James Ashton is the CEO of the Quoted Companies Alliance (QCA). He has previous experience in financial journalism, with bylines in The Daily Mail, Reuters, and The Scotsman (to name a few), having previously held editorial roles at The Evening Standard, The Sunday Times, and The Independent. He is also a podcaster, interviewer, and author. His most recent release, The Everything Blueprint, was chosen by The Financial Times as one of 2023’s best summer books. James is also an alumni of the University of St Andrews (having studied English), and former editor of The Chronicle (The Saint before The Saint was called The Saint). We had the pleasure of chatting to him about his time in the town, his subsequent career as a journalist, and his expertise in the financial sector.
“I remember walking into the office for the first time, top floor of the Union. There were dirty pint glasses, overflowing ashtrays, chips and cheese, loads of front covers pasted up all over the walls. And it was intoxicating.” Though he concedes that offices nowadays are likely less sordid, his time on The Chronicle gave him “the bug… I think that’s what university life is all about, isn’t it? Feeding passions.” After casually dropping in the time he “went through to Glenrothes” to interview that little known band The Proclaimers, recounting the (mildly stress-inducing) ‘legend of the Lost Edition’, and the struggle of balancing a full-time degree with the full-time, unpaid, all-consuming job of Editor-in-Chief, we move to his experience working in media post-graduation.
Having completed the Journalism Masters at City University, London, James tells us that he “hadn’t necessarily thought” he would become a financial journalist, initially taking a job on the advertising and media desk at Reuters. However, having found Reuters to be so inclined, he continued “playing in the financial field”, writing to the city editors at various newspapers, and moving around Fleet Street. Now full-time at the QCA, after almost three decades in journalism, James assures us that working as a ‘real’ journalist in a live newsroom is, “fantastic… it’s the best job you can have.”
“To be able to have access to the first draft of history… is a great treat really. And you have to work on your judgement, because the question you must ask is, what is the effect I am having on the wider narrative?” Tired, by now, of the clichéd lines trotted out by everyone and their dog about the slow, painful death of journalism (particularly wearing if you are in fact trying to join the field), we are curious to hear James’ stance on the state of the British media today.
“It’s difficult isn’t it… I think I would always say the British media is great. Free press is very important”. Acknowledging, however, that not everyone can be satisfied at all times and that there will always be critics, James’ real concern is not that print journalism is ‘dying’ — far from it. Instead, he insightfully bemoans that “the news is filtered through social media, and it’s actually a lot harder to hear the alternate view. We’re a long way from a couple of TV channels and a handful of newspapers.” In music to our ears, he adds, “I think student journalists are probably more important, because a lot of regional, particularly local newspapers have been hollowed out.”
As mentioned, James’ newest book, The Everything Blueprint, landed on shelves earlier this year to critical acclaim. In his “sprightly corporate history”, in the words of the Financial Times, he delves into the doings, deals, and details of Cambridge-based semiconductor and software design company Arm, which, as we were speaking, was days away from commencing its Initial Public Offering (IPO), marking the point at which a company’s shares can be traded publicly. Elucidating on why he chose to write about Arm, a firm whose significance stands out all the more given its disproportionate obscurity outwith corporate circles, James says, “I wanted to write a great big UK corporate story about a high tech, global, modern, youngish company. It’s a really short list. Arm is unique in that respect.” And unique it is, even when considered through the lens of sheer quantity. “In its history, which is 33 years old, [Arm designs] have been licensed 250 billion times. They’re currently licensed 1000 times a second.” Steaming towards near-ubiquity, its designs are found in many laptops, many cars, and in every iPhone.
Throughout our conservations, however, one question weighs heavily on our minds. How does one go from the rough and tumble of daily, high-octane journalism to the (seemingly) more gentle-paced, marathon-like process of sculpting 400 appropriately ink-laden pages? “It’s really hard,” responds James, “journalism is a very sociable activity. If you really want to know what’s going on, you’ve just got to get out of the office and talk to people. You can do all your research, but you need to have the conversations.” These skills, of course, remain just as useful when authoring longer works, “but, actually, it’s quite a challenge when it’s just you and the laptop. There’s no daily deadline. There’s not even a weekly deadline.” Surely, such a timeline must feel atypical after almost 30 years engaging prolifically on the often hectic journalistic frontlines. “It’s pretty hard going. You’ve got to be quite self-motivated.” As many students crafting dissertations and theses this year may soon experience for themselves, “you fall in love with it, you fall out of love with it.”
Unsurprisingly, James has throughout his career rubbed shoulders with the profoundly self-motivated: leaders. Indeed, he has even more unsurprisingly penned a book on them, entitled The Nine Types of Leader. For this reason, we, assuming the roles of budding commercial commentators, ask James just what makes for a successful, modern business leader. “Coming out of the pandemic,” he observes, “the most successful type of leader was one I would call the human. They’re happy and very relaxed to be out of their ivory tower. They are, you know, at home on the factory floor. They listen. They consult. The difficult balance is that they share their frailties without looking weak; now that’s a hard thing to do.” We can all sympathise; maintaining such equilibrium must be no mean feat. Alas, how numerous are those endowed with the right qualities to do so in modern Britain? “I think there’s this shift. We talk about this war for talent and, certainly, we haven’t got all the skills we currently need in the UK, but I think you have that sort of leader — very empathetic — because human capital is the driving force for success.”
To conclude, we ponder, what does that notion of success look like in the UK today and, even more critically, how may we get there? To all of our benefit, it appears some optimism may be the order of the day. “We’re so good at science and tech. We have exciting ideas. What we need to do is make sure that there is the growth capital, there is the funding.” Humbly warning us this may sound like a day job answer, James identifies the challenge of helping companies power through and survive well beyond what he refers to as the “middle stage” of growth. “How do you get them to go from being a £50 million company to a £500 million-valued company to £5 billion? Too often our companies have to jump off the escalator and look abroad for the money, which we can do a better job of. If you’ve got more public companies, where you can share the wealth more widely, that helps to lift all boats.” One struggles to fathom a more poetic and pertinent conclusion for readers residing in coastal Fife.
Photo: James Ashton