watchdog is now snapping at a multitude of heels, but is he happy?

The last time I met Sir Howard Davies he was on his way out of the CBI to pick up a plum job at the Bank of England: deputy governor. He was short, sharp, funny, terrifically bright, very ambitious but not, I thought, a man always at ease with himself or his surroundings.

He didn't want to be a civil servant, didn't want to be a management consultant, didn't really enjoy being a lobbyist for business interests -- hated his cramped, brown office at Centrepoint -- and, anyway, had never properly worked in business, wasn't sure he'd like reporting to Eddie George at the BOE either. Lighten up. Howard! What he really needed was his own vehicle.

Wish granted. Seven years later, aged 50, he sits atop the most powerful financial regulator in the world, the Financial Services Authority. It's a body he created in a building he's organised -- nice artwork, no brown walls -- with 2,000 staff that he's chosen, dealing with a host of problems that just might be difficult enough to interest a brain as pernickety and easily bored as his.

And is he happy?

Hmm. I can't really tell. He needs a new pair of shoes, though. Feet up at his desk, spinning in his chair as he talks, you can see his black loafers have worn through on both soles. I doubt he cares. Nearly [pounds sterling]300,000 a year in salary, but he isn't going to spend it on personal flamboyance, that's for sure. Likewise the knighthood. He accepted it but doesn't like using it and gets rather tetchy when I bring it up. But more of that later.

We meet one sunny winter lunchtime, just days before the FSA's full legislative powers were due to kick in (1 December). Light streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the organisation's glass-and-steel HQ in London's Canary Wharf. Up in the lift, out on the seventh floor, I can see Davies' distinctive bald pate off in the distance, bobbing over some papers at his desk, hemmed into the corner by a sea of pods in the vast open-plan office. Partitions are low, everyone is visible, everything audible. To work, you really have to focus beyond the hubbub.

Just like a newspaper office, really. I remember Davies telling me he'd always wanted to be journalist. He set up the pupil newspaper at Manchester Grammar School and, after Oxford, applied to join the BBC but was sidetracked into the Foreign Office, It looks like he's now going partway to fulfilling that fantasy, designing himself into the corner as editor.

He smiles ruefully. 'There is some truth in that,' he says. But, he continues, there is also a very good reason for the layout. 'The key supposed advantage of a single regulator is better flows of information and communication. The way to signal that is with an open-plan office. It's about approachability of management. People haven't got an excuse: if they want to see me or any of my MOs, they can't say: "We couldn't find you."'

Gosh, and I thought it just looked nice. That's Davies' style too, of course: he loves to banter, enjoys the off-beat, as you would expect from a man who is much more widely read and has a broader breadth of reference than most big organisation chiefs. But behind that, everything is thought out, every response logical.

And he is making a good point with the demotic design. One of the most frequent complaints in past City scandals (Robert Maxwell, BCCI) was that the previous, varied, financial service regulators - nine of them - just didn't talk to each other. They operated too much in their own closed worlds. Hence Davies was summoned by the new Labour government in 1997 to pull everything together into one streamlined organisation. He's chairman, he has three MDs and a chief operating officer splitting responsibilities beneath him.

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