Profile: Dr Andrew Grant
From a toy chemistry set to a career at BP to managing the College’s finances through the COVID-19 pandemic: Dr Andrew Grant (1977, Chemistry), Finance Bursar, reflects on his time at Univ both as an undergraduate and in his current role, and on the College’s plans for the future.
Tell me about life before Univ: what prompted you to apply here?
When I look back, I had actually been to seven schools before I was 14 years old. My father worked at Midland Bank, which later became HSBC, so we moved around the country as he rose up through the ranks and no place ever really felt like home. The final move was Cambridge and I went to the County High School, now the Hills Road Sixth Form College. It remains an excellent school, and the subject I enjoyed most was chemistry. I had been into chemistry through a toy chemistry set when I was 10 years old. I found it fascinating. And if you find things interesting, you practice and listen more, and discover more too. So, I can point to that experience as to why I wanted to do chemistry at university and as we were currently living in Cambridge, it was to Oxford that I wanted to go. I didn’t though really have much of an idea about which college to pick: I wanted to go somewhere that had three good tutors in the subject but in terms of the final choice, it was literally decided by sticking a pin in the list. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I ended up at Univ as a very happy accident!
What do you remember about your time here?
I rocked up as a callow 17-year-old in 1977, and while half of me felt that I belonged – it had been hard work – the other half was asking myself what I was doing here. There was a sense of otherworldliness at times. However, I found a welcome, and a sense of inclusiveness and excellence that meant I soon felt at home, and that is something that endures today. I remember putting in the hours, but I also remember full days of cricket and the punting parties. And I met a group of fabulous people at Univ who are still some of my closest friends today, and who are very precious to me. The strength of the Univ connection also comes through whenever I bump into an Old Member who I have not seen for years. It was an extraordinary privilege to be at Univ.
You spent your working life at BP, what were the highlights of that?
After Univ, which is the oldest college, I went to Wolfson, one of the newest, to study for my doctorate in chemical physics. It is by the way where I met my wife and more lasting friendships. After there, I went straight to BP. I wanted to work there for a couple of reasons. I was drawn to London which was where my wife was working, but also to further my scientific skills in the matter of securing energy. From the time that our predecessors used fire to process food, energy continues to be a civilizing force for humanity; it is fascinating to me. That challenge, of course, is even more true now that we are in a climate emergency. The profound training you get in a blue-chip corporate with all its resources was extremely important too: the fact that I was working for BP meant I was aware of environmental, social and governance issues long before they were mainstream.
For the first decade at BP, I worked as a scientist: I developed a proprietary piece of risk reduction technology called the Airborne Laser Fluorosensor (ALF), which senses from a plane the natural oil leaks and seepage that occur from underground accumulations everywhere. It won the Rank prize for Opto-Electronics. So, I was working as an explorer, but using this unique proprietary equipment. With some early professional credibility, BP supported a career switch to a commercial and finance pathway, which remained the focus for the last 22 years of my career. I had roles in commercial business development, financial planning, investment analysis, corporate finance and governance, supporting the Board with its £25bn capital investment programme. I got to travel the world: I went to some absolutely fabulous places, and others that were rather less appealing.
How did the job as finance bursar at Univ come about?
I retired from BP in 2015 and planned to travel. But in 2017, when my wife and I were on a three-week holiday in Mexico, I read that Univ was looking for a finance bursar. We talked about it for three days, and the job appealed to me – because it was very different from the oil and gas world. I wouldn’t have gone back to work full-time for anyone else. There is an economic patience here that is quite different from having to deal with pernicious shareholders. It’s been fabulous.
What has been the biggest challenge?
In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, the College was essentially mothballed, but the financial matters don’t stop. Two of my senior colleagues were unfortunately off work, and the Univ North development was in full swing. And as a result of the pandemic, the College’s finances were taking a substantial hit. Dividends from our financial assets fell, and the property portfolio was very strained. While our residential properties, which are largely in Oxford, held up very well, the fall was significant in other parts of our property portfolio: many of our tenants, particularly in leisure-dining and hotels, have faced profound challenges. We have been very sympathetic to the challenges that have been personal and particular to each one, and we dealt with each on its merits, particularly those that needed the most help.
What is the current situation with Univ North?
It is coming along very well. We shall soon go out to tender to find a construction partner, but we need to do it correctly. We obtained planning consent last year, and we are engaging with our neighbours to ensure that our execution of this exceptional scheme is delivered in a way that minimises their disturbance as much as possible. The challenge now is to meet the classic parameters of cost, schedule and quality, overlaid with doing it all in a north Oxford, Victorian conservation area. So, it will not be straightforward. Another challenge is to address the issue of zero carbon. It’s already an exemplary scheme when it comes to sustainability, but is there any more we can do? Or should we devote some of those resources to make more of an impression on the environmental footprint of the older college buildings on the main site? We need to strike the right balance between putting more capital towards a development that is already very sustainable, and putting that capital into buildings where it could make a really big difference.
What about dealing with the challenges surrounding the deficit in the Universities Superannuation pension scheme that has created so much controversy? [Editor’s note: Trustees of the scheme, which is for academics, have said a huge rise in contributions is needed to close a deficit of at least £15bn. They have said contributions must rise from 31% to between 42% and 56% of salaries]
The key for any pension scheme is that it is attractive, affordable and sustainable. There is no question that meeting these three criteria simultaneously has been challenged by both trends over the past decade and the events of the past few years. These have resulted in unwelcome rising costs where any increase in contributions has to be shared by both employers and employees. But contributions from both are already at the limits of what is affordable: we need a quality pension scheme to make the world of academia a secure place to work, but it needs to be affordable for everyone and I fear that there will be much more to do on this in the months and year ahead.
How important are Old Members to the College?
It remains humbling for everybody in the College just how much support we get from Old Members; their generosity is truly profound. There is no way Univ North would have got underway without what has been their quite extraordinary levels of support. I know that I speak for everyone when I say that the connections that our Old Members maintain with the College are as precious to us as the new ones that we are forging today. I regard it as extremely important that we do everything possible to repay that trust and generosity by doing what we can to the best of our ability.
What’s your view of Univ today having come back after so much time?
There are lots of things that we can be fiercely proud of about the College. It is an inclusive place, the warmth with which I and my wife have been welcomed to the College has been very touching, and it does feel like home. Those qualities seem to be just as present today as they did for me 40 years ago.
What about your other interests?
One of my biggest interests is wine. I have a 1600 bottle cellar at home, and reserves in salt mines around the country. My oldest bottle is a 1935 Rivesaultes, a vin doux naturel from France, and I also have 80 different marques of Champagne. If I hadn’t been a chemist or a commercial finance professional, I would have been very happy as a sommelier in a fine restaurant.
Interview by Grant Clelland (1981, History and Economics)
Published: 2 August 2021