Henley Management College head confesses to Chris Blackhurst that he was labelled as "going nowhere."
1940 - Born in Derbyshire; educated at local grammar school. Left with three O-levels to become general engineering apprentice. Attended day release and evening classes.
1966 - Left industry to study for MSc degree at Bradford University. Went on to become senior fellow and lecturer in management school. Obtained PhD and two further degrees. "It was a period when I was defensive about not having a first degree, so I collected degrees".
1973 - Henley management College as a professor and director of graduate studies. "It was bliss compared to Bradford. It was an hour from London and only 35 minutes from Heathrow".
1977 - Seconded to Brunel University. As director and founder of the Special Engineering Programme. "I went to set up a department and ended up serving on virtually every committee of the university".
1990 - Invited to apply for job of Vice Chancellor; reached shortlist but withdrew his application. Returned to Henley as principal.
1992 - Sits on numerous government, academic and industry committees. Author of standard management text-books and children's books.
In the cut-throat world of business schools, Professor Ray Wild, principal of Henley Management college, is a strong candidate for king. In the two years that he has been in charge, Henley has been transformed.
When he took over in April 1990, the college, on the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire, had a place as one of the country's best known and longest established business schools. But that reputation was looking increasingly historic. While Henley was content to rest on its laurels - some of its course had changed little over 20 years - other schools were proving more flexible to the needs of business and more aggressive in their marketing. In an increasingly tight race, Henley was being elbowed out.
Today, while other business schools are suffering as employers take a long hard look at the value of courses, Henley is recovering past glories. This year, it will teach 10,000 managers worldwide; its MBA will be taken by 5,000 students in 92 countries; it has established subsidiaries or joint ventures in 16 countries around the world; it has become a market leader in distance learning; over 120 companies and organisations have signed up for its tailor-made courses; it is the first to establish a senior tier of business qualification - the doctor of business administration or DBA; and after years of neglect, Henley, which was once linked to the Henley Centre, the prestigious research company, is conducting research again.
The architect of much of this success is sitting in his large, first-floor office overlooking lawns sweeping down to the Thames. One wall is filled with a bookcase containing row upon row of management text-books. On closer inspection many of them are revealed to be works by Wild himself.
He is a tall, lean figure with a fierce, concentrated gaze. He confesses to be annoyed by that morning's Times, which failed to mention him in an article on business schools - despite interviewing him.
We start at the beginning. He was born on Christmas Eve, in 1940, in Derbyshire. His father was a clerk in the Calico Printers Association. "In those days," says Wild, in a still strong northern accent, "every textile town in Lancashire and derbyshire had a branch of the CPA." Later his father became manager of the local branch of the CPA." Later his father became manager of the local branch of the Co-op. Wild passed the 11-Plus and went to grammar school in Glossop. He showed no sign of what was to come, though, and left with just three O-levels. "I never was very good at school," he says, almost apologetically.
He joined Crossley brothers, the diesel engine manufacturers in Manchester, as a general apprentice. Mornings were spent in the drawing-office or on the shopfloor, learning the ropes and making the tea. Afternoons were for studying. One day and three nights a week he attended courses at the local technical college.
The idea that education was important after all began to take hold. It was, he admits, a complete change of heart. "It was like St Paul on the road to Damascus. My girl friend went to leicester University and I had other friends at local universities but I had chosen a different path, namely work. But I was acutely aware I ought to be seen to be successful." So the boy who had been labelled as "going nowhere" at school, knuckled down and won "loads and loads of prizes".
Unlike his contemporaries who were impoverished university students, he was also earning money. "It was a great advantage," he explains. "From the day I could drive, I owned a car. Even before I passed my test I had bought an MG 1500. It was a major factor. It meant that I could go to the Tech in Stockport 12 miles away quite easily. If it had been different and there was no car, I would not have done the journey so often." His discription is of an unrelenting, rhythmic existence. "I came home from work, changed out of my boiler-suite, drove to Stockport where I was in classes from six to nine, then home for an hour's piano practice before bed." Fortunately, he acknowledges, he was an only child.
Listening to the account of his academic progress one soon gets the picture: he was very good and he scored high marks in everything he did. It is not that he is boastful - although his pride is evident - it is more that he still feels as though he has something to prove. He is the don who did not take A-levels, who still bridels at once being described in the Daily Telegraph as "the professor without a first degree".
At 25, he married and won a scholarship to read for an MSc at Bradford University. He left Manchester and Crossleys behind and entered a whole new world. "I became converted to being a less useful human being," he jokes. "I moved from the wealth creation process to education." His wife earned enough money from her work as a speech therapist in bradford for him to indulge his passion for studying. He did not mix much with the other students who were mostly younger and unmarried. "Being married separated me out from the others a bit," he says. Whereas before he had enjoyed the advantage of earning money and studying, now he had the other benefit of not being distracted. "I was quite privileged to be able to enjoy being a student and have a degree of stability."
He got his MSc and more prizes. "I needed extra answer books, he puffs. "I wrote stacks and stacks. I wrote so much I developed callouses on my fingers."
In 1966, he left Bradford to join English Electric at Bootle, near Liverpool. But it was no good: he soon wanted to return to academia. Two jobs beckoned. One, a research fellowship at Oxford which paid little but carried a lot of prestige; the other, at Bradford paid more but lacked prestige. He chose Bradford. "Oxford was more prestigious and, because of my background, would have been a bigger achievement. But I would have had to convince the people there that I could do it," he says, with more than a little sense of regret. "I thought I couldn't convince Oxford so I went to Bradford where I was already known and had a flying start."
He stayed at Bradford for six years, won the national Whitworth Fellowship to study mass production techniques and taught in the university's fledgling management centre. In 1973 he went to Henley as a professor and director of graduate studies.
The move was, he claims, "a shot in the dark". He was leaving the redbrick environment behind and going to a self-financing, stand-alone centre that had no undergraduates and only catered for company executives.
Henley did not enjoy the best of relations with Brunel, its affiliated university, because, with its sumptuous premises 25 miles away in the rolling Oxfordshire countryside, it was regarded as superior in outlook. Whereas Brunel taught lots of subjects, Henley covered just one - general management.
Henley had been set up in 1946 to train executives for the coming industrial boom. When they came to choosing a model, the college founders ignored universities and decided to emulate what the Camberley Military Staff College was doing for army officers. For the first few decades of its existence, Henley was run along military lines. This gave it an advantage over universities and their management schools - one which Wild repeatedly stresses.
While they placed great emphasis on syllabus and curriculum with rigid lectures and exams, Henley treated its students as equals and taught by discussion, with one eye firmly on where the students were heading. "Universities are only concerned about input, through the curriculum," he says. "We're more concerned with output - what we're producing." and he adds: "More and more places are coming round to our thinking."
The Henley job meant not only leaving the safety of a university behind but also moving his wife and two young children south. The family sold their large stone-built house in the North for £16,000 and bought a smaller house for £36,000.
"We left a close, mutually supportive community in a Yorkshire village for a so-called village in the Thames Valley. It took a lot of getting used to. My wife was used to people dropping round for coffee but now she found it had to be arranged two weeks in advance." And, he adds, in a low, still shocked whisper: "Where we lived, we interviewed the babysitters. Down here, they interviewed us."
It was the turning-point in their lives. "My wife and I are the only members of our families to leave home," he says. "Our parents still live in the North. My wife's sister has not left her local area."
He would, though, never go back. "It's nice to visit. But I was offered a job in Manchester recently and turned it down." And in a swipe at the parochial outlook that can come from living in a closely-knit community, he says: "My wife and I determined that provided we could afford it, we would bring up our own two children with an open view of the world." His children have since travelled extensively and the family has homes in France and Spain.
"I keep asking my father-in-law if he wants to come to Spain but he always says they will do what they've always done and go to their caravan in Rhyl," Wild says, and raises his eyes heavenward. "When I ask, "Why not Spain?" his reply is, "Because the people there speak Spanish."'
The divorce from the university system was shortlived. Three years after joining Henley he was seconded to Brunel to start a new type of engineering programme. The Government was worried bout the lack of engineering students and invited five universities to bid for funding to teach a more business-related course.
Wild won. His next task was to persuade schools, more used to sending their pupils to Oxford, Cambridge and London, to think of Brunel. He did so by adopting the old trick of setting such a high price that the consumer believes he is getting something special. He set deliberately high entry requirements: two A-levels at grade A and one at grade B. "I is ironic, I know," he says. "I'm living proof you don't need two As and a B to get on."
The ruse worked: students put Brunel ahead of Oxford and Cambridge. But Wild was not finished. He persuaded the university Senate to allow his students to start a week earlier, "which had the effect of further differentiating them from the rest of the university and making them seem special" and bombarded employers and organisations - it was a sandwich course - with publicity material.
On their first day, students were ordered to bring along an ordinary artefact to study. "I took a lot of stick from my colleagues. I remember at one Senate meeting being harangued by the Professor of Psychology who asked, "Since when did people learn by communing with a vacuum cleaner at night?"
But, he says, "as soon as they saw we were filling places with the grades we were asking for, they were converted. It was a high-risk strategy that worked quite well." Wild went on to chair 26 university committees before finishing up as Pro-Vice Chancellor.
In 1990, he returned to Henley. He could have stayed at Brunel and become Vice Chancellor but 'it's a hell of an awful job - so political. I was approached by the Court of Governors for Henley who persuaded me to come back. Henley had lost its way a bit. There was a job to be done. In the late '80s, business schools went through a boom. It was an easy period. But Henley had not moved forward; it had languished."
He revamped the courses, made them more suited to the needs of clients and changed the whole mood. Out, for example, went the previous two-tier system of senior and junior staff and in came a much more open, participatory atmosphere. The college's buildings may have been beautiful but they were cracking and falling apart, so Wild is spending £500,000 a year on refurbishment.
As to the future, he intends to extend Henley and make it the first-choice supplier of its type of courses "and remain sane in the process". He has his houses abroad, he renovates old cars and he says, somewhat shamefacedly, he writes children's books.
Children's books? At this point he searches among the learned volumes on the shelves and produces A Car Called Maurice, A TV Called Sammy, A Telephone Called Tim and A Clock Called Kate. What started as pieces of fun for his children have been translated around the world and - yes - have won him still more prizes.
He volunteers the information that he hates the introduction he's frequently given at conferences: "Our next speaker has four degrees, has written nine text-books and has written five children's books - so he must all right." Secretly, you know, he love it.