Senior Alum Profile - March 2023

Robin E.J Chater

If it is being done it can always be done better – look at McDonald’s – it was not the first burger bar.

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  • Programme studied: MPhil in Industrial Relations
  • Year of Graduation: 1977
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Robin E.J Chater (MPhil in Industrial Relations) has had a varied career since graduating from LSE in the late 1970s. His journey started in journalism then led to management consultancy, higher educational services, R&D, and now to Secretary General of The Federation of International Employers. He has endeavoured to improve the career chances of women across Europe and to help strengthen the legal knowledge and skills of HR professionals around the world.

Tell us about your career journey since graduating from LSE?  

The journey has consisted of a helter-skelter early career through labour relations journalism, management consulting, promotion of higher educational services and R&D. Then onto ten years advising The European Commission and finally to over 30 years as Secretary General of The Federation of International Employers. 

My time at LSE was at a very significant period for me. I was caught up in what became “the winter of discontent” – a term I stole from the bard and used as a headline on one of my articles, only for it to be picked up by a speech writer for James Callaghan. It has not stopped being used is so many different ways ever since. Whilst a journalist, I also exposed the failure of the Labour Government’s Incomes Policy and London Transport’s pay code breaker - appearing in a Daily Telegraph Editorial under “Behind Mr Chater’s Figures”.

Without the confidence and encouragement gained from staff and fellow students at LSE, I do not think I would have been able to operate at the strategic levels that I needed to sustain as I moved on into HAY Management Consultants – then a leading US player in the field of organisational development and job evaluation. It required a measure of pluck, good luck, and determination to make my way in the competitive environment I then faced. I earned my spurs at Alcan in South Wales where I was brought into an IR stale-mate situation between the skilled shopfloor engineers and T&G Union. Still only in my 20s, I had the nerve to bring the sides together with a lateral thinking deal that appealed to them both. Young as I then was, I was known as Mr IR fixit and that led me to Kimberley Clark and then five years in the coal industry. 

The final major turning point came one evening whilst working for HAY. My MD had asked me to look at a European Union Directive that could have a major impact on the business. So I picked up the phone and rang a Director in DGV of the European Commission. Although late, she was still at her desk and two hours later she had invited me to Brussels. There she asked me to conduct a three-country study on top management attitudes to women. Following that project, I was retained by the Commission and later, with two French and Belgian “experts” carried out a six-month study of the Commission itself. 

Meanwhile, I had moved the other half of my career first to the West of England - where I helped to set up the enterprise company for Plymouth Polytechnic (now University) - before moving east to the Cambridge Science Park to become head of practice for process automation at the R&D company Cambridge Consultants. From equal opportunities to robotics did not seem such an odd move at the time, but by then I had realised that life was far too short not to be a polymath. 

So, via a few by-ways - that included managing a plastics container production and printing factory, opening up my own women’s fashion shops, and writing a code of practice for the Information Commissioner on privacy at work – I moved on to my present job as Secretary-General of the Federation of International Employers (FedEE)!  Although the thought of retirement came and went over a decade ago, I remain at the forever challenging 60-hour-a-week helm at FedEE. I guess I cannot put the job down because I enjoy being in the midst of things at a truly global level. The key to a career, I guess, is to do everything that interests you and end up in a place you never want to leave. I have the added benefit that I can work where I please and that currently means looking over the Med in Cyprus – at least for now. 

How did your time at LSE influence your career journey?  

The LSE was a great launching pad for me. It showed me that no problem, however long unresolved or seemingly set in stone, could defeat the person prepared to tackle it in a new way and with determination or fear of failure (yes, I have failed too). It also taught me a lot about myself and made me feel ok about something that I had known from very young – that the future really could be foreseen, not by magic, but as Plato taught us by logic and strength of intellect.  

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career, and what have you learned from it? 

The greatest challenges I have faced professionally are nothing compared to those I have confronted personally – where death-wish seeming me has had nine near death experiences. But that’s a different story. I guess that, at the time, what really challenged me were two instances where in the first place I should have been a whistleblower and the second time I actually was. The first involved the head of a District Council who desperately wanted to become an MP. He called my consulting company in to justify the establishment of a 16-MBA graduate team to get him into office but at the District Council’s expense. My report caused him to go so red when I calmly presented it to him, I thought he really would expire. When he complained, my employer just shoved me to one side and had the report rewritten. But when the local newspaper got wind of my report, they pressured me to reveal it. I said I had burnt my copy, although it was still in my loft. The man did get elected, became a junior Minister and then – I have to smile – was forced to resign over an expenses scandal. I duly left my job and walked into another pool of corruption when I did actually become a whistleblower. Not something to be recommended and virtue is never any compensation for the hatred doing good engenders across so many people. 

Share with us your fondest memory of the Department of Management. 

One incident I can remember was falling asleep in the LSE library. It is so big no one must have noticed me. I woke up when it had clearly closed for the night, although the lights were on. Fortunately, I found a way out only to realise I was still holding several books not checked out. I guess you could live your whole life there. 

If you would like to feature in our blog series or if you would like to nominate a Department of Management alumni, please email dom.alumni@lse.ac.uk.