Only after working at the very top of Government did Lord Bates decide to gain a university education. Deputy Business editor Deborah Johnson finds out how he used the experience and influence he gained through politics to set up in business, and why he insists his clients overlook his peerage to call him Michael.

DESPITE holding positions in Government including Paymaster General and special advisor to then-Prime Minister John Major, Michael Bates felt an insecurity in comparing himself to his colleagues.

Having left comprehensive school in Gateshead with seven CSEs and gone into the family insurance business and then politics, bypassing university, the high-ranking politician – now Lord Bates, having been given a life peerage last year, but always Michael in a work capacity – admits to feeling inferior.

He said: “Everyone else seemed to have had an Oxford or Cambridge education, and I was just a lad from a tough area of Gateshead. I held all of these positions without even a university education. I think that inspired my desire to work extra hard, which I did.

I worked unbelievably hard. I think that is how I compensated, in my own mind, for the fact I could not compete academically.

“I am extremely passionate about education and I suppose I did feel something missing from my own background.”

While he had international respect and reputation for his political work, having worked at the very top of the Conservative Government of the day, Lord Bates decided he wanted to go to university. The 1997 General Election, when New Labour and Tony Blair swept to power, meant he lost his Langbaurgh seat and sealed his decision.

“The first half of my life had been all politics, I felt I needed a change of direction.

I took advantage of the opportunity granted to me by the electorate, for which now I am very grateful,” said Lord Bates, who started out in politics in 1979 and was first elected as an MP for the Tyne Bridge constituency in 1987.

He remains deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

He said: “I wanted to go to university, to fill in some of the gaps I felt I had missed.

When I was at school, there was no expectation for you to achieve academically, but if you wanted to be a footballer, you would have the highest level of support.

“At that time, I did not have it within me to rise above that.

But now, I wanted education to come to the fore. There have always been two things that have driven me – I was extremely passionate about education and loved enterprise.

“Financially, I could only take on a course for 12 months, and the only university offering the MBA course I wanted was Oxford.

“I did not have the academic background that would necessarily automatically get me a place at Oxford, but after a series of interviews, I was given a place. It was a fantastic experience.”

After he graduated, Lord Bates joined Oxford Analytica, a global network of academics with close links to the university, who undertake analysis of politics and the economy. He was appointed director of research and consultancy at Oxford Analytica in 1999, in what he describes as a particularly happy time.

“Here was me, a lad from Gateshead, travelling around the world, working on these major projects with Governments, companies, banks, studying global trends. It was a fantastic experience,” said Lord Bates, who continues to use his experience by serving on the board of the World Bank’s Global Corporate Governance Forum.

In 2005, he took the decision to return to his native North- East, pondering his next move. Running his own business had always appealed – having gained early experience in the family firm, JM Bates and Co, based in Gateshead, but what to specialise in posed a problem.

He said: “I had a lot of experience, but in the North- East I cannot say I found a big market for global economic consultants.

“So I sat down one night at the kitchen table and wrote down the skills I had that could potentially add value to an organisation, that people would be prepared to pay for.

“When I distilled it down, I found that I had knowledge and lots of experience of boards, through Oxford Analytica, and through sitting on numerous boards myself.

“I realised that was something that not a lot of people would have. Through sitting on seven or eight boards, I had seen some very good things, and also some very bad things.

“I knew that I could help boards, instead of often being a meaningless talking shop, become more effective and add value to organisations. I realised there was a market for that.”

So, in 2006, he established Walton Bates Associates, in Durham, a business offering consultancy and advisory services that have resulted in him working with major companies around the world.

He said: “I knew I wanted to provide a personal service and unrivalled treatment to my clients, which I think comes from having spent five years in the small business environment I started out in.

“Even if clients called my dad at 11pm, he would be there. I think starting out in that kind of business does give you an understanding of what it may be like – I remember that during the bad times, we holidayed in North Berwick. When it was good, we went to Italy.

“But almost immediately, when you become an entrepreneur, you realise the problems you face, and mine was in marketing myself.

“I set up my business thinking ‘when’s someone going to walk through the door?’ I envisaged having a queue a mile long outside. But that was wrong. Slowly, it started to dawn on me I had to get out there and get some clients. I did find it hard, but it helped me to remember I was selling and promoting the company, and not necessarily myself.

“It made me realise that you could have the best business in the world, but if you forget to market yourself, you will not be nearly as successful as you could have been.

“I think the entrepreneur needs to have three skills, which cannot be average and need to be absolutely outstanding – they need to have a skill that is in demand; an ability to market and sell; and to be a fantastic finance director.

“It would be nice to take on people to fulfil those roles for you, but in the early years, there may only be enough money for one salary. The reality is that most people understand the need to be great at the first of the three – the necessity for the other two often only becomes clear later on. It is something you learn as you progress.”

Despite Lord Bates’ desire to return to education, he is keen to point out that good schooling is not an essential requirement for a successful entrepreneur.

He said: “There is a lot made of the need for training, but you need to ask yourself if it is necessary for what you want to do?

“For me, it was a personal choice, but for other people it is not always needed. A lack of qualifications need not hold people back. Sir Peter Vardy (a close friend of Lord Bates, who is a non-executive director of The Vardy Group) has only one O-level in music, but that has proved no barrier to his business success.”

Although given a life peerage last year, in which he serves in the House of Lords as Lord Bates of Langbaurgh, he is keen to keep the title separate from his work with Walton Bates Associates.

He said: “I am always known as Michael to my clients. I think many people would blanche at the thought of the daily rate of a Lord of the Realm.

“I do not want to use the title to market the business. I am very happy with how the business is progressing. To me, success is defined through achieving results for your clients – the people you serve. That is what I have always striven for.

“I have never been particularly motivated by money, that is not something that has ever flicked a switch. I enjoy the fact I can choose my clients, where I can take on a project that challenges me, without necessarily being motivated by how much money it pays.

“I am in a position where I enjoy what I do, I like the people I work with and I am happy with my life.

“They, to me, are the main things.”