“I like a challenge” John McLean OBE, Chair, China UK Business Development Centre

John McLean is someone who ‘sorts out messes’. His curiosity, chartered accountancy skills, and willingness to be hands-on have enabled him to turn around multiple businesses as both CEO and Chair. In 2014 he was awarded an OBE for his services to British business interests in China and he has been an influential member of the IoD for over 20 years.

I like challenges. I don’t like mundane. I couldn’t do the same job year in year out. I need something new and refreshing to get up in the morning. Soon after I qualified as a Chartered Accountant, I joined Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) who sent me to Paris to sort out a house building business that was losing money for no clear reason. It took some forensic investigation – and an improvement in my French – to recognise where the money was going…. costs were greater than income!

I was on track to become a Partner, but realised a career in a consultancy wasn’t for me so I stepped off the programme and joined Gresham House plc as Finance Director. I gained experience in growing small companies that were listable and developed a taste for what happened on the other side of the fence. I realised I wanted to get my hands dirty in the heart of a business.

My father recommended the IoD as an organisation which could help me make the switch out of the City and into industry. I needed a CV that would demonstrate my City skills were transferable. It was the advice, knowledge and networking opportunities offered by the IoD that helped me make that transition.

I first joined an overnight logistics business, ICS which was growing rapidly by moving mail and packages overnight around the UK. The business was subsequently successfully sold following a Management Buy Out (MBO), which I jointly led.

In the late 90s I became CEO of Sanderson; a fabric design and manufacturing company based in west London. As well as having an aging customer base, this old-school business was in a time warp; chauffeurs for the C-suite, a bowling green, an on-site bar and a side entrance for employees. Printing facilities were inadequate, and it was losing money.

Radical change was required: I stood up in the factory to deliver the difficult news that our strategy was now to focus on our brands, our customers and on marketing. We sold the Uxbridge site, moved our warehouses to Carlisle and explored manufacturing opportunities in China and elsewhere. The company was already importing silk so we experimented with production there. It didn’t work out as the printing was too complex for the facility, but it did begin my long-term business relationship with China.

With the country only just opening up, this experience made me something of a China expert in the UK. I could see there was a lot of opportunity and, as part of Albany Capital, invested in a Chinese Soy sauce company. The food industry was in its infancy, so we introduced a greater level of professionalism, building a new factory to British Retail Consortium food standard and putting a Union Jack on our soy sauce bottle to signal our quality.

I continue to maintain a close business relationship with China and in 2020, co-founded the China UK Business Development Centre, which promotes UK-China trade and investment. I also enjoy applying my skills to voluntary organisations and was Chair of VSO China supporting education, health, and wellbeing for seven years. Charities can also get into a mess as easily as commercial organisations and as my six year tenure as Chair of the Carers Trust comes to an end, I am pleased to have been part of the team which has made significant changes to ensure the organisation has a strategy, is now structurally and financially sound and is ready to accelerate its growth to support unpaid carers.

Good governance is critical to the success of any organisation and it is at the heart of IoD values. Encouraging diversity on boards is important too if our business community is to reflect wider society. I am a member of the FTSE Women Leaders Review Advisory Panel which aims to improve the representation of women on the boards and leadership teams of the FTSE 350 and the UK’s largest private companies. I am a strong believer that great organisations which support gender balance perform better.

Membership of the IoD offers plenty of opportunities for new challenges. I am Chair for the IoD City of London and am currently engaged with others in setting up our Special Interest Groups, including the Glass Ceiling Group. I am delighted that the IoD is evolving, developing, and appealing to a wider membership whilst maintaining its core beliefs.

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