UK: PROFILE - PETER JOB, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF REUTERS.

UK: PROFILE - PETER JOB, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF REUTERS. - Reuters' chief executive has escaped the kind of publicity the organisation subjects others to. Hashi Syedain supplies some data for its Textline service.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Reuters' chief executive has escaped the kind of publicity the organisation subjects others to. Hashi Syedain supplies some data for its Textline service.

Enter the name Peter Job into the Reuters Textline database and you will come up with a string of articles full of, frankly, peripheral references. It's one of those delightful little ironies that the chief executive of the world's largest electronic information company has never himself been fully 'written up' - and that, as a result, Reuters Textline, one of the world's largest on-line databases of past press articles, contains next to no information about the chief executive of the company which owns it.

The irony is not lost on Job himself. 'How funny,' he chuckles wryly, while later confirming the fact on the Reuters terminal that sits on his own desk. It is not, he adds, out of any active desire to maintain a low profile, or to escape the glare of publicity which an organisation like Reuters constantly turns on to others, but simply because no one ever asked him before. 'We're rather a collective leadership here. We act with a common purpose. People who run the company have been here a long time. The ship doesn't sway about too much and that tends to be non-newsworthy,' he proffers.

But despite the low profile of its top executives, plenty has been written about the company itself. Reuters, after all, is a household name around the world and a public company with a 1992 turnover of nearly £1.6 billion. Job (pronounced like the Biblical character) became chief executive two and a half years ago at what was a difficult time for the company. Its latest generation of dealing-room systems, the 2000/2 series, had been delayed again and Reuters' share price was in the doldrums. But Job has presided over a period of extraordinary growth in turnover and profits - July '93 interim results showed both up by over 19% - despite the world recession.

Moreover, the company has just taken the unusual step of returning £350 million of its vast cash pile to shareholders in the form of a buy-back of shares. It was a somewhat difficult decision to make, says Job, because there's almost a stigma attached to giving back money. There were two elements to consider, he explains. 'The first was a management decision - do you spend money because you have it or do you just spend as much as you see a reason to spend? We're a highly integrated company and own 100% of virtually everything we do. The prospect of sailing out into a new area was not an idea we wanted to pursue.'

But having come to that conclusion, he continues, the second part was conveying the message. 'You look a bit flat-footed or think you might look flat-footed or unmacho if you don't spend all you have. Actually it's completely illusory. Our investors would have been much more worried if we had spent it on something we had no competence in. But you have to get people used to the idea that your image is not affected. It may sound trivial but faulty handling of image can have an important effect.'

Concern about issues of presentation and image is not something for which Reuters is historically well known. In fact, the organisation traditionally had a reputation for introspection combined with a lumbering and excessive bureaucracy. Its top executives have always been picked from within and, like Job himself, are frequently men who have been with the company all their working lives.

'From the point of view of business experience it might have been useful to have worked for more than one organisation,' Job concedes. 'But personally speaking I've been to so many countries and had so many odd experiences that life couldn't have been fuller. Whenever I got itchy feet, Reuters came up with something else.'

It was a desire to travel that first attracted Job to the company when he left Oxford in 1963. With a degree in French and German, he took a trainee journalist's job at Reuters as 'the price for travel'. 'I was terrified of telephones, and still don't like them,' he confesses. 'I was shy and the best way to overcome shyness is to be a journalist.' He's softly spoken, a little chubby and, at 52, still has a slightly uneasy manner, which suggests that journalism was more a palliative for shyness than a complete cure. 'He gets on well with all sorts of people, but he can give an unwarm impression,' says Reuters chairman Sir Christopher Hogg. 'I suppose you could say he had a shortage of surface charm - but I'd rather have all his many virtues,' he adds. Most unusual, for a man in his position, says Hogg, is Job's non-defensiveness, his ability to recognise and address difficult problems and his willingness to listen. 'He's amazingly unassuming and non-pompous.'

Job's early years at Reuters were disappointingly dull - he remembers having so little to do that he would fall asleep at his desk, without eliciting a reaction. But despite this inauspicous start, he began to develop a keen interest in journalism. After two years of doing very little in London, journalists would be sent out as foreign correspondents. 'Everything changed - suddenly you were in the thick of it in a bureau that was usually short-staffed. It was rather like starving and then having all of your meals at once,' says Job. He married his English girlfriend, Christine, in a New Delhi church on his first posting abroad as number three in the city's three-man bureau. Next came bureau-chief in Kuala Lumpur and then to Jakarta. 'It was', he reckons, 'the most interesting part of my life until recently.'After four years in Asia, Job was sent back to London and it was there that, quite by chance, he made the transition to Reuters management. He was assigned to a special project providing information to the World Bank and got himself noticed as someone who understood complex economic issues.' There was no grand plan to get into management. Reuters in those days tended to delve into its journalistic corps for its managers. I just had the luck to do something unusual that got me noticed.'

The first rung on the management ladder was a posting to Buenos Aires as an assistant manager in the Latin American HQ - a persistent loss-maker, which Job was supposed to stop haemorrhaging money. It was, he says, a very formative time in his business experience, teaching him not just about cutting costs, but also about boosting revenue - a priority which has remained to this day.

He was in Buenos Aires in December 1972 when the plane carrying the Uruguayan football team crashed in the Andes and the survivors resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. 'We had that story first,' recalls Job. 'We got a long version and I thought, that kind of material would be a great offer to a newspaper or magazine.' He sat up all night translating the text from Spanish into English and then sold it to New York Times Syndication and made £3,000. 'It was very exciting. Reuters at that time didn't have a policy of syndicating for extra payment. In our impoverished state, it was a lot of money.'

For the next 20 years Job travelled the world for Reuters - Asia, Middle East and Africa - interrupted by periods in London. Inevitably, it meant sending his two children - a boy and a girl - to boarding school. 'But', he says, 'we always managed to have very good holidays and spent lots of money taking them to nice places.'

In January 1988 he was made MD of Reuters Asia and eight months later became a main board director of Reuters. Hogg recalls the casualness with which Job made presentations to the board. 'It was clear he'd only thought about it for five minutes before. It was endearing in a way. He was very close to the trees but didn't always see the wood. Being chief executive has enlarged him enormously.'

Job had climbed up the management ladder in what was a very exciting period for Reuters. The freeing up of international currency markets in the early '70s meant an explosion in opportunities for market information and transaction products and in 1984 the company was floated.

Although most people's primary perception of Reuters is as a news agency, only 7% of its turnover comes from the media division. Information products for traders, brokers, dealers and investors make up 75% and transaction products, which allow traders actually to buy or sell, account for the remaining 18% of business. All are highly competitive areas, but though Reuters has competitors in particular markets, there is no one that touches it across the board. As Derek Terrington, analyst with Kleinwort Benson, says, 'Reuters has always had little competitors. Its main way of dealing with them is buying them. Given its sheer size it's really up to them to help themselves.'

Nevertheless, the presence of young pretenders like the American financial news agency, Bloomberg, which has expanded very aggressively in recent years, has done much to sharpen up Reuters' attitudes. 'They had a reputation as a company that didn't have much awareness of customer service,' says one City analyst. 'Job has contributed to some obvious and conscious attempts to improve that.' Certainly what Job feels is his greatest achievement in the job to date is 'gaining widespread acceptance for the idea of not putting up prices'. Reuters has recently been offering upgraded services and add-ons, effectively for free.

Adding bells and whistles is very important in financial markets. Executives are constantly on the lookout for anything that might give them the competitive edge or save them time on mundane tasks. 'Routine activity will be fully automated,' says Job. 'A common currency deal will be at the touch of a button - it's already happening.' Does that mean the picture of frenzied young men screaming down phones at each other will no longer apply? 'Technology will never replace the skill of financially trained people in complicated deals. And you have to allow for the fact that people like it. Screaming is part of the game.' Generally speaking, though, financial market executives are among the most ready to accept new technologies. 'Technology holds no fear for them,' he adds.

In the media arena, too, Reuters also has several irons in the fire. Last year it bought the remaining shares in the international television news agency, Visnews, giving it 100% ownership. It also has a stake in Independent Television News and has been involved in bidding for UK radio franchises. And despite the buy-back, the company still has a war chest of over £250 million to finance acquisitions. 'We're on the lookout, mostly for smallish companies which don't attract much attention,' says Job. 'I much prefer it that way than to do a high-profile deal like Paramount and Viacom.'

As for his own position, after two and a half years, he's just getting to the stage when he's no longer working every weekend. Glen Renfrew, the previous chief executive, was in the job for 10 years until his retirement at 62. 'I will carry on doing it as long as I don't get in other people's way,' says Job, with characteristic understatement.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today