50th Anniversary: Sir Adrian Cadbury Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Sir Adrian Cadbury

Sir Adrian Cadbury

Born in 1929, Sir Adrian has led a truly remarkable life. He was Chairman of Cadbury and Cadbury Schweppes for 24 years, and was also a British Olympic rower, competing in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. However, he is perhaps best known for his chairmanship of the Committee on the Financial Aspects of Corporate Governance between 1991 and 1995 and the code of best practice which bears his name. 

His connection with Aston began in the 1950s, when it was a College of Advanced Technology. In his role at Cadbury, Sir Adrian forged links with the then Department of Industrial Administration (later Aston Business School), and, following the receipt of its Charter in 1966, he joined the University Council.

In 1979 he succeeded Lord Nelson as Chancellor, helping to steer Aston through difficult times in the 1980s when the sector was subject to funding cuts. After stepping down as Chancellor in 2004, Sir Adrian has continued his close relationship with the University and has helped to shape campus through his philanthropy.

In the 2015 New Year Honours list, Sir Adrian was appointed a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) for his services to business and the community, especially in Birmingham.

How did you first become involved with Aston University?

I was responsible for management training and education at Cadbury Bournville and we had a regular annual intake of graduates from all kinds of disciplines. What we needed was to assist those of them who were going to take management jobs, and what we found was that the best courses were given by the Department of Industrial Administration [at the College of Advanced Technology, Gosta Green]. 

I chaired a conference on International Industrial Relations at the College and I remember that Tom Wiley, who was in charge of the Department, was an excellent man. The great thing about the Department of Industrial Administration was that they had very up-to-date courses on the role of management in industry, and the great advantage was that, in Birmingham, we had these major companies like Lucas, Tube Investments, Dunlop and Austin Rover, so very good people came and talked to the graduates. 

But in addition to this, Aston was at the centre of research on industrial sociology; there was an important group under Derek Pugh that really established Organisation Theory, looking at what makes groups work effectively. That was very unusual and it also gave me an admiration for the work that the College was doing. 

Did you maintain your connections with Aston throughout the 1960s?

Yes, I was invited to join the Council of Aston, and from there I succeeded Lord Nelson as Chancellor. Having been on the Council I understood the working of the organisation. I very much admired Aston’s early leaders - Sir Joseph Hunt I got to know very well; he was self-taught and a remarkable man. And Peter Venables, the first Vice-Chancellor, and his wife, Ethel, were great figures. I knew George [Nelson, Aston’s first Chancellor] because we were both involved with the Confederation of British Industry. He was a very good engineer but also a very good administrator and was able to represent the University in public life.

You were Chancellor during the ‘80s, which was a tough time for education. How did you see your role during those difficulties?

First of all, there is no official specification for a Chancellor. It’s an opportunity to become involved; to assist where you can; but there are no requirements in terms of making decisions. But the issue was that there were sudden cuts made on the universities and in my view, Aston was very wrongly affected. First of all, the cuts were limited to a small number of institutions, nearly all of which were the newest. I can’t remember all of the figures but it was pretty near that the Vice-Chancellor had to slim the staff by a third, which is a horrendous task. I felt there was a need to speak up about the impact of the cuts to the Confederation of British Industry, which had supported the Government. I appealed to the Minister, who was Sir Keith Joseph, to plead for some alleviation in the way it was carried out. 

I wasn’t successful, but the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Frederick Crawford, faced with this situation, did a remarkable job. Reducing the staff to the extent that was required resulted in a shoal of letters from academics and institutions saying that what was being done at Aston was challenging the independence of academics. What I could do was at least attempt to respond to some of those criticisms. I wrote something like 400 letters and tried to take some of the load of the academic outcry. The other thing was that I was somebody to whom the Vice-Chancellor could talk in confidence about the awful decisions that he had to make. So what normally would be a fairly honorary position became one where there was an opportunity to help on two fronts.

What has your long connection with Aston given you personally?

It’s given me great pleasure to see the institution become the first of the Colleges of Advanced Technology and then a university. I also got great pleasure from being involved with the students. For years I presented the sporting awards, which I always looked forward to. I was also made an Honorary Member of the Students’ Guild. I can’t claim to have done very much in the way of teaching but I thoroughly enjoyed being involved with the courses. Working with young people, you are kept continually thinking in a way that is not true if you just retire. 

What do you think has been Aston’s greatest achievement?

I think two things. Firstly, Aston has established a distinctive identity in an educational world which is crowded with institutions, all competing for students. In contrast to, say, University of Birmingham, where the student population was mainly British but increasingly worldwide, Aston has a very strong West Midlands intake, and with it, the diversity and the need for particular types of courses. I think Aston’s ability to flourish and to attract students which haven’t necessarily had a connection with Higher Education before is a great thing. Secondly, Aston brings out the best in its students. So its greatest achievements have been establishing its identity and then achieving its purpose by doing the best it possibly can for those whom it recruits.

What is the best advice you can give to today’s graduates?

The important thing is to get your feet under the table. You may not get the offer of the job that you want, but make a start because your ability will show. It may be rather a dull first job, but stick it out. The great thing is to get established - and then you can rise.