Raymond Doherty 12 Dec 2018 11:05am

A day in the life Janet Walker

Janet Walker tells Raymond Doherty how her career has encompassed TV and film, horseracing, and now Eton College as bursar

Caption: Photography by Matthew Andrews

How I changed career

I came to Eton with the preconceptions and prejudices that many people have. I have been extremely, pleasantly surprised. What Eton tries to do is bring out the best in each boy.

We spend about £7m per year on bursaries. We have 70 boys who are here free of charge and another 20% who don’t pay full fees. There’s a sense that having a social mix in the school is good for all the boys. I gained a degree in politics and economics at Oxford, then went to PwC and qualified as a chartered accountant.

Six months later I got a job with HandMade Films, where among other things I did George Harrison’s income tax and signed the cheques on Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits.

After that I joined Channel 4 before it went on air, which was 36 years ago now. I was in film and television until 2003. I worked for Channel 4 three times, ending up as director of finance and business affairs. I also had stints at the BBC, at ITV, and in the independent sector. I got into the industry by chance but it turned out to be an exciting time in film and TV. It’s a young person’s industry, though. So in 2003, I took the job of commercial and finance director at Ascot Racecourse. My first job was to raise money for the redevelopment of the £200m grandstand, which was central to my time there.

I was at Ascot for seven years, and was acting chief executive for six months. I joined Eton as bursar in 2011 and I’ve been here ever since. My career, I’m afraid, has not been predicated on advanced planning and careful strategy. It has been entirely based on people calling me up and saying “how about this?”, and me thinking, I’d better give that a try or I’ll never know if I could do it. I hadn’t set foot in a school since I finished studying and I had never been in an independent one in my life. The logic, I think, was that Eton, like Ascot, has history – 600 years in Eton’s case. There is quite rightly a lot of tradition to be preserved, but all businesses have to move on. The secret is to do it while trying not to lose what makes it special.

The challenges I’ve overcome

Initially it was getting to know my way around. We have around 400 school buildings and that’s on top of a commercial property portfolio and an endowment securities portfolio that together are worth in excess of £400m.

It’s not just the school, which in itself is quite complex. We have 1,300 boys, each of whom has his own room. It’s a big organisation and has all sorts of hidden corners – for instance we have a little school observatory, which has the oldest working telescope in the world. We’ve got 400 acres of land and a rowing lake up the road.

Financially the school was in pretty good shape when I joined but there are always improvements you can make. We have a development director and we seek donations. Donors have a right to expect that you run the place efficiently, offering a Rolls-Royce education but not wasting money. It’s about continually reviewing areas where we might do better.

There were also quite a few building developments in the pipeline. I was the first female bursar to be appointed but I’ve always taken the view that there is no point in thinking about things like that, you just get on with it.

We own a lot of the properties and shops in the High Street. I think it would be true to say when I arrived that relationships between town and gown were not very good. I had seen at Ascot how important it is when you are the major influence in the town that you engage with the locals and have plenty of public meetings. At Eton we try never to put in a planning application without having a meeting first. Having grown up in a village, I can empathise.

My responsibilities

I’m responsible for the financial, administrative and operational aspects of the school. In other words, everything except the academic side. I also have oversight of the investment and property portfolio. I have an HR department of about 10 people, and a finance department of about the same size. There is also the building and facilities department, which is quite big as it includes gardeners and groundsmen. We have carpenters and electricians on staff who maintain the boarding houses. We have a large catering team. It’s probably a couple of hundred in all, but I don’t think of it en masse.

My typical day

What would be typical about any day is that something totally unexpected is likely to arise. There are some meetings that reoccur – there are fairly regular bursary committees where we consider bursary applications. I will often go down to Dorney Lake because we have commercial lettings there. I meet the Japanese agent for one of our Japanese summer schools.

I’m preparing an investment presentation for the financial committee at the moment. We have our year-end audit. The school is open for 32 weeks of the year. For those weeks it is very full on, there are events in the evening, which I try and go along to. There’s a singing competition called the House Shout, where you see all the boys sing, one house after another. During the holidays it’s rather different. You try to work on longer-term projects.

Industry quirks

I knew nothing about the education industry. The Eton nomenclature and language took some getting used to – they call terms ‘halves’, masters ‘beaks’, lessons ‘divs’ and so on. It’s a very pleasant and privileged place to work. My office is in a 15th century cloister. I can walk to work across the playing fields. I have access to wonderful music in the chapel and school drama. You can have lunch with some of the boys and have a chat with them.

Habits of an accountant

I’ve always told finance departments to remember the difference between data and information. And remember how important presentation is. I think accountants, in lower rather then higher levels, tend to concentrate on the numbers, which is only part of the story.

Someone at Eton once said to me “beware the forces of tidiness”. This is especially true of accountants who like everything to be ordered and in neat little boxes. Often that is right, but sometimes a little bit of muddle is okay.