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Tackling A More Connected, More Suspicious World

Vernon Ellis, Chairman of the English National Opera and the British Council talks about high art in a downturn and why the UK should welcome foreign students

Wed Feb 22 2012

BusinessBecause caught up with Sir Vernon Ellis, the former Accenture Chairman who now heads English National Opera and the British Council, to find out how his business career has prepared him for leadership of these very different organisations.

Inevitably however, our conversation turned to other topics. When we spoke to Sir Vernon he had just returned from a week-long trip to Tunisia and Egypt with the British Council, the UK’s global educational and cultural agency, which forges ties with 110 countries around the world.

He’s no stranger to doing business in the world’s trouble spots, having ended a 30-year career with Accenture as International Chairman in 2010. He led the firm’s operations in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India and also developed Accenture’s relationship with the World Economic Forum.

Closer to home, music-lover Sir Vernon heads up English National Opera (ENO), a full-size opera company that is a less stuffy counterpart to the Royal Opera House and famed for giving a new spin to classic operas as well as producing new ones, and including drama in its repertoire.

But with the UK economy barely growing and government spending down, can ENO survive? Apparently it can. Audience numbers are up at ENO, and they’re getting younger: 30 per cent are now below the age of 44, up from 21 per cent five years ago.

One of the factors in ENO’s success has been the shift to digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to engage with audiences, as well as a re-vamp of its website to include more videos and interaction. Raising money from private organisations has also held up well, though the budget is still down £1.8m compared to before government cuts kicked in.

Sir Vernon points out that a major effect of the downturn has been that audiences have retreated to productions that are safe and familiar, rather than innovative and new. The Strauss comedy opera Der Rosenkavalier has been selling well but productions such as The Tales of Hoffman and The Death of Klinghoffer have been harder work.

ENO is a tiny operation – only 300 people compared to the 200,000 Sir Vernon was in charge of at Accenture – but “complicated to run”. Six years ago the company was in serious financial and artistic trouble and Sir Vernon helped to steer the board through reform of nearly every aspect of the organisation, from fundraising, to technical issues, creative decisions and management.

ENO is the largest employer of UK opera talent, which it sent to over 20 international opera houses last year, and a great example of the creative industries finding markets abroad. Of more immediate concern to Sir Vernon, however, is another British export: education.

As Chairman of the British Council, part of his job is to promote the UK as an attractive country in which to study as an overseas student. Higher Education brings 400,000 students a year to the UK, and is worth over £10 billion to the UK economy. But as of 2012, overseas students in the UK will no longer have the right to work here for two years after they complete their studies, a policy change that has affected many MBA students

“The ability to work in the UK for a while after your degree is an attractive part of coming to Britain,” says Sir Vernon. “We have to be careful in the way we operate and also how we talk about the issue. Sometimes the image we project is worse than the reality.”

The British Council is the largest international organisation of its kind, developing ties with civil society, educational and cultural organisations around the world outside the traditional channels of diplomacy and business. “We work with assets in the UK – English language, education, arts, culture and the creative industries – to build relationships and trust with people abroad,” says Sir Vernon.

It’s been remarkably successful: the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) test is the most widely used test of English for education, immigration and employment, accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, New Zealand and South African academic institutions. English language teaching and exams are a major income earner for the British Council, bringing in £450 million each year. Only a fifth of the organisation’s budget comes from public grants.

Interestingly, the USA has not invested in a similar “soft power” agency, though France, Germany and China have successful equivalents.

When he took on the Chairmanship of the British Council in 2010, Sir Vernon thought his experience running the ENO would be the most helpful. It turned out that his responsibilities at Accenture proved more relevant, in terms of marketing knowledge, “financial grasp”, and “how to deal with people”.

Having managed major parts of Accenture through globalisation, he knew that he had to establish his credibility with management, and focus on simplifying structures and reducing “functional overlays”, a common trap for global organisations.

The British Council sometimes treads a fine line, trying to promote “principles of democracy and open society”, while working with governments that aren’t democratic or open. A major showcase of UK arts and culture is set to tour 115 cities in China starting in April, and the Council is also currently helping to develop sustainable arts organisations in Egypt and Tunisia.

The British Council also works with governments on major programs to train local English-language teachers.

Building trust and understanding are Sir Vernon’s top priorities. “We don’t take political stance,” he says. “We want to generate open dialogue… there’s no point in doing things to deliberately annoy governments. It’s likely to backfire and reduce our ability to do anything at all. “

We live in a paradoxical age, says Sir Vernon. The world is more inter-connected than ever through finance, technology and culture, yet “suspicion is greater than ever between countries and citizens.”

“Anything that builds understanding is a good thing,” he says.