The Big Interview: Peter Sutherland

Peter Sutherland has done a little bit of everything. A career at the bar turned in to becoming Attorney General, which in turn led an EU Commissionership, then head of the World Trade Organisation, chairman of some of the biggest companies in the world (BP and Goldman Sachs), briefs in the UN and World Economic Forum, not to mention being a financial advisor to the Pope, while balancing many chairmanships of other major institutions and companies.

I had been warned about his “tough-guy” reputation, and had been told to “know my stuff” if I was to come out alive. But my fears are immediately allayed by his friendly attitude the moment I picked up the phone. I start by asking him how he balances everything. He points back to his earlier days at the bar, his “formative occupation”, where he would have to manage a number of briefs at once.

His 12 years at the bar had been the result of a childhood desire to practice as a lawyer, a passion which was kindled in the debating halls of Gonzaga College. A highlight of his career was the Arms Trial, “a trial I was very fortunate to be part of, especially as a young barrister”. However, no sooner had he been called to the bar than he was handpicked by a Fine Gael-led government to become Ireland’s youngest Attorney General at the age of 34.

He had always had an active role in Fine Gael, “I was involved in the campaign to join Europe, and I was also close to Garret FitzGerald. I was also involved in economic policy with the party for a number of years.” Did he enjoy it? Not particularly, and he draws attention to the huge pressures he faced at the time, not least Northern Ireland. However it is clear that even from a young age he had a zeal for public service. Mr. Sutherland stood for election in 1973 in Dublin North-West – a post he narrowly missed out on.

His successful tenure of the Attorney General’s office led to his participation as a Commissioner in the EU, an institution which he admires greatly. His portfolio was mainly competition policy, but one of his two proudest achievements in his life was as a result of his involvement with social affairs and education: “I was particularly proud of introducing the Erasmus Program. We wanted a mechanism to introduce to young people a perspective beyond the national borders in which they were brought up.” One cannot help but be impressed by his passion for Europe, which is evident when he gets talking about the subject.

His success as a European Commissioner, but especially in the competition policy hot-seat, was to lead to the beginning of an illustrious career in business, serving on the boards of a host of major companies around the world.

What led to his involvement in the dirty world of business, after having started as a barrister? “Well I was amazed, but I think that competition is probably the biggest business portfolio in Europe, and I hope that I had had some impact and therefore was known in business circles as introducing competition, and taking on governments about state subsidies and companies about cartels.” He became chairman of AIB, and was involved on the boards of companies such as CRH, BPA, Shannon Aerospace and Delta Airlines to name but a few.

What was his biggest achievement? Apart from introducing the Erasmus program, Mr. Sutherland points to his time at the head of GATT (which became the WTO under his tenure) and to the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of talks. Someone was needed to “rallyrag” and “push it over the line”, and he was not afraid to threaten his resignation; “perhaps I bullied people a bit and pushed and shoved, and got there in the end.” For him, it was all worth it: “it was the greatest single advance of multi-lateralism since the inspired period of institution building that took place in the late 40s.”

Amid all of this international work, he was travelling “60-70% of the time” but he was determined to ensure that he did not become a “career minister for servants in Geneva.” After the creation of the WTO, he became chairman of BP and Goldman Sachs – huge challenges for any person, and more so for a man who, despite obvious talents, had never properly run a company. He looks back at his time on these boards: “it was really huge to do both of these, and I am still in many ways amazed that they asked me to do it.” With Goldman Sachs, he was working 7 days a week, learning his trade, and it was a huge challenge. While BP, during the beginning of his tenure, was embarking on a whole host of acquisitions.

Before we finish up, I can’t help but ask him about the current crisis. And I am struck by the originality of his perspective. He bemoans Ireland’s lack of progress in the last 30 years in many areas such as transport, communication, education and energy, “we have not been great successes; we haven’t produced the goods,” and argues that we have lacked informed leadership in the public service and the political system. At the same time he contends that we have too much of an obsession with consensus building, saying that sometimes “you have to take on sacred cows”. However he is not all downbeat, and argues that we can get out of the mess we find ourselves in if we display the character and ability to confront difficult decisions which he believes we have.

About education, he is equally as honest. “It is totally ridiculous that we should resist fees. We have two choices. Either we dumb down our education system by not giving enough money, or we do what virtually everybody else is now doing, which is some form of loan and deferred payment.” He believes that our third level education sector is suffering at the moment, but fears that it will suffer even more if the right choices are not made quickly. He states it clearly: if there is a choice between sub-standard education and fees, then we must go for fees.

Is there a lack of political will? “Yes! It’s obvious. A very bad decision has been taken not to introduce fees”.  In addition, he passionately argues that the Department of Education should reward excellence in universities, rather than giving them money “for the number of bums on seats”.

I ring off, distinctly impressed by this man’s ability to achieve so much in such a short space of time. I can’t help but wonder what his impact would have been on a more local level had he won that Dublin North-West seat back in 1973. His originality, his accomplishments, and ability to tell it like it is are an inspiration for his contemporaries and those who will follow behind. Ultimately though, looking at the career trajectory of people like Peter Sutherland, I am reminded that sometimes doing what you’re passionate about can be the route to success.