Q&A: David Mellor

There was little David Mellor didn’t – or indeed couldn’t – do during his seven years at Sandbach School.
A thriving academic who represented the school in everything from chess to hockey (despite a self-confessed lack of sporting prowess) between 1979 and 1986, David later studied Geography at Oxford University, and is now CEO of the world’s eighth largest global professional services network, Crowe Global.
We sat down at the turn of the year, albeit virtually, to reminisce and learn more about his fascinating journey…

Interview by Ryan Grant

Firstly David, we’d like to start by taking you all the way back to your time at Sandbach School. What are your earliest memories of that period?

“I was at Sandbach School between 1979 and 1986, and it feels like just yesterday! It shocked me to realise just how many decades ago it is. I lived only a mile away; I grew up in Elworth and went to Elworth CE School, and one of my earliest memories was the tercentenary in 1977. As I recall, there were open days which we were encouraged to attend, in order to look around as classroom groups. So, one of my earliest memories of Sandbach School was actually as a visitor, a year or two before I attended. At that time, it was a grammar school and fee-paying independent school, but my year was the first of the comprehensive intake, which was the first of several relatively radical changes. When I arrived in September 1979, I think the school had suddenly increased its intake and there were 180 of us in our year, and six houses rather than four: Craig, Hall, Kent, Lee, Scott, and Welles. I do remember that very clearly, turning up and thinking how enormous the school was. To go to an institution which had almost 1,000 people… it felt huge!”

Given the career you’ve had since, are we safe to assume maths was one of your favourite subjects?

“Yes, maths was probably my best subject. I set very high standards for myself and expected high marks in it. I didn’t study it at university because I became fascinated with the origin of landscape and the built environment, but it was by far my best subject at school.”

Equally, were there any subjects you weren’t so fond of?

“I wasn’t very good at sports [laughs]! From the second year until the fifth year, from 12 to 16, my form teacher was a sports teacher called Mr Taylor, and he used to get really annoyed by my school reports. I’d often get an ‘A’ in most subjects apart from sports and physical education, so he’d say to me ‘if you applied your brain to sports in the way you apply it to everything else, you’d be really good!’ I took the view that I was just lacking coordination and not very good at it. At that time Sandbach was a rugby school in Winter and cricket in Summer, which I hated. I did athletics in Summer to avoid cricket, and by the third year you could play hockey if you wanted to learn, which was Mr Taylor’s sport. He said ‘I’ll do you a deal, why don’t you come in over the Summer when I’m teaching some boys to play hockey before September, it might change your attitude towards sports in general?’ I did that and represented the school in hockey for a bit in my third year, before those with more physical aptitude overtook me. In terms of academic subjects, I was very lucky, in that I think I had a very good memory and liked learning. I performed well under the pressure of exams. I was relatively good all round and could have chosen any subject to read at university.

And how about your teachers – did you have a favourite?

“I’d like to say I didn’t have a favourite, if I’m really honest! I think Mr Taylor – as my form tutor – and I had a love-hate relationship; he’d try to get others in class to work harder and I’d be a pain in the backside by putting my hand up and saying I hadn’t started revising yet, which was the last thing he needed to hear. I read a Geography degree, and Geoff Piggott who sadly died last year was a very important teacher for me. He, and Mr Atkinson and all the geography teachers at the time, helped tutor me for Oxford entrance exams when most teachers were striking and were technically banned from any extra-curricular teaching. Also, I think my year was the last to study Latin to O-level; we were streamed by ability and the top class could study Latin or German as well as French. Our Latin teacher [Mr Howells] said to us ‘you’re going to think I’m one of your best teachers by the time we’ve finished because we’ll have such a close relationship’. He probably wasn’t our favourite teacher, but he certainly got to know us well because there were less than 16 of us sitting O-Level Latin. He taught me a lot and pushed me to do things for the community at school – house reading competitions – in French and English as I recall! – debating, public speaking – which I probably wouldn’t otherwise have bothered with. He would say to us ‘you’re the future leaders of this country, so if you’re not doing these things, then who is?’ Overall, I don’t think I had a favourite teacher; I think to single one of them out would be unfair. I did a lot of things and threw myself into school life, with different teachers responsible for different things. I remember representing both the house and school in a variety of activities.”

We’ve spoken about your earliest memories of the school, but which memories stand out to you as being the fondest of your time there?

“I think the friendships, really. It’s the moments when you’re doing things which you don’t think are important and it’s only when you get older and look back that you realise how much you enjoyed it. One thing I really enjoyed was being asked to run the school tuck shop in my penultimate year, which probably doesn’t exist today. Four of us ran it and it meant we got off lessons 15 minutes early! It was quite a good job, it was certainly a popular one, but it was full-on for those 20 minutes, and with a big queue. It was good fun, and we had a laugh doing it. The other things that really stand out? I could probably give you loads. Some of the things I liked a lot are things which I’d probably have told you I hated at the time; I quite liked doing athletics and middle-distance running. I looked on the website recently at the history of the school and so much changed while we were there. We all had briefcases that were thrown against the school buildings during breaks but then lockers were introduced, so there’s no need for a heap of bags now. It’s hard to single out a single fondest memory.”

Are you still in touch with any of your former teachers or classmates?

“Fewer than I thought I would be. You keep in touch with some and then you make more friends at university, and then more again when you start your career, but I probably still keep in touch with half a dozen from Sandbach School. One of them married my sister, so obviously we stayed in touch! I don’t live in Cheshire anymore, I left to go to Oxford and then moved to London and never really came back. My parents also moved across Cheshire when I went off to university, so I don’t have the same connection with Sandbach that most others might have.”

Looking back, how would you sum up the impact the school has had on you and your life?

“I do come back to things like the school motto: ut severis seges [as you sow, so shall you reap]; I was looking at that quite a lot as I prepared for this interview. I’ve always believed that you should work hard and play hard, and I’ve probably burned the candle at both ends. I’ve had a really good career and thrown myself into it completely, but when I’m not working, I’m determined to enjoy myself too. That’s probably a corruption of the school motto, really, but I think that’s what life is about. I was encouraged to be passionate about things I liked doing, and that came from the school. It probably gave me the confidence to strive for things I wanted to achieve in life, because I was quite shy and introverted when I started there at the age of 11. I’d never want to stand and speak in front of an audience, which is something I regularly do as part of my job today. Through determination and the empowerment that the school and teachers gave me, I think that by the time I left at 18 I felt I could do anything I wanted. That’s quite a transformation in just seven years.”

With that said, what would you say to your 11-year-old self now if you could?

“I don’t think you look back and regret the things you’ve done or the experiences you’ve had. I probably wish my 11-year-old self was more well-rounded than he was, but I think we all probably wish we did things earlier than we did. Because I was shy, I think I’d say ‘get out there and try more, because the more things you try, the more things you’ll like.’ I enjoyed my childhood and school life and although I’d have pushed myself to do more, I probably would have struggled to get them in my calendar. Looking back, I’d be exhausted if I lived like that now!”

After leaving Sandbach School, you went to Oxford, which is a fantastic achievement in itself. What more can you tell us about that experience?

“There was no expectation from my family that I would go there; no-one in my extended family had even been to university, so I think to go to Oxford was a bit of a surprise, but I was encouraged by my parents to pursue an education as long as I was enjoying it. The school often sent people to Oxford and Cambridge, and I wanted to go somewhere where I could enjoy the subject I wanted to read. For that reason, Oxford was on the list because it had a publishing library and I knew I could really immerse myself in the subject. At the time I had no idea whether I’d get in. I remember sitting the entrance exam in the November of my final year of school and, following an interview, getting a letter in the January confirming my place. I loved university and I’m glad I went; some people warned me it would be a bit of a shock and that it would be hard to stand out, but it was a great opportunity to develop in different ways. It continued my journey and I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship and to be successful; I also picked the right subject and would always advise people to do what they’re passionate about. I’ve never looked back, and all of a sudden 30 years have gone by! I never thought I’d stay in this career, but here I am.”

These days you’re CEO of the eighth largest global professional services network. For those who might not know, what can you tell us about your current role and that of the company?

“At heart, I am running a network of accounting firms that share a common brand. For those not involved in the profession, one of the principal things we do is worldwide audit of multinational businesses. My role now is managing brand and quality, ensuring our members are committed to our strategy and core values. My office is in New York, but I live in the UK, and if it wasn’t for COVID, I would be flying all over the world two or three times per month. My job involves visiting our member firms and ensuring they comply with the standards we expect of them, speaking to them and motivating them, meeting with regulators and our most important clients, and regularly speaking at conferences. There’s also a professional and community responsibility to the development of accountancy as a profession, giving something back for the career that I’ve had in the past. I was involved in the governing body of my professional institute before international travel reduced my availability. I used to run the UK firm in our network which is a £100m turnover, 100 partner, 1000 employee business. Now, in the network, we’re in over 140 countries and at $4.2bn in turnover, so it’s quite a big undertaking. Fortunately, I don’t have to manage it all at the top, I’m just providing that strategic overview and then each of our member firms do their own development in their markets.”

Having looked back, let’s end by looking forward. What do you think the future holds for you and your work?

“Taking the work first, I think one of the biggest issues accountancy has faced is trust in the market and what people perceive it to be. We’ve had financial crises and tough financial times and whenever businesses go bust, people blame the accountants and auditors. If I do anything, I spend a lot of my time saying that if accountants are going to be relevant tomorrow, we need to own the trust agenda with the public today. I see the future of my business being redefining the relationship of the accountant with the communities in which they work, society at large, and business. I think talent retention is an issue; when I left school, being a professional was a career that was deemed to be worth going into, whether that was a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, or whatever. I don’t think it’s quite as exciting today when you can get ‘dot com billionaires’ that are much more wealthy than me within five or 10 years of leaving college. The future of technology, the future of labour and how businesses are going to be digitised, is fascinating. Jobs we did 20 years ago are now done by a computer, and jobs we’re doing now will be the same in 20 years’ time. What we do as individuals matters more as technology takes over, and that’s interesting in any profession. For me personally, I guess I’m at the top of my career at the moment; there aren’t many places I could go and stay at the top of my profession, and I’m not yet 55. I think when I’m not doing this role – and I’ve just re-signed for another term of office – I’ll try to retire and have an easier life, or try to find something different that complements my career to date but doesn’t compete with what my network is doing.”

Finally, if you were to give a message to those currently at Sandbach School, what would it be?

“It doesn’t matter what you’re good at, nor does it matter if you’re the best. If you’re passionate about something, you should find the time and get the support to explore it as much as you can. Don’t worry about where you’ll be when you’re my age; follow your passion, because I think that’s the key to a happy and successful life. You don’t have to be at the top of your field to be successful, either, because we’re all unique. It’s about how you express your talents, and you should develop as many talents as you can while you’re at school.”

Everyone at the OSA would like to extend their sincere thanks to David for his time.