'When the former captain of the Irish team rings you, you answer the phone'
The former Irish rugby captain and BBC pundit has a new task – head of the National College of Ireland in the IFSC. But his renowned ability to network will be tested in his new role, says LOUISE HOLDENPITY THE guidance counsellor who meets Phillip Matthews. His appointment as the new president of the National College of Ireland will surprise rugby fans and Queen’s zoology graduates, for a start. The former Irish captain has taken a most circuitous route to the top of the education profession, from the Ulster back row through travelling sales to entrepreneurship.
He doesn’t like patterns in his working life, he admits. “As soon as one year looks like the last I tend to move on,” says Matthews, whose rugby career marked him out as one of Ireland’s most respected flankers (see below). He plays down the rugby angle, however, and attributes his success in business and academia to his early years in sales and human resources.
Matthews graduated with a degree and a PhD in zoology from Queen’s University, but his rugby career precluded the obvious next step into academic research.
“Business was a better fit,” he says. “So I got on the road as a travelling sales manager for French pharmaceutical company Rhone Merieux.”
He quickly rose through the ranks from sales to marketing to management and human resources, at which point he moved into the position of group manager of Schering Plough’s animal health division in Ireland.
“I was charged with restructuring the business and I managed to restructure myself out of a role,” he says. However, he was ready to be his own boss and he set up his own human capital consulting business. Entrepreneurship suited his sense of adventure, but before long he had been lured into Wyeth Biotech, as assistant director for staffing.
“Phillip is a very thoughtful guy,” says his former colleague at Wyeth, Donal O’Connor. “He doesn’t rush into decisions and has the capacity to make choices with an eye on how they will impact 10 years down the line. He headed up the staffing for one of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical campuses, in Grange Castle, which now employs 1,280 people. That’s no mean feat.” Thoughtful is a word that follows Matthews around.
In his next incarnation, as director of executive education in the Smurfit School of Business, a cool head helped him leap the ravine between business and academia. “It was a real challenge,” he admits. “I spent the first year trying to figure out what to do.”
By year two he had it figured out and so, true to form, it was time to go. In the meantime, say his colleagues, he brought an exceptional profile to his role.
“Phillip brought three main strengths to the role that would be hard to find combined in anyone else,” says Smurfit school’s professor of marketing, Damien McLoughlin.
“Firstly, his rugby and human resources backgrounds have given him an extraordinary understanding of teams and organisational behaviour. Secondly, his years as an entrepreneur gave him a strong commercial focus. Lastly, he was a great door-opener. When the former captain of the Irish team and one of the country’s greatest players rings you, you answer the phone.”
It was this ability to network that put Matthews in prime position for a job that entailed building client relations, among other roles in the Smurfit school.
His new role in the National College of Ireland will also involve a lot of networking, but not with the business community he is accustomed to.
In his new role, Matthews will have to soft-soap the immovable forces of government.
“I need to influence education policy,” says Matthews. “I’ll need to work with other university presidents to achieve that.”
He claims to relish the challenge that all higher level leaders now face – to siphon money out of a diminishing pool for the very expensive process of educating a workforce.
Up to 80 per cent of NCI’s students could be classed as “access”, which means they come from different backgrounds and age groups to those of the majority of third-level students. Such a constituency needs more than a timetable and a cap-and-gown, and NCI has always prided itself in its student-focused delivery. It’s not cheap.
“Our investments over the next few years will have to be canny if we are to ensure the long term sustainability of the college. I will need to work with philanthropists and engage them in our vision for NCI. We can’t sit still on this.”
It’s not going to be easy, but you get the feeling that Matthews likes it that way. “You learn when things are tough. I suppose there’s a masochistic element to this.”
Only five weeks into the job he’s not inclined to get into strategy details, but that’s characteristic, says his predecessor, Paul Mooney.
“He’s a thoughtful individual and he’s not in a rush to say ‘I’ve arrived and everything is going to change now’. He’s self-confident enough to take his time.”
Mooney and Matthews share at least one attribute: a meandering route to NCI. A former butcher, industrial relations expert and the author of crime thrillers, Mooney knows what NCI needs in a leader right now.
“Matthews is clever enough to work on the business, rather than in the business. He won’t get caught up in the operational stuff – he will step back. He also has a commitment to education. A bit of a soul, if you will.”
From the back row to top of the class
PHILLIP MATTHEWS, the new president of the National College of Ireland, will be better known to most as the Irish international rugby flanker who played with Queen’s University, Ards, Ulster and Ireland in the late 1970s and 1980s.
He made five under age appearances for Ireland before his debut on the senior team against Australia in 1984.
Matthews, a native of Co Down, was part of the Triple Crown-winning back row in 1985 and went on to captain the Irish team in his 18th cap against Western Samoa.
He captained Ireland for 13 outings. His final appearance against Scotland at Lansdowne Road in 1992 was his 38th senior cap.
Now the leader of the 5,000-strong NCI campus in Dublin’s IFSC, Matthews has left his rugby days behind. However, he can still be heard on the BBC, co-commentating on rugby internationals.