Oration given on 21 July 2010
Chancellor, on behalf of the University of Essex the Alumnus of the Year Award is presented to Deborah Baker.
Chancellor, I fear that you and the audience may have heard enough from me already, but as the alumna of the year is a graduate from the department of History, I have the great pleasure and privilege to talk again.
Deborah Baker has been chosen as the Alumna of the Year for 2010 for her contribution to the Human Resources industry and for the value she places on helping the individuals for whom she is responsible to realise their full potential. Since December 2007 Deborah has been Director for People at British Sky Broadcasting group, or Sky for short. She leads Sky’s human recourses team, and that holds one of the most significant HR roles in the UK, overseeing more than 10,000 Sky employees. Given this position, one might be forgiven for assuming that Deborah’s university degree was in something like Business Management. However, and perhaps to the surprise of many, this is not the case. Deborah actually graduated from the University of Essex with a BA in History and Politics, and her achievements and success since leaving Essex demonstrate the breadth of opportunities, linked no doubt to breadth of transferred skills, that degrees in humanities and social sciences provide.
Deborah was born in Yorkshire and she came to Essex more or less by accident. Initially she actually never wanted to go to university, but harboured the ambition of becoming a dancer. However, she changed her mind at the very last minute because she feared that she might not have it in her to become a second Margot Fonteyn, and through clearing, she gained a place in History and Politics at Essex, preferring it over Philosophy at Exeter. She chose history because she always loved the subject at school, and politics because she has always been interested in it. But she told me that she had had no idea how much work a joint degree would be, and in particular, how much reading it would entail. Despite the unexpected amount of work, she remembers enjoying her years at Essex and the modules she took over the three years of her degree. She concentrated on modern history and the most recent politics (most recent, when Deborah was at Essex, of course meant the 1960 and 1970s). Deborah’s BA dissertation was on Jewish politics, a topic with which she reconnected during her recent trip to Jerusalem. Deborah remembers with admiration the high quality teaching that she enjoyed from all her tutors at Essex and the two teachers who stand out most in her memory, a Dr. Fiona Venn from History and Professor Anthony King from the department of Government, and both of course are still very much present in their departments today. A colleague of mine in the History department who taught Deborah remembers her as very organized, efficient and collected, and someone who would do well in interview situations.
After her graduation in 1980, Deborah did not go on to a Master’s programme but went straight into work without a gap year or any other break. She wanted to see how society worked, she was intrigued by real life and wanted to see and experience real life in practice rather than study it. Like many graduates Deborah also wanted to make a difference, but in contrast to many of her peers, she felt she could make this difference just as well, if not better, in industry rather than in politics or charity work. 1980 was of course not a great year for jobs and Deborah was looking for a job with a company that offered some graduate training. At the end she had two options. ICI in the field of sales and marketing, and Ford Motor Company in the field of labour and industrial relations, as it was called at the time. To appreciate what it meant to have two options, one has to remember that these were actually the days when Essex graduates did not do terribly well in finding jobs in industry, and even less so, when they were female.
Deborah chose to join Ford Dagenham, but instead of a training scheme she started straight away in a job in industrial relations. It was sink or swim, and swim she did. She stayed with Ford for five years, moving on because Ford, highly structured and hierarchical as it was at the time, did not allow her to advance as quickly as she had the ambition to do. She moved first to the oil field services company Schlumberger and then to Grand Metropolitan, a company operating hotels, holiday and entertainment centres, public houses and casinos.
These jobs gave her further experience in the retail wholesale industry and she became increasingly interested in turnaround situations, which means going into a company with a team to improve its performance. The British jewellery company Ratner’s group, now the Signet group, was one such case with which Deborah was involved. The other was the wholesale food operator Booker, which merged with Iceland in 2000. Here she worked with Stewart Rose, now of M&S fame. In between, was a period as HR Director at Home Furnisher Laura Ashley. In 2001 she joined luxury fashion brand Burberry where she rose to Senior Vice President and Head of Worldwide Human Resources, and became responsible for all HR issues across the whole group. When Burberry announced in 2006 that it was ending production in South Wales, with a loss of more than 300 jobs, she oversaw the closure of the company’s factory, implementing HR packages which included setting up a job shop which offered training for other industries, a special loyalty bonus to the workers and £1.5 million payment to help the area deal with the loss of the Burberry factory.
In 2007 she was head hunted by then CEO of Sky, James Murdoch, to become Sky’s Director for People. Deborah told me that she is very happy with this particular title as she feels that accurately describes what she cares about most, the people of her company. She feels that the term human resources, or worse still the acronym HR, makes them sound like a technical commodity which is why she never liked this term. And I must admit, neither do I, I prefer this term. Deborah is passionate about making the company a great place for everyone to work. In her three years at Sky she has introduced a whole raft of new learning and development initiatives, as well as staff reward schemes. These include a senior women’s network, an interactive studio development website which allows mobile workers to access training whenever they need it, an extended apprenticeship scheme and staff service awards. Deborah had already introduced an all staff share award scheme during her time at Burberry, and at Sky she initiated giving each employee 100 shares to mark the company’s 20th anniversary. She also set up the so called Sky fests, family fund weekends, for staff in London and Scotland.
Deborah strongly believes that managing talent in companies is not just an isolated human resources concern, but needs to be shared between all senior board level executives in order to fully utilise the potential of all employees. She is committed to training skills and equal opportunities, and she is a board member of the broadcast equality and training regulator. In 2009 Cranfield University School of Management, a world leader in management education and research, identified her as one of the 100 women to watch. This a list of women who are currently on the executive committees of FTSE 100 or FTSE 250 companies and who are poised and ready for a board position.
Deborah’s career serves as an exemplar to today’s graduates. It illustrates what one can do with a History or History and Politics degree. Deborah received her degree at a time when the general economic climate was not too dissimilar to what it is today. She had to show flexibility about what she wanted to do after she got her degree. Her career demonstrates that if graduates have the intellectual wherewithal, the capacity for hard work and perhaps most importantly ambition, commitment and curiosity, they can rise to the highest levels of a wide range of professions. Deborah Baker receives today the Alumna of the Year Award, but I have the strong sense that we have not heard the last of her and this is but one step in many more to come. I for one am looking forward to hearing more from her and more about her.
Chancellor, I present you Deborah Baker