Lord Harris of Peckham

Lord Harris finalLord Harris of Peckham is a businessman, philanthropist and Arsenal supporter. He has over fifty years experience in carpet retailing and is Chairman of Carpetright plc. He is also the chairman of the Harris Federation (which includes Harris Westminster and is responsible for the first half of the name) and has an interest in the health service, having served as Chairman of the Guys and Lewisham Hospital trust in the 1990s.

What was your experience of school like?
I went to Streatham Grammar School and was good at Maths but bad at English: I’m dyslexic which wasn’t picked up at the time and so I struggled with subjects like French, German, Latin and English. I was good at History and Geography because I was able to memorise facts – so I liked those.

What did you do on leaving school?
I was planning to go to Norwood Technical College but my father died and so, at the age of 15 years and 15 days I went into his business. We had three shops: one in Penge and two in Peckham, selling lino, rugs, mats and cotton carpets (which sounds odd now but they were more common back then).

What is the most important lesson you've learned since leaving school?
That people make the difference in whatever area you’re working in: business, politics, hospitals or schools. Every person wants to do a good job but they need to be motivated and to have a clear vision. Mine is that anything can be done – nothing is truly impossible.

If you were to imagine the ideal school what would the key points be?
A good school needs a good Principal, good discipline, good sport and to have motivated students.

Why does sport have such a high place on your list?
Sport was very important for me at school. I believe that you should work hard, play hard and enjoy life. Without sport you’re missing a piece of that jigsaw.

What was the toughest challenge in taking over the business?
Persuading thirty and forty year olds to respect a young person.

What was it that drove you to set up and build your businesses?
My mother died three years after my father did and I wanted to show the world that I could do something my father would be proud of.

Have you always been an Arsenal supporter?
Yes. I loved football and cricket – they motivated me to get to know about people and how to get the best out of them, not to put up with problems. I liked Denis Compton as a cricketer and he played for Arsenal. I also played once at their ground for London Schoolboys and have supported them ever since.

Apart from London, which is your favourite city?
For business it’s New York or Paris. For a holiday, I love the Maldives. It’s relaxing, lots of sand and good food.

If you could give one piece of advice to your sixteen-year old self what would it be?
Don’t make the same mistake twice – learn from when you get it wrong.

Were you interested in politics as a young man?
No, I wasn’t.

Should young people be interested in politics?
It’s complicated. Actually I think that the things I have to do with (schools and hospitals) should be taken out of politics. Thatcher got me into politics: she put together a group of business people. She wanted to change things. Politicians are different today: they have no outside experience, they’ve never had another job. My advice to any young person interested in politics would be to go into business (or science or whatever) first.

Which of your achievements makes you proudest?
Running Guys and Lewisham hospital. We turned it round, balanced the books and enabled it to see 60,000 more  patients.

Who inspires you?
People who say that something can’t be done spur me on to show that it can. More positively Margaret Thatcher inspired me: she would never take “no” for an answer.

What question should we have asked you that we haven't?
You should ask me what I want out of Harris Westminster. Last year 19% of Harris students went to Russell Group Universities. That’s good but 90% of Westminster School students went to the same Universities. I want Harris Westminster to help us get 50% of Harris students into Russell Group Universities. That’s the target for the future.