How WBS has been building business for 50 years

16 February 2017

  • Warwick Business School is celebrating its 50th birthday in 2017
  • It has undergone a huge expansion since its industrial relations origins
  • Luminaries such as Sir George Bain and Peter Doyle have lit up its past
  • A thread of partnering industry and business runs through school's 50 years

Today universities are under more pressure than ever to show their impact on the ‘real world’ but for Warwick Business School that was the inspiration behind its birth 50 years ago.

For two of the men behind the emergence of what would become one of the world’s top business schools had come straight from the National Coal Board – the statutory body that had been running the UK’s nationalised coal industry since 1946.

Hylton Boothroyd and Brian Houlden had joined the University of Warwick’s economics department from the board’s Operational Research Unit, an unlikely alliance that saw them split a year later along with Hugh Clegg - who was fresh from writing Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s industrial relations policy to deal with the country’s plague of strikes - to form the School of Industrial Relations and Business Studies (SIBS).

With Professor Houlden as its first Chair, the school plundered industry for its brightest minds. Clegg was appointed as the country’s first Professor of Industrial Relations in a decade when Britain was beset by walkouts and strikes culminating in the ‘winter of discontent’. Government ministers beat a path to what would become Warwick Business School (WBS) for the latest research from its Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU).

Such a tradition of influence and partnership with industry runs through the school today. Among the scholars and Professors assembled at WBS from all over the world are 10 Professors of Practice, plucked from the business world to keep students informed and the school embedded, as it always has been, in the ‘real world’.

One of them, John Colley, former MD of FTSE 100 company British Gypsum and now Associate Dean for the MBA, says: “We are not only able to bring that experience to the classroom but work with academics on research that has practical applications for business.”

Rapid change: A green field waits for the new WBS building that opened in 2000 

Under Professor Houlden operational and industrial research were the school’s unconventional strengths, as Professor Clegg’s unit quickly expanded, with SIBS setting up one of the country’s first degrees in Management Sciences, which is still running today.

Professor Clegg, whose trilogy A History of British Trade Unions since 1889 is still widely referenced today, became the head of the most-respected centre for industrial relations in the country. Even after his retirement, Professor Clegg would cycle in from Kenilworth to hear the latest research and thinking on his beloved topic.

This laid the foundation for the school’s growing research reputation through the 1970s and under Roger Fawthrop as Chair, Warwick’s custom for feeding research into first-class teaching grew. Fawthrop also added BSc Accounting and Financial Analysis to the roster, a course that has established Warwick’s reputation for the high calibre of its graduates in the finance industry.

Under Derek Waterworth, the school’s marketing expertise grew, a more traditional business area, but his tenure as Chair was cut short in 1978 by his son’s serious motorbike accident, which left him needing round-the-clock care.

Robert Dyson took over with the school now teaching 200 students on six degree courses, with 41 staff. Though with Margaret Thatcher now as Prime Minister the Government shunned Warwick’s industrial relations research and cut funding to universities, but Professor Dyson believes it was a blessing in disguise.

“The cuts turned out to be a driver for Warwick to seek new sources of income and in particular to enter the overseas market in a significant way, while many longer-established universities down-sized,” he says.

Under Dyson, the school’s partnership with the Department of Health and Social Services grew, something that has continued to this day with WBS leading the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care West Midlands five-year programme and even setting up an Executive MBA with Healthcare Specialism. Dyson also turned MSc Management and Business Studies into the Warwick MBA in 1981, now ranked the best in the UK and 20th in the world by The Economist.

Making waves: (l-r) Sir George Bain and University of Warwick VC Clark Brundin with Trade Union Congress leader Norman Willis in 1988 

Having been born out of the economics department the theme of inter-disciplinary research has run throughout the school’s short history with the 1970s seeing a range of joint degrees developed with the new Law School and an international business degree with the language department, even a partnership with the sports department was discussed.

Such collaborations continued under Thom Watson’s deanship. Professor Watson started the school’s link with psychology as Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, which continues today with the biggest Behavioural Science department in Europe.

Sir George Bain joined the school in the same year as Professor Watson, 1970, as part of IRRU and was struck then at the links to business and other departments at the University.

He says: “It was not a traditional business school; it was both more and less than a business school. It was a broadly based school, including both industrial and business studies, which was closely integrated into a traditional university rather than separate from it; and while relevant to the needs of companies, unions, and governments, it did not see itself as a consultant to, and, even less, as a servant of these institutions.”

By 1983 the school had established itself as a significant part of the University, but a report by the University Grants Committee (UGC) – the main funding body – highlighted problems that led to an overhaul under Sir George. He installed a programme of renewal and expansion that saw SIBS grow rapidly and re-named Warwick Business School in 1988, laying the foundations for much of its success today.

Dean's den: WBS Deans line-up in the old building, (l-r) Sir George Bain, Robin Wensley, Roger Fawthrop, Brian Houlden, Derek Waterworth, Robert Dyson, Thom Watson

By the end of the decade WBS had 100 academics in post, an MBA Teaching Centre, launched the Evening MBA course and in 1986 set up the country’s first Distance Learning MBA. Having started by packing and posting coursework to hundreds across the world it has grown into the cutting edge online version enjoyed by thousands today, which is ranked second in the world by the Financial Times.

The Full-time MBA grew under Deans Robin Wensley and Robert Galliers with Peter Doyle leading it. The Professor of Marketing and Strategic Management played a pivotal role in establishing the MBA as one of the best in Europe, heading it until his death in 2003. The Daily Telegraph obituary said: “Doyle was considered to be an outstanding teacher, admired for his rigour and perception.”

He was also in demand as a consultant, devising a strategy that turned little known Derbyshire chocolate company Thorntons into a worldwide brand, and was one of the first Britons to be awarded the Gold Medal of the American Marketing Association.

Professor Dyson returned for a second spell as Chair in 1998 and completed what Professor Galliers had started by winning accreditation from the European Foundation for Management Development’s EQUIS, making WBS the first in the world to be given the seal of approval from all three major business school statutory bodies, with endorsements from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the Association of MBAs already secured.

In 2000, with staff numbers nearing 400, a new building on Scarman Road was opened to house them. An extension quickly followed in 2002 under Howard Thomas, who also saw the implementation of my.wbs, an online platform for students far ahead of its time.

Mark Taylor continued the expansion, building a third extension and opening a base in London at The Shard, one of London’s most iconic buildings. He expanded the school’s portfolio of courses as well, adding the Doctor of Business Administration and Executive MBA run out of The Shard, while the school secured a prestigious contract with the Bank of England to train its staff.

“We have a history of innovation so The Shard is a fitting base in one of the world’s centres of finance and shows our spirit of enterprise and ambition,” said Professor Taylor.

As the school celebrates its 50th birthday it has unveiled a £30 million extension and embarks on a new chapter under Dean Andy Lockett.

Professor Lockett says: “Warwick Business School has been a pioneer in research and teaching over the last 50 years. Its success is due to the openness of the department to work across academic and practice boundaries and embrace change. It has always been much more than just a business school.

“I look forward to our next 50 years as we continue to build on the traditions and successes of our predecessors.” 

 

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