The D Group was founded by Paul Cautley in 1993 and based on a simple idea; an outstanding, well-executed private CEO briefing programme. That briefing programme continues today, but the years since have seen distinct evolution with a fully-fledged and unique advisory network.
The D Group is founded
The description of The D Group’s first meeting in 1993 was unremarkable in itself; the bringing together of a number of CEOs around a meal on entirely neutral ground to discuss a subject of mutual high interest with an acknowledged expert. What made a difference to that start and the first critical phase of The D Group’s expansion was the quality of the attendance and the formula, still in use today, for the event’s delivery.
The first attendees represented some of the UK’s leading businesses and names. They were deliberately not from one industry. The mix was determinately cross-sector, to maximise both cross-fertilisation of ideas and the opportunity to create new friends and contacts.
After the first few events, interest soon grew in attending the briefings and a membership model was adopted. For the payment of an annual fee a company could attend any D Group briefing, but only at senior management level. By 1996 membership tripled. As the quality of the events and their attendance became known, interest in addressing The D Group grew across the top of both the UK business and political world. The D Group developed the foundations of an enviable list of guest speakers who felt they learned as much from the guests as vice-versa.
These foundation years also saw the establishment of values that have remained at the bedrock of The D Group’s existence; those of discretion, collaboration, an unerring belief in the importance of personal connections and neutrality.
Early momentum sustained
The next four years saw important developments, alongside the continued growth in membership, briefings and the assiduous collection of the networks of contacts and insights that this growth provided.
First, The D Group firmly established its base at The Ivory House, a converted warehouse in St Katherine’s Dock by the Tower of London. A unique city location in the middle of water and with a private residential atmosphere, it firmly underpinned D’s brand of neutrality and provided a warm and trusted welcome for its guests and members.
Second, a growth in requests arose from members for follow-ups, whether with people they had met or on matters discussed. The D Group put in place a small dedicated executive group in St Katherine’s Dock to service member needs and enquiries; securing introductions in new markets, obtaining inside-track insights on tenders, helping to recover international bad debts, finding new NEDs for members and paving the way for company to company discussions as a prelude to a strategic transaction. A particular strength developed for quickly establishing highly relevant, high-level networks for member’s executives who lacked them. With this step, the ‘D’ had moved firmly into ‘Development’.
The period also saw the appointment of several D Group representatives around the world; senior, connected locals able to accelerate D Group members’ understanding of key local issues and their access to decision-makers. Associate D Groups were set up in Germany, France, South Africa and Indonesia.
Third, a quirky D Group tradition was established which contributed to D Group brand recognition, out of all proportion to its size. Each top executive of a new member and each speaker was given the unique and immediately recognisable D Group tie (female speakers and executives, a brooch) and the memorable D Group pot of honey (‘the working together of many brings forth sweet results’). Over the years the tie has been worn by material percentages of the governing UK political party’s cabinet, by a wide range of leading business figures and by many across government and NGOs, here and around the globe.
Continued membership growth
The next eight years saw a substantial embedding of The D Group in UK business and in the body politic as both a meeting place of considerable value and an increasingly effective contacts and business development network. The ability to rapidly access highly relevant networks to executives or companies newly arrived in the UK saw a noticeable increase in membership from the UK operations of major foreign corporations, notably in Defence and IT.
A key development was the maturing of the late ‘90’s ‘Development’ initiative into the basics of a true ‘strategic business development’ capability, known as ‘Tasking’. This demonstrated that D could understand a member’s gaps in key market intelligence and contacts, and use its UK and international network to help fill them. To convert this embryonic capability into a service with the right structure and capabilities needed a step change.
Timing was propitious. In 2005 D had outgrown St Katherine’s Dock. Excellent new premises were found in Mayfair’s Grafton Street. The spacious prime location gave D the space to expand into a new era that saw David Charters, a well-regarded investment banker and author, and Peter O’Kane, a banker and businessman who had engaged with The D Group since he had chaired one of its members in the late ‘90’s, acquire the business. Both men had spent two decades advising and supporting top executives of major UK and global businesses.
The D Group consolidates its position
2009 saw the true reverberations of the worst crisis in global financial markets since 1929. It was a reflection of the solid foundations built over the previous 15 years that D weathered the storm. Indeed, as the length and depth of the recession became clear, there were notable additions to the membership as corporate and institutional fear about the future gave way to a determination to source new contacts and business.
In addition, the global social media networks had found their second wind since the web’s boom/bust of the early 2000’s. Particularly, in the area of market and stakeholder intelligence, these seemed to offer a useful digital alternative to The D Group’s more traditional, personal contact-based networks. What was plain to members, though, was that in important regards ‘digital’ could not replace the personal in making optimal high level connections. Nor could it replicate D’s private Briefing programme with its flow of leading business people, regulators, top government names and subject-experts from academia, think-tanks and NGOs.
Management handover completed
Three initiatives were added, all aimed at making the D service as tailored as possible to the members.
Firstly, account coverage was introduced. Previously communication with members had tended to be through one or two senior D Group executives. Henceforth each D Group member would, in addition to a direct line to The D Group chairman, have a coverage team comprised of a D Group director and manager, meeting the member twice a year to agree a detailed delivery plan, monitor its progress and handle strategic requests and issues.
‘Bespoke’ briefings, just for one member and targeted at their very top management, were introduced. These were separate from the main programme and represented a recognition of how the pull of D’s well-known Briefings programme could be harnessed to communicate a member’s key messaging to targeted high-value audiences. The ‘Bespoke’ initiative was to funnel the full range of D’s network and contacts into an event such that, still within D’s operating rules of no ‘hard-sell’ and neutral ground, the member could be assured of a very relevant, very senior audience.
The third development was a pronounced expansion of The D Group international network in response to the atrophying of UK and Western market opportunities as the 2008-induced recession ground on. Highly connected and senior people were appointed in a number of countries that represented important potential growth markets for many members, but whose ‘emerging’ or opaque nature vastly increased the importance of local knowledge and contacts. Some 20 appointments were made covering key markets in East and Central Asia, the Middle-East, Africa and South America. There was a noticeable early impact on members’ ability to accurately gauge the likelihood of opportunities and also to unscramble problems.
Acquisition of British Expertise
The growing membership interest in The D Group’s international offer led to the next stage, the acquisition of British Expertise, the sole business development group dedicated to the UK’s successful and highly specialised ‘international infrastructure’ sector, with a corporate and institutional membership covering an impressive list of consulting engineers, EPC contractors, master-planners, designers, project managers, architects and facilities managers.
BE shared a very similar membership and operating ethos. Its ‘sector’, infrastructure, was by its nature broad and whether in transport, engineering or energy reflected about 30% of the D membership’s own sector activities. Its long history of engaging with business and governmental leadership in emerging markets sat neatly alongside D’s own growing international network.
It was renamed British Expertise International and became a subsidiary of Strategy. The D and BEI operations and brands kept their own identity, management and advisory boards with Strategy committing to invest in and back BEI’s growth ambitions. (BEI has since made initiatives in acquiring leading digital trade publishing skills, growing a new Middle-East focused BD network and rapidly increasing its engagement with the FSU states).
The BEI acquisition took overall membership and clients to some 190 companies, partnerships and institutions of all sizes.
2015’s changes also predicated a need for further growth investment and saw a further change in ownership with David Charters being bought out by Peter O’Kane.
Enhancing The D Group’s strategic development services was a subject of considerable focus in 2016 and ’17 with a number of case studies proving the model. They were further strengthened by material new hires in 2017. 2016/17 also saw The D Group take a number of important steps in establishing a highly differentiated leadership development programme.
From the beginning the frequent, close discussions with top executive members about positioning their company and successfully executing its strategy went hand in glove with discussing their challenges both as leaders themselves and in bringing on the right C-level talent. Wary at first of entering the crowded world of ‘Leadership Development’, The D Group was hugely encouraged by the membership who quickly saw the benefit of small groups of non-competing CEOs escaping the confines of their own organisations and meeting on D’s neutral ground to compare notes and help each other. The PWG (Peer Working Group) was formed in 2016 and is viewed today by a wide range of C-level executives as an indispensable part of their support systems.
2017 also saw the updating of a long-standing but intermittent D Group offering, the Future Group. The new courses cover eleven months and involve top trainers engaging with fast-track executives from multiple sectors regarded by their senior management as 10 years off ‘C’ level, but also seen as benefiting from further developing inter-personal skills and cross-sector, peer level relationships.
2018 sees further expansion in this area based on developing a mentoring network drawn from the extensive D Group membership and alumni and the huge range of managerial, technical, sector and international market skills they bring.
The resulting D Group is one that remains fiercely faithful to its founding ethos, continuing to inform and connect via an outstanding Briefings programme. There is also a marked and growing emphasis on the development of services to realise the huge potential of skills and know-how embedded in its networks for the benefit of its members