Mark was “born in north east Scotland to English parents”. He was there because his father was a teacher and House Master at Gordonstoun School in the 1960s. The young Prince Charles was one of those in his care (which proved awkward when the future Prince of Wales walked into a local pub at the age of 15 and asked for a cherry brandy, the media lapped up the story). The Prince famously did not care for Gordonstoun but he “kept in touch with my parents for many years afterwards, sending Christmas cards on a regular basis”. From there Mark went on to Northamptonshire and not many years later the Isle of Wight where his father had become a Head Master. The combination of this somewhat nomadic existence and the fact that “I had an older brother and an older sister who had both entered teaching” meant that he was desperate to avoid a career in education later at all costs.
He did compromise on this conviction a little. His father had “an Indian colleague at Gordonstoun, who became my Godfather, and later returned to India to take up a position as Headmaster of a school there, so when I decided to take a gap year before university I headed there to teach and used the school as a base to travel around the country.” After that, he headed for Salford University to read Economics for three satisfying years.
At the conclusion of which he entered the milk round, a little half-heartedly as part of him yearned to travel again. His plans changed due to an odd twist of fate. “For some reason I chose to watch the Dimbleby Lecture on the BBC one evening. It was delivered by John Harvey-Jones, the then CEO of ICI. I was absolutely captivated. I decided at once that what I wanted to do was to work for ICI”.
Which is precisely what he did, landing a place on its prestigious graduate scheme. He moved to Surrey to become immersed in its crop protection division. This was a very international section. “It was fabulous. The training was excellent and there was lots of travel particularly to Africa and the Middle East. I thoroughly enjoyed my three and a half years there.”
After a while, though, he started to find the pace of the business a little predictable. Then he “bumped into someone who was a rep in the software industry. He made it sound fast-moving and new, so I decided to make what would prove to be the jump into the tech sector”. This was initially in sales for a company called Corporate Software which “provided me with a car with a car phone, which was incredibly cool in the early 1990s.” He decided that he wanted to learn more about the development end of the industry so switched to Central Point Software (an anti-virus provider).
The big move, in retrospect, came in 1994 when he was recruited by Intel where he would stay for a decade. The company was “not that well known when I arrived and selling chips seemed odd”. He started in their desk-top video conferencing division (about one pandemic and 25 years ahead of its time it transpired). It was “a fantastic means of experiencing corporate life in the technology industry and at a time when the Internet went from its infancy to universal”. Part of that explosion involved mobile telephones. It looked really interesting, so in 2004 he accepted a senior position at Vodafone. It was a “really wacky wild ride” with the sector expanding at a faster rate than it could often cope with.
Having found himself transformed into a tech person, he moved on to Seagate, then a giant data storage business. It was based in Silicon Valley but Mark found himself doing what he had long had an ambition to do, namely “running Europe”. He punched above his weight because he was “good at translating between the US and Europe, which is harder than many people think”. It was a fight for relevance and hence resources that he largely won.
The consequence of which was that he was approached to be the Global Consumer Business SVP, the only such figure in the company with real P&L responsibility below the CEO. Logically, this meant moving to the US to undertake his responsibilities. But “for family reasons I did not want to do that”. He was able to “secure an 18-month delay on full relocation”. This meant, nonetheless, that “I spent a lot of time essentially commuting between the UK and California, needing to be on the West Coast two or three times a month”. Although fond of international travel, one can have too much of a good thing.
At some point a fundamental decision would have to be taken, as a further deferral on relocation was probably not a realistic option. He and the business had been very successful and Mark had enjoyed the challenge immensely despite its inconveniences. Yet by 2015, he could conceive that some strong headwinds were facing the business. There were new technologies emerging that threatened its business model fundamentally. Not the least of these was the cloud in the sky that was literally The Cloud in the sky which offered a new and inexpensive means to back up data.
For the first time forward projections suggested that the company would be shrinking and not expanding. The “writing was on the wall”. Either he would have to move wholesale to the US and take on a different corporate agenda largely driven by cost-cutting, or leave and stay in the UK and find something else to do. That is how he found himself becoming a serial NED and Chair.
What Chair and NXD positions do you currently hold?
“I have quite a wide portfolio. I am Chair of three businesses. They are, in order of appointment, Simms International, a tech services company, ReaLife Tech, a venture capital backed firm enabling live events to offer a superior digital experience and Bibliu, again venture capital supported, an EdTech company which is digitalising content for universities. I am also an NED for Candy Mechanics in the consumer space and STEM Learning UK which promotes science based teaching in schools. I am also a Board Mentor for Critical Eye which is a training, support and networking business for C-Suite executives. Oh, I am governor of two schools concentrating on driving digitalisation in both cases. I am a former Chair of Codeplay, another tech company, and ex-NED of Total Mobile, a Belfast-based tech firm.”
What prompted you to explore NXD roles?
“A strong element of the accidental. After I left Seagate, I undertook some consulting which I did not find especially fulfilling.”
How did you get your first one and what attracted you to that particular organisation?
“The first one, although I did not think of myself as an NED at the time, was Candy Mechanics which a friend and investor in the business wanted me to help out with. It was literally a man in a garage creating customised chocolate. The more formal first appointment was at Total Mobile, a private equity backed tech business which wanted help in the sales function. My first role as Chair came about at Simms International which I thought I had joined as an NXD but when I popped out to the loo at the start of the first board meeting, I returned to discover that I had been elected as Chair.”
In your non-exec roles what has been the most useful part of your management career?
“Learning about and developing increasingly complicated stakeholder relationships. My time at Seagate was especially important in that respect.”
What makes a business attractive to you as a Chair or NXD?
“Has it got a potentially strong product in an appealing market? Can I bond quickly with the executive team and the investors?”
Give us the three biggest lessons that you have learnt from being a Chair/NXD?
“First, as an NXD you are exposed to about one-seventh of a business as a full-time executive is and you have to be comfortable with that. Second, the relationship with investors (notably if they are private equity or venture capital) is critical. Third, always remember why you wanted to do the job, make sure that you are adding value and enjoying yourself.”
What is the best experience that you have had as a Chair and NED?
“Being part of the turnaround and successful sale of Total Mobile was very rewarding. Although my current work with Bibliu as we move towards Series B funding may be equally memorable.”
What is the biggest problem that you have faced and did you and the organisation solve it?
“At one of my companies there was a deep and divisive clash within the board which I found myself in the middle of and having to mediate. We did manage to resolve those tensions in the end.”
What are the biggest challenges that boards (especially PE/VC backed ones) will have to deal with in the medium term?
“For the tech sector especially, they are how to ensure state-of-the-art ESG when compared with listed companies and how to promote diversity in every respect. Tech is still very white and male.”
What advice would you offer to those starting off on a portfolio career?
“Ask yourself if you are really ready to stop being an executive. Will you be frustrated by becoming an advisory figure? What is it that you believe that you will be bringing
to the company concerned? Recognise that it is a big change. Treat it very seriously. There are lots of aspiring NXDs out there.”