View From the Top: From politics to PR

Conservative MP and former Shadow Chancellor Francis Maude talks to Richard Carpenter about a hectic life in politics and the business challenges that lie ahead as he settles into his new role as Incepta group chairman

It is only just past 9am but recently appointed chairman of marketing services group Incepta, and ex-Shadow Chancellor Francis Maude is already onto his second meeting of the day when he meets PRWeek.

Maude likes to keep himself busy. Very busy, in fact. Incepta will require some five days a month, although he has been 'putting in more than that' since taking up the post at the end of February. He is also chairman of Prestbury Holdings, an AIM-listed financial services group, and deputy chairman of Benfield Group, one of the world's biggest independent reinsurance intermediaries.

In between all this he has various charity interests, chairs the Jubilee Investment Trust, and is actively involved in two think tanks - Policy Exchange, which he founded with former Asda chief executive and Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells Archie Norman, and Conservatives for Change, which he chairs. He also happens to be MP for Horsham.

Despite the busy schedule, his wife believes that he has become much better at juggling his work/life balance. She is comparing it to the days when Maude was a young minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, with a marginal constituency to defend and a family of five to raise.

'I was working about 120 hours a day - I mean, a week,' Maude hastily corrects himself, admitting that 120 hours a day is an exaggeration even for an ex-politician.

But Mrs Maude has not yet had much of a chance to find out how the Incepta role will tip him back towards his old work habits. Certainly, the excitement of the back benches has waned. 'After a time your appetite to wait around half the day to make a ten-minute speech that no one will read, to a House with three people, dwindles somewhat,' he says.

Maude explains that when the Incepta opportunity came along he thought it would be interesting to have the chance to become more heavily involved than just chairing board meetings. He sees his initial role as getting to know the different parts of the business and then, longer term, helping to ensure they form part of a cohesive whole. 'There's always a difficult balance to be struck between allowing the different businesses the maximum autonomy they need to flourish while focusing on the synergies of being in the same group. You have to ensure that when a client hires an Incepta company, they're tapping into a greater critical mass of knowledge, creativity and experience - not just that particular business,' he says.

So what does he think he brings to the Incepta boardroom table? Well, politicians tend to know a thing or two about publicity and the media, for starters, although Maude maintains that he has never been particularly publicity hungry. But he does feel that he has an understanding of the media and says that he likes journalists 'as a breed' - partly because both his father and grandfather were eminent journalists in their own right. He steered clear of the life of a scribe and trained as a barrister before going into politics.

Business matters

His first real contact with marketing services stems back to when he was in the Thatcher government and became involved in the advertising and awareness campaign for the Single European Market. Later, he was responsible for the second BT share sale and found himself working with financial PR agency Dewe Rogerson - now merged with Citigate and forming a large part of Incepta.

But it is his business background rather than political experience that he thinks will be more important in his new role. Maude spent five years as a senior investment banker for Morgan Stanley - between being voted out of the House in 1992 and his return as MP for Horsham in 1997 - and spent a lot of time on new business development. Pressing the flesh and touting for business is something he finds relatively easy: 'I like doing it. Some people hate asking for business, but I like it.'

His experience at Benfield should also come in handy. It is a similar size to Incepta, with a comparable global spread and is very much a people business. 'That brings similar problems and challenges - how do you manage those people, how do you keep them motivated and creative?'. He believes there is scope for expansion in the PR side of Incepta and sees part of his role as ensuring that staff are 'out there' presenting their creative wares to the right people. He should certainly be able to help with a few calls. He brings contacts, lots of them, but he is careful to note he will not be involved in client work for Citigate Public Affairs.

Many people know a lot about Maude, too. But he does not think that his anti-euro stance will be difficult to square with his new role and is convinced that the business and financial communities have come round to his way of thinking: 'There was a sense that there would be a terrible penalty for the UK if we weren't in it. I think that sense has disappeared.'

What might be more difficult to square is his past criticism of spin doctors and their ilk. This is where Maude the politician comes alive: ignore the thrust of the question, turn it on its head; in fact, give it a bit of old-fashioned spin. 'I am a fervent believer that in politics and business there is a crisis of trust,' he begins, warming to the theme.

'People tend to routinely believe that politicians lie and there's a growing tendency for people not to believe what business is saying.'

Slowly, after a slight digression onto the business need for integrity and reputation as a fundamental asset, we edge round to some sort of answer: 'The purpose of people in the communications world has never been to try and persuade (audiences) about things that aren't true. It's persuading them about what is the real story.'

Powers of persuasion

Maude's good at persuading people. He is credited with being the first person to tell Thatcher that it was time to step down on that, now, infamous night of the men in grey suits in November 1990. He chuckles when quizzed about his role in her resignation, saying that he was just chatting to her Parliamentary private secretary Peter Morrison in the Prime Minister's outer office when she swooped into the room. Morrison gainfully volunteered that Maude had something he wanted to tell her - this presaging the arrival of the fully-fledged men in grey suits: 'It was somewhat above my pay grade to tell her she should go but, put in that position, the one thing that you have to do is tell the truth. I told her I thought she was going to lose (the next round of the leadership election).'

He has some good memories of his time as a minister under Thatcher and evidently still holds her in great esteem: 'She was transparently a politician doing what she did out of a high sense of what she thought was right.'

Maude does not rule out a return to the front benches should Michael Howard make the call, but does point out that politicians trying to make career plans are somewhat foolhardy. Still, being a trusted adviser of Howard at a relatively sprightly 50 might well work in his favour, despite his experience in the Thatcher government and in opposition. For now, he says that he is concentrating his efforts on taking Incepta back to the sort of valuation it enjoyed in the boom times. At the peak of the market it was around £600m-plus - today its capitalisation is more like £200m.

Whether Maude will be around at Incepta to see a return to those heady heights is hard to say. It may well depend more on the vagaries of the electorate - and Howard - than the vagaries of the market.

1990-1992: Financial secretary to the Treasury

1993-1997: Managing director of Morgan Stanley

1997: Elected Member of Parliament for Horsham

1998: Shadow Chancellor

2000-2001: Shadow Foreign Secretary

2004: Appointed chairman of Incepta

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