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Ellis Watson is CEO of DC Thomson, the Scottish media group. He previously headed Simon Cowell's joint venture with Sony, and turned around the legendary Greyhound Bus business.
Ellis' first break came as Marketing Director at The Sun, reporting directly to Rupert Murdoch. He then became CEO of Celador International, licensing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to 100 countries and overseeing 130 branded consumer products before being lured back to Fleet Street as MD of Mirror Group Newspapers.
After a spell with Menzies, Ellis next accepted an invitation to join the board of FirstGroup, the world's biggest privately owned public transport operator. They parachuted him in to Ohio to address the ailing fortunes at Greyhound. Founded in 1914, it was a $3bn concern with 3,400 bus stations, 17,000 buses and 27,000 employees; but it was broken and losing share to internal airlines. Within 14 months Ellis had re-equipped the fleet, rejuvenated the brand and reinvented the culture (starting with mystery shoppers and training camps). Greyhound is now building a reputation for safety, reliability, comfort and above all service.
In his current role at DC Thomson, Ellis is steering a traditional firm that's been family run for six generations into a future-proofed organisation. He's shed a third of staff, increased turnover at the papers and moved The Beano, part of the fabric of the company, from print to digital.
In presentations Ellis argues that a significant external shock like recession can be a springboard for positive change. He shows how to inspire passion when under pressure, and how to progress from mission statements to true company culture embracing quality, integrity and diversity.
Ellis is known as one of the most inspiring and intelligent keynote speakers in Britain. He's also hugely entertaining. After dinner he might reveal how the Colombian Minister of Information insisted on hosting 'Millionaire' himself, giving glamorous female contestants a helping hand.
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JLA: Are there any positives to be taken from the recession?
EW: Many companies are responding to recession like Chicken Licken, and totally missing the opportunity to radically overhaul the focus of their team. Any significant external shock can be used as a springboard for internal change that's staggeringly positive. Give me a room full of despondent executives in a downturn for an hour and I'll turn them into a bunch of change-hungry, tenacious go-getters because of the opportunities of the economic change.
JLA: What lessons can a large organisation learn from entrepreneurs and small businesses?
EW: Getting big companies to be bigger is hard, as the people running them often have forgotten - or weren't part of - the entrepreneurial aggression that made them big in the first place. Getting large organisations to be as hungry and aggressive as a small one is a cultural challenge - it must force executives to think outside their big resources, comfy positions and self-important success. If left unchecked, big organisations become lazy and complacent - get it right, and they can make a powerful cocktail from brilliant scale & assets that smaller competitors can't harness and a real drive to make them work damn hard.
JLA: How do you inspire trust, build trust and foster ambition?
EW: Talent can't sit behind boardroom doors and deep carpets - it has to rush through its organisation infecting their passion and drive across the whole company.