Interview: Robert Heller

Alistair Schofield speaks to Robert Heller, journalist, commentator and the author of more than 50 books on management and business strategy.

Having worked as a business journalist and commentator for more than 50 years Robert Heller has met and interviewed many of the ‘great and the good’ on both sides of the Atlantic.  In this rare interview, Robert describes his fascinating career and provides an insight into the people and experiences that have shaped his thinking.


I believe you studied history at Cambridge, so what attracted you to journalism, and to business journalism in particular?

“When I left university I had two objectives; I wanted to write and I wanted to get married.  The only way I could afford both was to get a job as a journalist.  At that time, the National Union of Journalists was very powerful and would not allow the direct recruitment of journalists from college except under special circumstances. The Financial Times was deemed special and duly recruited a cadre of very bright young people.  I joined the FT as part of that now celebrated intake and, as a result, found myself working on a business newspaper.”

Having established yourself in journalism, did you not then feel the urge to move away from such a business-oriented newspaper? 

“In my early years at the FT I was promoted quite quickly, so I didn’t much feel the urge to leave. I did start looking around, but I was suddenly offered a fantastic opportunity.  The FT asked me to become their US Correspondent.  The paper had gone without an American staffer as a false economy. So at the absurdly early age of 26 I found myself the sole correspondent for the whole of America.  It was absolutely fantastic as I was able to write about virtually anything.”

What persuaded you to return to the UK?

“My father’s health was deteriorating and I wanted him to be able to spend more time with his latest grandson, who was born in America (and now lives there), so we returned to the UK in 1961.”

“Again I was lucky. The FT had appointed its first Woman’s Editor, the admirable Sheila Black; she and others were seeking to soften its approach and become more human.  The great Editor, Sir Gordon Newton, made me his gossip columnist, which suited my writing style perfectly.”

But you left the FT shortly afterwards to join the Observer?

“As a youngster I hero-worshiped The Observer, so when the opportunity arose to join their staff as Business Editor I took it.  I was not particularly suited to the job as I had to catch up on my knowledge of finance and the City, but it worked out better than OK.  However, the job really didn’t meet my earlier expectations.  It had great writers but equally great problems in coping with a fast-moving new world in Fleet Street.  The famous joke at the paper was that ‘the Editor’s indecision is final’. This partly offset the genius which David Astor, a wonderful man, brought to his paper.  So I made a decision for myself’.

Was it then that you left to start Management Today?

“Yes.  I was approached by a consortium of Haymarket Publishing, the Financial Times and the Economist to become Editor of a new business magazine called Management Today.  I initially turned the offer down, but was persuaded when they offered me things like complete editorial freedom - and a large salary.”

“We launched the magazine in 1966 and, unusually for a magazine of any type, it was an instant success.”

Why do you think it was successful?

“The strongest competitor at the time was The Director, which was a more traditional business publication.  The vision I had for Management Today was that it should be a businessman’s all-round, high-class magazine.  The Haymarket stable included the glossy Town, and we used its fashion photographers to make the magazine more visually exciting.  The outcome was that MT went straight into cash surplus.”

“On the back of that success, Michael Heseltine asked me to help launch several other business publications; such as Computing, Accountancy Age, Campaign (all three huge successes), and so on; I even helped on the medical and car magazines.”

Despite all the success, you chose to leave Haymarket.  Why was that?

“Well, 25 years is a long time to spend anywhere. I wanted to spend more time working on my own projects.  One of which was an art gallery I had found long before while working at the Observer.  The Angela Flowers Gallery was losing money then and needed care and attention.  Up to that point I had written a lot about business, but never worked in a business which I part-owned. The gallery gave me the opportunity – in fact, the necessity – to apply some of my own rhetoric.  Fortunately it worked.  I had left magazines without a single regular source of income. So it was pleasing to see the gallery turn from loss into small profit.  It has since grown into a renowned multi-million pound international business with two galleries in London and another in New York”

“Another reason I left was books.  My first book “The Naked Manager”, a big success in 1971, had been followed by many others, and I wanted to write still more.  Writing books is very interesting as each new project takes you in a different direction.  You learn a lot – especially about what you yourself really think.”

The people you have interviewed, met and befriended throughout your career would read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of business.  Who are the people who have impressed you the most?

“When I was at school my history teacher was a man called David Roberts.  I regarded him as a genius, who saw the potential in everyone.  He treated his elite sixth-formers (the History Grecians) as true adults.  This is a philosophy I have carried with me throughout my career.  Unfortunately, a lot of managers treat employees like children and do not look for their potential, only their compliance.”

“I also learned a lot from the man I regarded as my mentor at the FT, Gordon Newton.  Two things he said that have stuck with me are: ‘Don’t be distracted by the personality, focus on the results and judge people by their contribution.’  The second was; ‘The only bastard you should ever work for is yourself, and you shouldn’t be one’.”

“In the early years of Management Today I came to know and admire many business people – for instance, Lord Weinstock at GEC, Marcus Sieff at M&S, Adrian Cadbury, and Leslie Lazell of Beechams.  I learnt a lot from all of them – and from some people I haven’t actually met, like Andy Grove of Intel and Warren Buffett, the super-investor.”

And what are the qualities you most admired in these people?

“With Weinstock the first was quickness of mind and the second sardonic wit.  Apart from being bright, they were all hugely knowledgeable about their organisations, their industry and the economy.  This enabled them to make solid decisions and keep far ahead of the competition.”

“The second is what I would call ‘concentration’, they might have referred to it is ‘focus’.   They all had the ability to commit their total energy to the key areas of their business.  I see too many chief executives being distracted by things such as the share price.  This is not to say that finance is unimportant, but it is not a differentiator.  Concentration also resulted in all of these people seeing or anticipating the moves of their competitors; they were therefore better able to defend their turf and grow their businesses.”

“Finally, although they all had a thorough grasp of their businesses, they were all, in their best days, prepared to change.  Lots of CEO’s know their businesses, but today’s grasp can easily turn into tomorrow’s miscomprehension.”

You have previously written about the inevitability of established businesses declining.  In your view, is this a result of CEO’s failing to recognise the need for change?

“I don’t think it’s that people fail to see the changes, more that they become risk-averse and fear abandoning what has worked in the past.”

“The irony is that profit is the reward for action.  So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when a lack of change – inaction – results in falling profits.”

Which business writers do you admire the most and why?

“Two of my favourite current management writers are Americans – Clayton Christensen and Peter Senge.  My all-time favourite gurus are Peter Drucker, who became a greatly admired friend, and W. Edwards Deming.”

“The thing that set these people apart from many other business commentators is that they didn’t propose any all-encompassing theories, they simply told it like it is.”

“The fact is that life cannot be summarised as a simple set of rules; it’s far too complicated for that and it’s always changing.  Unfortunately, all-encompassing panaceas do seem to be popular and certainly sell books, which is why I so value the objectivity of thought that each of these people brought to the debate.”

Do you feel that most dogmas are wrong?

“It’s not that they are necessarily wrong.  They generally have elements of truth about them.  My problem is that as soon as something becomes recognised as a philosophy, it becomes a rigid process that implies that we can use a set of rules to determine the outcome of a given situation.  Life is not that simple – which is why I wrote my latest but one book, The FusionManager, in praise of paradox.”

What future trends do you see emerging in business?

“In recent times we have seen the success of big formal organisations working on a ‘one size fits all’ business model, I believe that technology is now enabling organisations to maintain strict accounting policies at the centre while giving individual business units the freedom to work on a ‘fit for purpose’ basis locally.  For example, Google maintains strict controls over its business finances while providing its people with a large degree of freedom to find new ways of making still more money.”

Doesn’t this trend imply that the traditional top-down management approach will have to change?

“Absolutely.  The top-down approach assumes that those at the top do the thinking and those at the bottom do the doing.  In my Fusion Management model, a well-run business is one which treats everyone as if they were the CEO.  It’s what I call the ‘free-range business’ coming hard up against the fateful Cult of the Chief Executive – the two approaches are totally incompatible.”

“On a more negative front, I believe the backlash of conservatism (with a small ‘c’) has been surprising and could well hold us back against an emerging pan-Asian economy.  If the West is to compete successfully, its managers will need to be far more ambitious – and more skilled.”

Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.