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Obituary: John Stopford

14 Sep 2011

John Stopford was a remarkable man combining the capabilities of a first rate business academic, an expert teacher (especially of executives and MBAs) and a guru able to connect with top management teams and business practitioners.

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In the world of management education he was probably the most influential institution builder in the UK and Europe, as one of the founders of the field of International Business and a leader in establishing both the Executive Education and Strategic and International Management departments at London Business School over forty years ago.

His academic work will be remembered for his pioneering articles and books on the strategy and structure of multi-national enterprises as well as his unique ability to combine economic and political analysis in his work on government policy and multi-national business strategies and his career interest and publications on large scale change in mature organisations. Many scholars have paid tribute to his unique contributions and insights; his extensive collaborations that allowed him to tap many streams of thinking; and his commitment to the book form of writing where ideas can be given full play.

John was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1939, son of Robert Stopford, later Bishop of London. The family moved to West Africa where Robert was appointed Principal of Achimota College in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). There John’s story might have ended.  Returning to the UK in 1943 by sea, the family’s ship was sunk by a torpedo.  His mother was killed but John, with his father and brother, survived in the water until they were rescued by HMS Woodruff.  John Stopford’s first job as a teenager was in Rotterdam docks in the 1950s. He subsequently trained as a craft apprentice at the UK engineering company Baker Perkins, a job which funded a climbing expedition to the Himalayas where he recorded two first ascents.

He took a degree in engineering at Oxford University and subsequently a Masters at MIT, where he worked on the Saturn I programme and published his first academic article. He worked for Royal Dutch Shell in the Netherlands and the UK, and was later managing director of a subsidiary of Booker McConnell in Guyana. He joined the PhD programme at Harvard in 1965, and first taught there before moving to Manchester Business School in 1968 and London Business School as Professor in 1971, where he was the founding Chairman of the Strategic and International Management Area. In 2006 he became Emeritus Professor. He was also Visiting Professor at Wharton, MIT, Stockholm and Aoyama Gakuin (Tokyo).

John’s rich and varied background, coupled with his exacting training at Oxford, MIT and Harvard gave him a base on which to develop and exploit his intellect. He wrote more than 20 books and monographs and over 90 scholarly articles. His first book, Managing the Multinational Enterprise (with Louis Wells, 1972), became a best seller in the UK and USA; Rival States and Rival Firms (with Susan Strange, 1991) won the book prize at the Academy of Management in 1992; and Rejuvenating the Mature Business (published in 1994 with Charles Baden-Fuller) won several awards, was published in five languages and referenced more than 50,000 times in management texts. His most recent book, The Future of the Multinational Company (joint editor), was published in 2004. Each of these books developed a stream of thinking subsequently adopted into mainstream management research and practice. He was a founding fellow of the Strategic Management Society in the USA and a Fellow of the Academy of International Business.

John was also a senior staff member at the United Nations, served as non-executive director of Shell (UK) Ltd. and the Land Warfare Centre of the British Army, as Board Advisor to Vickers plc, as director of numerous small companies and on various UK Committees of Enquiry. He was founding Chairman of The Learning Partnership. He was a member of the Steering Committee and an Officer of the Order of St. John, a Governor of Goodenough College in London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. For many years he ran panels and served as a featured speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

After his retirement, John remained active as a board-level consultant and coach for chief executives, as well as designer of board-level executive education programmes for many multinationals in the fields of strategy and international management. His services were retained by governments, including Brazil, Japan and Malaysia. One colleague said the learning and coaching community had lost its exemplar - the only one who mastered the complete range from full-power strategic advice, right through to “truly listening to the tiniest whisper of what the client wanted inside.”

Beyond his professional legacy John will be remembered for his extraordinary care for others, as a teacher, colleague and friend.

As a teacher he brought outstanding enthusiasm and dedication to the classroom, where he sought to explain with case studies and up-to date data how companies (and governments) worked and could do better. Yet he was also realistic, his classes often erupted in mirth when he told his students of the follies of managers. He never gave the same lecture twice. Each time he taught a case, he discovered a new angle. Former students recall that John always wanted to know what they thought – and having heard it, he would immediately challenge it. This was sometimes frustrating but always exhilarating. A colleague remembers driving with John on a Sunday evening to open a week-long executive workshop. On the way to the venue, John would be learning the names and backgrounds of every participant so that he could greet them and form an immediate personal connection.

After inspiring a group of MBAs for three hours, he would often rush into the lunch room at London Business School and, with breathtaking enthusiasm, engage his colleagues at the faculty table in thinking about some topical problem faced by a multinational company. The outpourings of his many collaborators in and around London Business School were enormous, but he took care to read them all. He would tell people when he liked what they wrote; and more often, with his typical leavening of humour, he told them where he disagreed with it – or why he liked some parts but not others. He was consistently encouraging to his juniors, renowned for his enthusiastic engagement in their seminars. As a magnet for those who shared his commitment to put ideas into practice, he brought more great talent to London Business School than anyone else in its history – individuals such as John Kay, Gary Hamel, Sumantra Ghoshal, Costas Markides and Julian Birkinshaw.

His friends remember him as the most wonderful intellectual companion, sometimes at concerts or galleries as he loved music and the arts; and he was just as good company on a long walk.

Despite a long and debilitating illness, John continued his professional activities until his final week, commenting on a recent book on strategy, reading a paper that a colleague had sent him and consulting with a couple of firm leaders who valued his insights. Friends and colleagues recall his unfailing courtesy; they also recall his undimmed mordant wit: his parting words to one were, "Don't get cancer. It's not fun." Friends remember how John would look them in the eye, and tell them precisely what was happening with his illness if they needed to know; his kindness and courtesy meant he didn't belabor others with the truth, but in himself he would never avoid it. Another friend observed admiringly how John was reading, talking, listening, debating, learning right to the end.

John is survived by his wife Sally, their two sons and four grandchildren.

John Stopford, educator, died on 13th August 2011