Book review: No Condition is Permanent, by Sir Bob Reid

Sir Bob ReidSir Bob Reid
Sir Bob Reid
This autobiography from the former deputy chairman of the Bank of Scotland is full of valuable advice for anyone navigating business challenges, writes Emma Newlands

Sir Bob Reid is the former chairman and chief executive of Shell UK, former chairman of the British Railways Board and ICE Futures Europe and the former deputy governor of the Bank of Scotland, and he can now add memoir author to his lengthy CV, following the publication of this engaging book in which he recounts a remarkable life and career that spans various major industries, a wealth of locations around the globe, and some pivotal moments in history.

Fife-born Reid lost his right hand aged nine in an accident at his father’s butcher’s shop, and this incident, while clearly life-changing, is dealt with briefly and promptly on the second page, and barely referenced thereafter.

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There is no wallowing in self-pity, but then there is so much more to cover, starting with early Shell postings in Borneo, Nigeria and Thailand. It’s all recounted in vivid, fast-paced prose, tightly packed with information and sprinkled with wry anecdotes.

No Condition is Permanent, by Sir Bob ReidNo Condition is Permanent, by Sir Bob Reid
No Condition is Permanent, by Sir Bob Reid

Reid has faced no lack of challenges, including oil and banking crises, and he talks of how he has often dusted himself down and kept going. Indeed, the memoir is billed, quite rightly, as a “story of determination and achievement shot through with political upheaval, economic reversal and industrial catastrophe.” Major incidents such as the Piper Alpha tragedy and the deaths of workers on the railways have clearly left a major mark on him, and he stresses the human cost of industrial endeavour.

That said, there are lighter moments too – in terms of PR triumphs, he cites the brainwave for Shell to offer crystal tumblers as an incentive to customers, and the way the company was able to access the film-making world through its work with BAFTA.

After his spell as chairman and CEO of Shell UK, where he was responsible for all oil exploration, production, refineries and coastal shipping, in 1997 he joined Bank of Scotland as Deputy Chairman, where he remained until 2004. Citing Roy Perman’s book Hubris: How HBOS Wrecked the Best Bank in Britain, he looks at some of the factors that allowed the lender to slip from the nation's most “admired bank” in 1995 to its spectacular collapse as part of the HBOS conglomerate less than 15 years later.

Reid’s account of his time in corporate life sees brief cameos from a host of business names including Robert Maxwell, Sir Philip Green and Sir Tom Farmer. A keen and accomplished golfer, Reid clearly understands the importance of getting out of the rough in the boardroom, stresses how vital it is for business leaders to look at the whole picture, and warns of the perils of succumbing to greed. Remaining in touch with staff, he believes, is also key: “In large organisations, it is vital that employees know that you are accessible, not locked up in some remote office protected by gatekeepers,” he says.

This book provides valuable advice for anyone navigating business challenges, then, but also much broader lessons on humility and coping with adversity, all told in compelling fashion.

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No Condition is Permanent – Risk, Adventure and Return: The Business of Life, by Sir Bob Reid, Fonthill, £25

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