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Interview: Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, U.K. Business Ambassador

Jul 20, 2012 Written by  Chrisella Sagers, Managing Editor

Barbara - sat at deskWith her hair pulled back away from her shoulders and face, Lady Barbara Thomas Judge radiates an air of regal majesty. But don’t let it fool you into thinking she lives a life of carefree luxury—Lady Judge is one of the most brilliant, energetic, and accomplished women of today’s international corporate world.

Lady Judge, born in New York and today a dual U.S. - U.K. citizen, has spent her life as a pioneer for women in business and boasts an exhaustive list of senior executive positions, from board member to director to chairman. She is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and went on to receive a Juris Doctor from New York University’s School of Law in 1969. She entered a world in which trained female lawyers could often only find work as legal secretaries. Lady Judge was offered many positions as a lawyer but mostly to practice family law, with no chance of ever obtaining a partnership. She eventually took a position practicing corporate law and became a partner in 1978.

From there, her career took off. In 1980, President Carter appointed her as the youngest commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, DC. Thereafter her work sent her overseas, shortly after the birth of her son. She landed first in Hong Kong, where she became the first woman director of the merchant bank Samuel Montagu & Co. In 1993, she moved to London to become an executive director of News International, and later, she founded her own private equity company there as well as served on a number of boards.

With all her experience in dealing with international business ebbs and flows, it came as no surprise when in 2010 she was tapped to represent the United Kingdom as a business ambassador. It came at a crucial time—Britain was feeling the drag from not only the United States’ slowdown, but also from the looming Euro crisis. Britain badly needed, and still needs, Lady Judge and her compatriots to convince international investors that “Britain is open for business.”

“When we are traveling around the world, we are meant to consult and speak with and give presentations to local business people and government officials, explaining the benefits of doing business with the U.K., both for inward and outward investment,” she says. “Our mission is to market Britain’s business.”

The primary industry in Lady Judge’s focus as a business ambassador has been the nuclear industry. Her experience in the field goes back to her role at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, of which she was director from 2002 to 2004 and appointed as Chairman from 2004 to 2010. Her work was vital in refocusing the nation’s energy priorities, as she worked with Prime Minister Tony Blair to bring a revitalizing entrepreneurial spirit to the organization and to “put nuclear back on the agenda.”

“In order to deal with a growing population and a growing global economy, we believed that nuclear had to be a part of the energy mix going forward,” she says of her time with the Authority.

At the time, she was questioned for her lack of background in nuclear energy to which she responded by pointing to her academic record and her training as a lawyer. Not only was she required, as a lawyer, to learn new topics in depth very quickly, she came with a background and personality that demands perfection in preparation.

She continues to bring Britain’s nuclear industry into an entrepreneurial role today. “Because the UK has been in the business of building nuclear power plants for the past 60 years, we have a tremendous amount of accumulated expertise. What I have been saying in my role as business ambassador to other countries that are thinking about building nuclear power plants is that we in Britain can be helpful in the consulting, engineering, education, and regulatory aspects.”

Even after the Fukushima disaster, she continues to provide a steady voice among much of the panicked dialogue surrounding nuclear energy and is currently working with the Japanese to improve their nuclear industry. Before the Fukushima disaster, a revolving door between regulators and operators created a “cozy relationship,” leaving plant maintenance sometimes less than satisfactory and ultimately vulnerable when disaster struck.

While she believes the Fukushima disaster was an unusual confluence of geography and situation, she recognizes that the Japanese government is working hard to repair its credibility on the issue. “The situation in Japan was unique, and I believe that what they need is an independent advisory board to provide transparency for the nuclear industry.”

“It is historically proven that the group most opposed to nuclear power is upper-middle-class women—this is the case all over the world,” she explains. “Accordingly, my proposal would create an independent advisory board to counsel the nuclear industry and report to the public on how things are proceeding. The advisory board would include a number of women who are well-respected by the Japanese, because the perception is that women are less concerned about money and more concerned about the health of their communities. Such an organization would help to restore public trust in Japan’s nuclear industry.”

However, one of the major problems in the nuclear energy field worldwide is the aging of some of the industry’s foremost experts. After the Chernobyl disaster, the world almost completely stopped building nuclear power plants, and most of the world’s best minds in the field today have been working for 25 years or more.

Lady Judge currently serves as the Chairman of the UK’s Pension Protection Fund (the U.S. equivalent would be the Pension Benefit Guarantee Program, or PBGC). The PPF insures retirement investments so that employees who have been contributing to a pension plan will still receive benefits even if their company goes bankrupt and its pension plan is not able to pay.

This, however, is only a bandage for a larger problem. Every country is facing a pensions crisis of some kind. Governments have promised to pay generously to the elderly when they retired, but no one expected people to live so long, and neither countries nor companies can keep the promises that had been previously made. Lady Judge’s suggestion is to create jobs for those nearing the traditional retirement age, drawing upon their expertise. Older employees can also serve as good mentors for younger generations, and this kind of relationship should not be underestimated.

Nevertheless, Lady Judge, whose own working day begins at 5:30 a.m., believes the future of retirement will be an expectation to work longer and save more. “But work is a privilege,” she says. “When you stop thinking, you stop living.”

Even when Lady Judge reaches traditional retirement age, she is not thinking of slowing down. (Her own mother worked until she was 87.) Instead, she hopes to continue to use her varied experiences to try to improve the world. Whether encouraging women engineers in the UAE to continue their careers, or advising international governments on energy or pensions, in today’s interconnected world, she is a powerhouse.

***

On the Issues

On the role of the international community in nuclear safety

The international community is fortunate to have a much respected regulator called the International Atomic Energy Agency. It has established standards and guidance for civil nuclear power projects and in the aftermath of Fukushima, the European Union has mandated a process of stress testing to make sure that existing nuclear power plants operate at the highest safety levels.

On the Fukushima nuclear disaster

What happened at Fukushima is not likely to happen again. First of all, the relationship between the Japanese nuclear operator and its regulator was too close. In Japan, the custom has been that, when a person retires from working at the operator, often they were given a retirement job at the regulator. It was called “ascent to heaven.” Accordingly, there was not the regulatory tension that we have in America or Great Britain, which ensures that adequate safety procedures are followed and that appropriate maintenance has been undertaken. Second of all, in the U.S. and the UK, we are not likely to have tsunamis.

In addition, the plants we are discussing were about 40 years old and were not adequately maintained. Would you drive a car that was 40 years old? The good story is that the plants themselves actually stayed upright. It was the backup cooling systems that went down, and those cooling systems are not used anymore.

One final thing: we must remember that more than 20,000 people died in the aftermath of the earthquake, but not one person died of radiation, nor is anyone likely to do so.

On women in public service

It is important for women to be represented in public service and in government because they possess at least 50 percent of the world’s brain power. It is foolish not to utilize their intelligence, as we need as many talented people in government as we possibly can have in order to address the very difficult issues that the world is facing today.

On the role of business diplomacy in international relations

It is very important for business to be represented in the diplomatic community because without its presence, the interests of business are often not taken into consideration. If we look at the EU, for example, it is obvious that in many cases certain countries propose legislation in a way that is advantageous to them, but perhaps not to the community as a whole. Unless we have continuing contributions from all aspects of business, we will end up with a skewed discussion on issues that are important to one country but detrimental or of little importance to another. Business diplomacy is crucial to widening the public discussion in order to strengthen our economy.

On the fallout of the Arab Spring

I suspect the Arab Spring will have to go through a number of changes before full democracy is chosen as the favorite political system. Very few revolutions end with democracy as the first step—they go through various stages. The Arab world has had a political revolution, but what they really need to have is an economic revolution. The roots of the revolution were truly economic: the people weren’t as angry at the government as they were upset about not having jobs. Often, political turmoil such as what was seen in the Arab world ends up with a strong leader taking over, rather than a more inclusive democratic system. Let us hope these countries will arrive in a beneficial place for their population in a relatively short period of time.

On China as a growing economic power

China is a huge economic power and will grow geometrically. The Chinese are very intelligent and very hard workers. It is important that the U.S. and China go forward as partners, not competitors. If we are wrong in the way we handle our relationship, it will be very unfortunate for all concerned. If we start to make the Chinese feel like competitors, they will be. If we try to be in business together as partners, hopefully the partnership will benefit both of our countries and all of our people will achieve a higher standard of living.

This article was originally published in the July/August edition of the Diplomatic Courier.

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