The Business of Giving

Lord Irvine Laidlaw '65

(c) Rebecca Marshall

Lord Irvine Laidlaw ’65 knows the power of opportunity. Thanks in part to his parents’ belief in and support of his education — along with a big dose of his own gumption and dedication — the Scottish baron and former member of the House of Lords grew a small publishing company, the Institute of International Research, into a $1.4 billion global conference and trade show business. He then pivoted from there into the energy field, today owning and running a multi-billion-dollar wind-farm business that aims to change the future of the energy industry. Now, Lord Laidlaw wants to share the power of opportunity with the next generation of Columbia Business School students.

This month, the School announces the new Lord Irvine A. S. Laidlaw ’65 Scholarship Fund, which comprises $15 million in current-use financial aid awards with a special emphasis on promoting a diverse student body at the School. Because current-use funds are available for distribution immediately, this is an extremely rare and valuable donation — equivalent to a $300 million endowment. Here, we speak with Lord Laidlaw about the value of a business education, his experience building his companies, and why he gives back.

Why did you decide to come to Columbia Business School?

It was my father who encouraged me. Only in business school do you get exposure to all the disciplines in business: marketing, accounting, finance, personnel management, statistics, etc. The broad-based knowledge of all the aspects of business that I obtained at Columbia was enormously helpful to me. It enabled me to prevent anybody in any department to pull the wool over my eyes. I knew not as much as they did, but jolly close! And certainly enough to challenge them.

How did you get into the conference business?

In the 1970s, I owned and ran 10 business newsletters, mostly in the tax and finance field. They were moderately successful. I had about 30 people in an office in London. We had been working with a person who ran tax conferences — he put together a big international tax conference every year in Switzerland — and one year, 1978, I decided to host a cocktail party the night before the conference and the next day sell my books, newsletters, and special reports on a table outside the conference. I got up early and sat outside the conference hall selling my books. At nine o’clock, everyone went into the conference room, and having nothing to do, I got out an envelope and figured out how much money the conference organizer was making at this event. Being a major in finance and minor in accounting, I’m pretty good at data, and it took me about three minutes to determine he was making more money at that conference than I was making with my most popular newsletter in a whole year. So I said ‘to hell with this!’ and got out the cardboard box from under my table, packed in all the remaining books, went to the Geneva airport, left for London, and by the next morning I had a conference division.

What was the most exciting part of building and growing your business?

The great people that I managed to recruit and retain. That’s what business is about: it’s finding the absolute best people to come to your company and retaining them, seeing them grow and develop, and being really proud of what they accomplish. Because they’re the ones that accomplished the growth, not me.

Whom in business do you admire?

Today you tend to have more heroes than we did in the ’60s. In those days, it was more of a corporate era and less of an individual era. What didn’t exist then were tech entrepreneurs, hedge fund managers, people who built big businesses. Today, there are quite a few I admire. Warren Buffett. Bill Gates, not only for what he created with Microsoft, but also for how he has changed his life and gives the majority of his time to the Gates Foundation. Steve Jobs, not as an individual but certainly as one of the most creative, out-of-the-box thinkers who have existed. In the UK, James Dyson is someone with an enormously creative mind who built a very big and very successful business.

What would be your advice to other alumni starting businesses?

If you have the inclination and the intention of starting a business, go out and start one right now. Don’t wait. Don’t hesitate. Never be put off by the fact that you know nothing whatsoever about the industry. I knew nothing about conferences [when I started my business]. You can hire experts! You should learn as much as you can, but you can start it without knowing anything. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But if it doesn’t, start again.

What’s the best business advice you ever received?

Being good is never enough. You can do better. Never ever be satisfied.

What motivates you to give back to Columbia?

I was born not with a silver spoon in my mouth, but rather with parents who were aspirational, who gave me a very good education and encouraged me to do well. My mother was a teacher, and she was always trying to encourage me and my siblings to improve our knowledge. An awful lot of people do not have that. And that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of making a great life for themselves and improving other people’s lives. All of my giving is aimed at helping people who were not as lucky at picking their parents as I was, helping them step up the ladder and exploit their talents, whatever they are, to the fullest.

What is the goal for the Lord Irvine A. S. Laidlaw ’65 Scholarship Fund?

I think it’s very important in every community to have a mix of students in backgrounds and genders. I did not want to see Columbia fall behind just because it couldn’t afford to give scholarships to people who need them.

The School is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Where do you see business education going in the next 100 years?

It will be delivered more by the Internet and distance learning. The classroom experience will be more integrated with internships and experience “on the shop floor.” Running your own business is now, and will continue to be, a central part of business education.

What’s your hope for the future of the School? 

To be the No. 1 business school in the world.

What’s your motto?

Let’s get on with it. Let’s do it now!

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