UK: HOW TO BE INDISPENSABLE. - HOW TO BE INDISPENSABLE - There's no question Sir Dennis Stevenson puts himself about, and by doing so in the right places the Pearson boss has created the 'portfolio life'. He chairs several organisations, is non-executive

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

HOW TO BE INDISPENSABLE - There's no question Sir Dennis Stevenson puts himself about, and by doing so in the right places the Pearson boss has created the 'portfolio life'. He chairs several organisations, is non-executive director of other top companies, advises the Labour prime minister as he advised to Tories in the past, and - above all - preserves his independence. Chris Blackhurst reports.

When, as expected, recession bites, one man in Britain will be in no danger of being washed out of work in a wave of redundancy. While others may see their jobs disappear, Sir Dennis Stevenson will prosper. He will do so, not by having a loyal or recession-proof employer, but by having several employers. He is the ultimate exponent of what we might describe as 'the portfolio life'. And he makes himself indispensable. So many organisations value his abilities that he lets them share him. They range from 10 Downing Street, where Tony Blair seeks his advice on issues from IT to the financing of the arts, to Pearson, the media group, to GPA, the aircraft leaser, to BSkyB, to Manpower.

No one gets all of him at the time. He whizzes round from office to office, meeting to meeting. It is a commanding performance, quite unlike that of anyone else in business. He is a one-man band, a company doctor, a fixer nonpareil, with an astonishing reputation, among politicians and the City and business, for getting things done. He is answerable to no one save himself. He does not have clients in the true sense; he is not a partner in a large service agency. If any label comes close to describing him, it is that of management consultant, but he is a consultant who is valued so highly by organisations that they almost invariably ask him to put their relationship on a firmer footing - to take a seat on the board.

Stevenson's list of past and present directorships and chairmanships just runs and runs. At present he chairs Pearson and GPA, serves as a non-executive director at BSkyB, the Economist, Manpower, St James's Place Capital and Lazards, advises the prime minister on implementing new technology in schools, and is trying to knock heads together for Blair on the funding of the arts. He is also advising the Law Society on how best to reform itself, and he chairs the Tate Gallery Foundation and the Sinfonia 21 orchestra. Until recently, he was chairman of the Tate's trustees and his strategic consultancy, SRU, which he founded with Peter Wallis, has advised such companies as Unilever, BAT and EMI. At 53, he is a millionaire several times over. He moves easily between corporate power-broking and social policy think-ins. He advises New Labour but once worked for former Tory minister Peter Walker. Both main political parties have wooed him to run for safe seats, without success. He remains avowedly apolitical, and this even-handedness has seen him become a bridge between New Labour and business - the person chosen to introduce the prime minister to key corporate figures.

'He is not like other businessmen we are close to, who are known to be Labour,' says a member of the Blair inner circle. 'Stevenson scores by not being anything. He is close to the prime minister. He's used, and uses himself, in a selective, discreet and serious way.' And, the Blairite adds: 'There is always that knowledge with Dennis that the Government needs him more than he needs the Government.'

In private, Stevenson is classically New Labour, talking a strong centre-left argument but remaining avowedly pragmatic - and commercial. He moves among some businessmen who doubtless have fortunes hidden in offshore trusts, beyond the reach of the taxman. Yet Stevenson is passionate in his belief that people, especially those like him, should pay their dues, so as 'to create a stable society', as he puts it.

To meet him is to be swept along on a mixture of familiarity and charm, self-deprecating one minute, unapologetically self-promotional the next. He is courteous without being pompous, authoritarian without being ridiculous. He does not power dress, eschewing Establishment pinstripes for more fashionable labels, and he is as much at home talking about his four sons and their passion for football as he is discussing the future of Pearson. It is this sense of being apart that has distinguished Stevenson's career and has been the bedrock of his success. He has never been anything other than an independent operator. He comes without baggage - a self-starter who taught himself, who relies on instinct when others reach for textbooks. He is the son of a Scottish farmer and an English mother who, after her husband died, returned to university and taught history of art. Stevenson, setting the pattern for his later balancing act, read both classics and economics at Cambridge.

But even a Renaissance man has to make a choice sometimes and, following university, Stevenson went into management consultancy. Within three years he had his own firm, with Wallis. From the outset, Stevenson exhibited a lofty disdain for the normal. While other firms were rushing after potential clients, he took it upon himself to research rates of employment of black people. He was 24 when he rang the Financial Times, a paper that he would one day technically control as chairman of its parent Pearson, and suggested that it publish his study. The FT did, giving it half a page.

News of Stevenson's report soon reached Peter Walker, then in Edward Heath's government and a minister who was always keen to seek advice from outside the stuffy confines of Whitehall. The patrician Walker and the earnest but confident graduate Stevenson took to each other. Walker asked him to look into youth affairs, which resulted in a report that was critical of the government's proposed curbing of pop festivals. Stevenson's report brought him a newspaper's accolade as 'Mr Pop'.

Walker asked Stevenson, then 26, to head the Peterlee and Aycliffe New Town Development Corporation, and Stevenson did not let him down. In what was one of the first big Japanese inward investment deals, he helped persuade NSK, the rolling-bearing maker, so set up in Peterlee, in the north-east, creating thousands of jobs. Stevenson remained in charge of the corporation from 1971 until 1980, after the arrival of Mrs Thatcher with whom the fledgling fixer and smoother of differences could not see eye to eye. Stevenson then moved away from what he calls 'public service' and developed a formidable corporate advisory practice. His stature increased with that of the people he worked with, such as Niall Fitzgerald of Unilever and Sir Colin Southgate of EMI.

Two events brought him out of the shadows of City and Westminster. First, as a non-executive director of Manpower, he sparked the Blue Arrow affair by drawing the attention of fellow directors to the extravagances of Tony Berry. The City, sensitive to accusations of corporate excess, turned on Berry and embraced Stevenson. His reputation was made as an honest broker, a firm negotiator who would not be swayed. This was later reinforced by the skilful way he steered GPA through a rescheduling of debt. It is a reputation that has stood him in good stead as companies have grown increasingly twitchy about being seen to behave properly. And it is a reputation he nurtures, making the point that he is dependent on no one and will not be bought.

The second event flew in the face of Thatcher, who had seen Stevenson as too far to the left. The trustees of the Tate decided they would exercise their right to have an outsider as chairman and turned to Stevenson. With Nicholas Serota running the Tate gallery and Stevenson controlling the funding, the institution was transformed - and it assured Stevenson's entree to the upper reaches of arts administration, where politics often collides with corporate sponsorship.

Stevenson's style was also suited to Pearson, where he has developed a rapport with Marjorie Scardino, its far from conventional chief executive. And Pearson fits Stevenson and his portfolio life. It gives him a foothold in finance, because Pearson hold shares in Lazards, the merchant bank, and a foothold in media, because there are few better bridges between business and politics than being chairman of the company which owns the influential FT.

Pearson also provides Stevenson with links to publishing (Penguin books and now Simon & Schuster), the leisure sector (theme parks) and broadcasting (Pearson has TV holdings).

It is also a company crying out for a fresh approach and, together, Stevenson and Scardino have delighted in cutting through bureaucracy and traditional - but often nonsensical - ways of doing things. In Pearson, Stevenson has, for the time being, found himself.


- I have never been employed by anyone - not since I was 24, anyway. One of the secrets is to be fearless. You know the saying 'a horse always knows when the rider is afraid'? That is true for business, as well.

- You can play too much at corporate politics. Just say, 'I may lose my job but I will try to do the best I can. If the worst happens well ...?'

- Make sure it isn't possible for a lesser man or woman to seize your clothes. Always establish a paper trail, to make sure others can't take credit for what you do.

- Develop a sharp eye for protective, back-stabbing politics. Stay out of it yourself, but make sure you know what is going on. When the rats are running for cover, you must ensure that, as captain, you know what they are doing.

Be ruthlessly meritocratic. If you are on top, you want people who will try and try again - who have got integrity and guts, and who keep on coming.


1. Get elected president of your company's trade association. It is unlikely you'll be fired, at least in your first term.

2. Suggest a cost-cutting redundancy plan - one you must see through yourself.

3. Start an affair with the boss's daughter or son.

4. Find out where the boss takes the family on holiday and 'bump into' them so the children can all play together in an 'out of office' experience that will summon pleasant thoughts of you when he surveys the room.

5. Befriend the consultants brought in to handle redundancies.

6. Make friends with an MP. No boss wants to risk a falling-out there.

7. Find out where the boss's spouse or partner works out or plays tennis, and send your partner round to make friends.

8. Buy the house next door to the boss. The guilt of sacking you, then having to see you every day would be too much. Or at least get your children into the same school as the boss's for the same reason.

9. Shoot for the top of the main trade union. The fear of a strike over a sacking will deter even the most hard-nosed.

10. Run a charity event, with lots of media coverage, ideally for the boss's favourite cause. No company wants to fire the one seen on TV handing over a cheque to, say, Children in Need.

11. Secretly examine the chief's private life,and casually hint at indiscretions.

12. Cover your desk and office wall with family pictures. Children's photos should only show them as little, adorable and dependent on your salary.

13. Mention at any opportunity the burden of your mortgage and school fees.

14. Express worry about your wife or children needing 'tests' for an unspecified illness.

15. Be the first one into the office and the last to leave.

16. Offer to play host to the company golf day - at your club.

17. Come down with a case of repetitive stress injury.

18. Offer to head the firm's task force on the 'millennium bug'.

19. Always look busy. Carry papers when you walk in the office, even when heading for the washroom.

20. Constantly suggest new products, even if they haven't a prayer. The boss will worry that one day you just might dream up the next big idea.

21. Offer to write the company's official history. You will meet the senior people, including former ones who may still have some influence.

22. Blow the whistle on a malpractice. Firing whistleblowers is a PR nightmare.

23. Offer to manage the company web site. Most managers are confused or threatened by the internet; you will earn immediate respect.

24. Suggest you become the person customers telephone or write to with complaints. It would be hard for them to be told later that the one who was handling their case has been sacked.

25. Stay sober, even (and especially) when your boss is drunk. And then do offer to drive the boss home - you might learn something.

26. Speak at a party political conference. No one wants to be suspected of firing someone over politics.

27. Make friends with an aggressive employment law firm and get the company to use its services. The bosses will be glad of the advice, but always with the unspoken notion that if anything happened to you ...

28. Leave sealed files on your desk marked 'Project X or Y'. Never explain them and always lock them away at night. Your boss will not be sure which arm of management you are working for and won't wish to upset anyone by putting you name forward for redundancy.

29. Don't be away from the office for any length of time: when hit lists are drawn up, it is much easier to insert names of people not in the office.

30. The final and best way to avoid the chop: become the boss.

Compiled by Alec Evans.

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