Sir Ken Olisa has had a lot of ‘firsts’. He is the first British black man to set up his own merchant bank, the first to be a board director of a public company at Reuters, the first to have a library named after him at Cambridge University and the first black Lord Lieutenant of Greater London.
He was also the first black deputy chairman of the Institute of Directors, the august bosses’ club on Pall Mall in London, until he quit this weekend in defiant defence of its first female chair, Barbara Judge, against accusations including sexism and racism.
Sir Ken, 66, who is a veteran of several previous bitter rows, stood four-square behind Lady Judge.
Defender: Sir Ken Olisa blasted the accusers behind a ‘useless’ report into his boss Lady Judge
‘If there is anybody on the planet who would have spotted Barbara for signs of racism it would have to be me. The answer to the question whether she is a racist is no, of course not. It is complete nonsense, it is such risible nonsense.’
He puts the venom towards her down to bitterness at a woman who has broken the glass ceiling from reactionary elements within the IoD.
‘There is a culture of envy of successful women and Barbara is the quintessentially successful woman. It is totally extraordinary. It is a personal vendetta. People found every possible reason over a long period of time to disagree with her and to frustrate her. None of that worked because she is a pretty rugged woman so they cooked this stuff up.’
Rather than blame Lady Judge, he says he is ‘reeling’ from the discovery that Stephen Martin, the Director General of the IoD, secretly taped a conversation with her.
‘Anyone who goes into a meeting, intending covertly to record it, well let’s put it this way we don’t share values. It is just astonishing. I have no idea why he did it. Now Barbara is being judged by this useless report and in the court of public opinion without any facts. The executive summary is riddled with errors and illogical statements, it is a dreadful document. It should have been shown to the people mentioned in it so they can look at it and matters of fact can be corrected.’
If there is anybody on the planet who would have spotted Barbara for racism it would be me
The grandiose surroundings of the IoD are a far cry from Sir Ken’s start in life. His achievements, remarkable under any circumstances, are the more so because he was brought up by a single mother, by coincidence also called Barbara, in poverty. Mother and son lived in a rundown part of Nottingham in a house with an outside toilet and a bathtub that hung on a hook on the outside wall.
‘I had friends who had an inside loo and I was quite impressed,’ he says. ‘I was brought up in pretty miserable circumstances, though I didn’t know it at the time because I had nothing to compare it with,’ he says. His father was a Nigerian law student who married Barbara but abandoned his family after his son was born.
He overcame a difficult start in life and got to Cambridge, where he read natural sciences at Fitzwilliam College, never dreaming that one day, he would be rich enough to make a £2million donation and have a library named after him.
His mum died a few years ago aged 99. Poignantly, he recalls that she loved the opera Madame Butterfly, the story of a woman deserted by her lover who invests all her hopes in their young son.
Sir Ken, who was knighted this year, sprang into the public eye in 2011 in another vicious row, when he was ousted from the board of FTSE 100 mining group ENRC, which became the subject of a long-running investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. The company, though listed in London, was controlled by three Kazakh oligarchs and Sir Ken memorably described his unseating as ‘more Soviet than City’.
The IoD headquarters in London
He says: ‘When the whole thing blew up it was horrible. I have had quite a few bad experiences in my life and this was one of the worst. I am hugely positive about the whole experience now but at the time it was awful. When your reputation is under threat, there is nothing worse, other than being diagnosed with an illness or something.’
The latter is a comment he does not make lightly, having been treated a few years ago for kidney cancer, which fortunately was caught early. But the oligarchs did not behave as badly as his opponents at the IoD, he says. ‘This is behaviour that I have never experienced in 40-plus years in business – even the double-dealers on the board of Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation behaved better. Put simply, we find ourselves caught in the middle of a train wreck.’
Sir Ken has never been afraid of saying what he thinks. In 2012, he quit the board of the parliamentary expenses watchdog Ipsa.
Anyone who goes into a meeting intending covertly to record it… well, we don’t share values
In a blistering letter to Speaker John Bercow, he accused MPs of displaying ‘gratuitous hostility’ to him and his colleagues. He also objected to the proposed inclusion of a former MP to the panel overseeing appointments to the watchdog, likening it to asking disgraced bankers such as Fred Goodwin to help pick the next governor of the Bank of England.
Sir Ken began his career at IBM in the 1970s and now runs Restoration Partners, the small merchant bank he founded, specialising in backing IT firms.
A Christian, he believes that the world divides into Sadists v Philanthropists. ‘My mission is to make sure the philanthropists outwit and outnumber the sadists,’ he says.
He is known in the City for his fondness for bow ties, which he has collected since the 1980s. ‘I do have a hundred, but I am not the Imelda Marcos of the bow tie, no, no.’
In a scathing resignation letter, Sir Ken wrote: ‘Instead of showcasing good governance, we have found ourselves in a surreal world of flawed processes, flagrant disregard for the principles of natural justice and a roughshod journey over the laws of the Institute.
‘Senior leaders covertly recording private conversations, systemically disregarding due process and leaking confidential material to the press have combined to make the IoD a laughing stock in the court of public opinion.’
He fears the row will have ‘disastrous consequences’ for the IoD. The organisation is ‘haemorrhaging cash, losing members and making little headway in providing practical solutions to help British directors to navigate Brexit,’ he says. ‘The whole thing is dreadful.’