A young school built on an ancient tradition

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Sitting in his expansive office in Oxford University’s Saïd school of business, Anthony Hopwood looks the picture of a business school dean and professor of accounting. Therefore it is quite surprising to hear him talk about the vagaries of UK high street fashion, from Miss Selfridge to Zara, with a knowledge that is arguably unmatched by any of his female MBA students.

“Retail consumption is extraordinarily interesting,” he enthuses. Which is one of the reasons why he has chosen to make consumer marketing a focus of research in the Saïd school’s marketing area. It took Prof Hopwood two years of searching to get the right man to do the job – Douglas Holt from Harvard Business School. “It took longer to find the person than to get the money [for the L’Oréal endowed professorship]”, he says. But finding exactly the right person has been key to Prof Hopwood’s approach to developing the school.

While some deans of rival schools argue – with some obvious justification – that the Saïd school’s sudden rise to fame is because of the brand of Oxford University, it is hard to overlook Prof Hopwood’s personal enthusiasm and his canny strategy for shaping the business school, which took in its first group of MBA students in 1996.

In particular, Prof Hopwood has been concentrating on developing depth of faculty in key areas – the Prof Holt appointment is a case in point – rather than breadth, appointing one body to every subject area. He has also put the emphasis on action rather than words. “We need people who understand organising rather than organisation, strategising, not strategy. We need academics who understand the nature of change, of action. We are building up real intellectual strength with people who understand management dynamics.”

Prof Hopwood’s enthusiasm is infectious. “I think the world of business is so interesting. By comparison most business schools are boring.”

In particular he is critical of most of the research conducted in business schools. “I am not interested in where the research is published but what it is about. [In many business schools] publication has become an end not a means.”

A man of extraordinarily wide-ranging interests – from modern art to modern technology – Prof Hopwood had taught for substantial periods at Manchester Business School, Henley, London Business and the London School of Economics when he became MBA director at Oxford. In July 1999 he stepped up to the dean’s job when the school’s second dean, John Kay, resigned. At the time the university was in turmoil over the new business school, faculty were disheartened and MBA students were in disarray. “For the first 18 months we had to focus on rebuilding the school,” says the dean, both within the university and with external communities.

When he left Oxford, Prof Kay had three priorities for the school, according to Prof Hopwood: to improve the pay of faculty; to merge Templeton College into the business school; and to gain greater autonomy from the university.

The incoming dean argued that improved salaries were a problem for the university, not just the business school – getting the best engineering and law faculty is just as costly as getting the best finance professors, he argued. The university has become “appreciably better” on salaries he says. “I can now operate at the market edge.”

Perhaps Prof Hopwood’s biggest achievement, announced this year, was the merger of Templeton College, the traditional executive education supplier, with the Saïd school. The deal involves a huge investment by the university – it has given Templeton a new college home next to the Saïd school as well as a city centre office block to finance the college (through office rental). In exchange Saïd takes over Templeton’s old home two miles outside Oxford.

As for developing a more autonomous business school, the third item on Prof Kay’s wish list, Prof Hopwood says that was the last thing he wanted. Part of his aim as dean has been to develop strong links with the rest of the university, encouraging physicists and philosophers alike to teach at the school. Oxford, he says, now has a face to the business world and the university is proud of it.

When Prof Hopwood quits the dean’s job in September 2006 there will be one thing he will not have achieved. “I have always had the aspiration that Oxford should be a knowledge producer, but that could not have been achieved in my time.” He believes only two business schools, Harvard and the University of Chicago, have actually changed the way businesses operate. His dream is one day the Saïd school will join them.

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