PROFILE: Nick Boakes, Friends Provident - Grandfield's Boakes returns to City roots

Back in the Square Mile, Nick Boakes still retains an international outlook.

Nick Boakes is back on home turf. Friends Provident's newly installed group communications director has spent much of his professional life not just within the Square Mile, but within the same few streets of it.

An agency man until now, Boakes's jobs at City PR firms Hill Murray and Ludgate were just around the corner from the Old Bailey and, while he escaped eastwards during a five-year stint at Grandfield, which he left at Christmas having risen to CEO, his new office is almost opposite the grim facade of the Central Criminal Court.

A professional life spent within the hothouse of London's financial district can make some people insular, but 47-year-old Boakes is still an internationalist at heart. He lives in Maida Vale and has a flat in Munich, where he spends all the weekends he can, using the Bavarian capital as a base to go walking in the Alps, half an hour's drive away. 'After a busy week in London it's a great place to just clear your head,' says Boakes.

He spent half of the five-month gap between leaving Grandfield and joining Friends Provident in Munich learning German. Rather than take a holiday, Boakes got to know the locals by helping out at a former client - European insurance giant Allianz. He was there at its AGM, where he witnessed the kind of shareholder activism that makes the recent revolt over management pay at GlaxoSmithKline look positively demure. The event, held in the Olympic stadium, was attended by some 5,000 shareholders and 30 members of the press, and was simulcast in English, French and Italian.

A Yorkshireman by birth, Boakes won a scholarship to study international affairs in Ottawa. A keen runner, he remembers the Canadian winters with a certain ruefulness: 'I used to run a lot beside the canal, only to come back with little bits of frostbite on the ends of my ears and icicles hanging off my eyebrows.'

After graduating, the scholar became an accountant, moving to London to join what was then Touche Ross. But he gave that up in 1985 to enter the PR industry with a post at Grandfield Rork Collins - the business which eventually became Grandfield after chairman Charles Cook organised an MBO from Saatchi and Saatchi, but which at the time was run by PR veteran Anthony Cardew.

From there he was recruited by Tim Trotter to join Hill Murray, another Saatchi-owned business, and was part of the team with which Trotter led an MBO in 1991 to create Ludgate Communications. Six gruelling years later, having helped build Ludgate into one of the City's most dynamic PR shops, he made a reported £200,000 from the £15m sale of the business to Interpublic.

Boakes reinvested the money in Grandfield, and retains his stake in the agency, with, he says, no immediate plans to sell.

For now his focus is on trying to raise the profile of Friends Provident, a life assurance, pensions and asset management firm founded by Quakers in Bradford in 1832, and which demutualised in 2001. Will he make anything of the FTSE 100 company's Quaker roots? 'It's too early to tell,' he says.

'The heritage gives a clear set of principles and guidelines to work from, but it's the application to the modern situation.'

It's difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about Boakes. In an industry which attracts its share of manipulative fast talkers, his gentle manner, paired with a slight stutter, sets him apart. If he has a weakness, it may be in delegating too readily. According to one PR colleague, 'he's not a pull-your-sleeves-up, hands-on practitioner'.

In his defence, Boakes says: 'While you are always responsible for the areas you look after, most of the people I've worked with are self-motivated - if you constrain that too much, then you don't get the best out of the team.'

Gay Collins, who ran the corporate division with him at Ludgate and is a founding director of Penrose Financial, describes him as 'a very good strategist, good at getting clients on board, and a lovely guy to work with'.

Trotter agrees: 'Nick is very calm; he doesn't flap when under pressure. I don't think I've ever seen him lose his temper in all the years I've known him. He thinks things through very carefully.'

And that's why Boakes left Grandfield without another job to go to. 'I was upfront in saying my plan was to be there for five years,' he says.

'Time presses on. By the middle of last year, having done 17-and-a-half years in consultancy, my very strong feeling was that if I was going to do the in-house job, which is what I felt I actually wanted to do, then I had to get a move on.'

With a spring in his step and one eye on the clock, Boakes has returned to the Old Bailey.

HIGHLIGHTS

1987: Director, Hill Murray

1991: Director, Ludgate Communications

1997: Deputy MD, then CEO, Grandfield

2003: Group comms director, Friends Provident

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