In conversation with Paul Brankin – former Chair of the Trust and retiring trustee
Settled comfortably in an arm chair in his office, overlooking a pretty townhouse garden and sipping a fresh cup of coffee, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Paul Brankin, former Chair of The Oxford Trust and retiring trustee, was sitting back to watch the roses grow.
But behind the contented smile and charming persona lies a man who has deftly navigated his way through a successful business career, is co-Director of Oxford Executive Coaching and has just finished twenty-four years on our Board of Trustees. So how did Paul come to find himself in such a pivotal role at the Trust and what does the future hold now he’s hanging up the reins?
It is clear early on in the conversation that Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood, our founders and patrons, are going to be recurring characters. The impact of their support and friendship on Paul and his wife Maire is tangible – he beams every time he talks about them and the anecdotes of their kindness and generosity abound. “I first met Martin in 1968 as a research student” he says, “He was based, at that time, in a prefab office on Osney Mead and I went down to visit a friend who worked at Oxford Instruments as I needed to buy a magnet.”
Paul’s next meeting with Martin was at a cryogenics conference in Eindhoven: “Oxford Instruments had a stand and Martin was there with Audrey.” They got talking and a connection was formed between the engineer-turned-entrepreneur and the ambitious young scientist.
It was probably inevitable that, in 1974, Paul joined Oxford Instruments., where his first job was as Project Engineer on NMR spectroscopy magnets. The company was just 100 people at that time and the working atmosphere was one of encouragement and support. “Martin and Audrey wanted everyone in the business to grow – to work hard but enjoy learning and developing” he says, “and they really helped as much as they could. For example, when Maire and I first moved to Oxford in 1976, Martin and Audrey lent us their house on Northmoor Road while we looked for somewhere to live. Martin even lent me his company car for a business trip to Poland.” The Brankin and Wood families became close friends and remain so today.
Paul worked at Oxford Instruments for the next 25 years and eventually shared an office with Martin. By the time he left in 1999, the business had changed hugely. It had floated in 1984 and employed over 2000 people across the globe. “It had become a very large company – a different company to the one I joined. But even though I left 24 years ago, I still often say ‘We’ when talking about Oxford Instruments,” he says. “It never really leaves you when you’ve been a part of something like that.”
One of Paul’s former colleagues at Oxford Instruments was Paul Bradstock, who in 1985, had been tasked by Martin and Audrey to direct a new charity they’d founded called The Oxford Trust. In a matter of months, he’d established a new innovation centre at Osney Mead – one of Europe’s first – and later span-out Oxford Innovation Ltd. That first innovation centre was not the glistening post-modern office block you might expect in the 1980s but a series of portacabins and old buildings known as the ‘science slum.’ However, its mission was transformative. Paul explains: “At that time, trying to set up and run a company could be extremely challenging. You could only rent office space on 25-year leases – it was crazy. Through the Trust’s investment in that innovation centre, entrepreneurs were able to take short-term office space – complete with a desk and a phone – as well as benefit from advice and support.“
Paul remembers going to the Trust’s very first meeting but didn’t become a Trustee until 1995, by which time the charity had expanded its remit to include educational outreach, a topic that he is passionate about. “We had a fantastic board,” he remembers, “Dr Mick Lomer – former Director of UKAEA’s fusion research laboratory – who shared my belief in the need to improve STEM provision in schools.” Mike O’Regan, one of RM’s founders, was also a trustee, as was education specialist Judith Iredale. The board chair rotated and in 2001, Paul took over.
So, I ask him, how does one approach charity chairmanship? After all, each leader will have his/her own style that they may wish to impart and/or enforce. “For me it was a very straight forward plan for the Trust,” he says, “Along with the Board, I set the strategy and then empowered the Trust’s staff to deliver the strategy. I supported the CEO of course, but didn’t get involved in the day-to-day running of the organisation. I supported ideas and always tried to be encouraging.”
“I feel very lucky that we were able to recruit some really terrific CEOs during my time on the board,” he adds. “And they’ve all contributed something different. Gillian Pearson transformed the schools programme and oversaw the move to St Clements and the new Science Oxford strategy.”
“Ian Griffin was passionate about building a new science centre in Oxford and had great vision. And now obviously Steve (Burgess), who has worked so hard to grow the Trust and delivered us this fantastic new Stansfeld Park site.”
The science centre in Oxford that Paul alludes to was to be known as The Magnet, and although the Trust was eventually unable to develop the project, there was one major benefit; the purchase of Macclesfield House on New Road – now known as the Oxford Centre for Innovation (OCFI), and a step up from that first science slum. For Paul, this has been one of many highlights of his tenure. He explains; “We originally bought Macclesfield House with the short-term view of using it as an innovation centre until we were ready to knock it down and build The Magnet on the land. Everyone thought we were crackers. It took a while for me to convince the rest of the board that it was a good idea but we got there, and even though The Magnet project never came to fruition, OCFI has continued to be a successful innovation centre and helped the Trust to maintain a firm financial footing.”
He takes great pride in how far the Trust has come over his 24 years on the board. “It is hard to imagine how small the Trust was when I joined compared to the present day. And I’m lucky that I’ve worked with some great people and wonderful trustees and just look at the Board we’ve got now –what a fantastic group of people!”
And, of course, Audrey and Martin Wood are never far from Paul’s thoughts: “It’s hard to underestimate their influence, in creating three amazing charities and for their contribution to entrepreneurship and innovation here in Oxfordshire, nationally and internationally. They are, and always will be, inspirational.”
As for what’s next, Paul is taking a year out to have a think about that. He’s still running a successful executive coaching company alongside Maire and enjoying precious time with his grandchildren but there are definitely plans afoot. When I ask him his future plans, that smile appears again, he gazes out of the window and says, “I’ve got a few ideas.” Something tells me we haven’t heard the last from one of our longest-serving and most-valued trustees….