Before Heller, British managers could be classified largely as unsung amateurs, and the discipline they practised was barely sufficiently well understood or talked about to be regarded as a discipline at all.
After Heller, every national newspaper carried in-depth business coverage and the previously infra dig subjects of management, commerce and enterprise were well established as an intrinsic part of both the national and political conversations. In a world where the actions and statements of the likes of Apple, Virgin and Google – and their bosses too of course – are pored over hour by hour across the globe, it is hard to remember that this was not always the case. For this transformation in the profile of organisations and activities that so many of us spend so much of our working lives engaged in, we have Bob Heller to thank.
As Lord Heseltine, chairman of the Haymarket Group board and the man who was responsible for luring Bob away from his burgeoning newspaper career to edit MT in the first place, puts it: ‘Bob Heller was responsible for a transformational change in British publishing. He left a prestigious Fleet Street job as City editor of the Observer, to run an obscure, little-regarded trade magazine. He turned it into Management Today, one of the most respected business publications in the country.
‘He brought rigour of analysis, flair for presentation and an obsession with quality to a world of publishing where these qualities were conspicuously absent. Together with all my Haymarket colleagues, I will never forget the debt we owe him or the inspiration he gave us.’
And so say all of us. Here is Bob in an early editorial from MT back in 1966, on a subject which retains an entirely contemporary flavour in 2012 Austerity Britain: the question of whether government or business has a monopoly on best practice (or indeed on G4S-style cock-ups).
‘Politicians like to blame blunders on incompetence in the government departments concerned. But these explanations can only be partial. In business there may also be bad managers or administrators. But even good ones cannot function effectively in a poor environment.’
Former Observer management editor, now blogger, Simon Caulkin, who was hired by Bob and took over the MT hot seat from him, recalls: ‘He invented British management journalism and was a remarkable editor. He gave me two pieces of simple advice which I still remember – firstly not to believe anything until you see it with your own eyes, and secondly that what goes up usually comes down again.’
Nor is it solely – or even mainly – as the original editor of this august organ that we should remember him. Heller was extraordinarily prolific and influential on the business and management scene, headlining countless conferences and becoming one of the UK’s first ‘celebrity’ business commentators. There may not be a Heller School of Management but his legacy lives on in the generations of managers who grew up with his advice ringing in their ears, and in the books he wrote – 80 or so, at a rough estimate, many still in print. These range from classics The Naked Manager and The Decision Makers through to his hugely popular biographies of the likes of Andy Grove, Jack Welch, and Warren Buffett, to a host of practical advice-based titles looking at teamwork, communication, delegation – all the nitty-gritty of day-to-day management life which he never became too grand to tackle.
He also developed a broad hinterland in the world of modern art, as his widow, gallery owner Angela Flowers, explains: ‘Bob’s knowledge and love of contemporary art led him to fresh fields. He became an invaluable director of my gallery in 1971, supporting it and the artists generously for the next 40 years. His monographs on Derek Hirst, Peter Howson, John Kirby and others are wonderful. The cruel Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed ten years ago, meant that his world diminished but reading books on art was his last interest.’
Bob returned to MT towards the latter stages of his career, penning a column in the magazine for several years in the late nineties and early noughties, at which point he was still also publishing books at a rate which younger and supposedly more energetic hacks could only envy. In effect, he spawned an entire industry, and many a journalist, speaker and business thinker owes him their livelihood.
As MT’s editor, Matthew Gwyther, recalls ‘Bob was a great guy of enormous experience, and full of good sense and sound opinions. He also had a dry wit and was refreshingly free of rose-tinted spectacles. Despite his stellar career, he never succumbed to the temptations of nostalgia and was always interested more in the future than the past.’