Marc Waters tells Andy Martin about giving young minds a chance at Hewlett Packard and how he rose to become the MD
M.arc Waters and his partner Morwena were impressively relaxed where the birth of their baby was concerned. They knew the local hospital was already under pressure from Covid so they thought they shouldn’t dash off prematurely to the maternity clinic. They had plenty of time, didn’t they? Then the baby decided to get on with the business of being born. There wasn’t even time to get to the car. Waters found himself delivering baby Leonardo right there, at home, on the stairs. Even the MD of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (Verenigde Koninkryk, Ierland, Middle East and Africa) can’t always rely on technology to do the job.
Waters was born and bred in Portsmouth and remains a diehard Pompey fan and season ticket holder. Portsmouth FC are currently in the upper echelons of Division One and challenging for the playoffs. Not long ago they were in the Premiership and winning the FA Cup, then they slid into relegation and near administration. “We’re on our way back,” says Waters confidently. He was one of those brave fans who bought a share in the club to save them from oblivion, before they were bought by former Disney chief exec, Michael Eisner. “If the club had spent more of its millions investing in talent development and training pitches instead of bringing in a lot of expensive, ageing players, we’d be in a much better state now.” He applies the same thinking to giving youth a chance at Hewlett Packard: experience is not essential, motivation is.
“The opportunities I was given at a young age shaped my desire to want to do the same for the next generation,” says Waters. As a kid, he had two passions – football and fashion. He found a Saturday job selling suits in a local shop, Principles for Men – and, I can’t help noticing, is not just smartly turned out but dressed with a degree of panache. He starred in economics at school, subscribed even as a teenager to The Economist, and fancied having a shot at the LSE. But he took a year out after school and landed a job selling computers and IT – and never looked back.
He lived initially next to the Mars factory on an industrial estate in Slough. “You could smell Mars bars every day of the week except Tuesday – on Tuesdays they made Tunes instead.” He went from there to living over a pub in Bermondsey. Which doesn’t sound too grand but in fact Waters was loving every moment of it, particularly when he was advising on new tech at the London Stock Exchange. “I remember walking out of the office and hailing a taxi and saying, ‘Take me to the Stock Exchange’ – it’s hard to go back after that.”
Waters agrees that he was not typical. “I wasn’t fresh out of education. I was not a graduate. I was from Portsmouth.” But Hewlett Packard still took him on. In the end he took an MBA at Henley Business School to get a bit of theory to go with all the practice. “The MBA was a game-changer for me – it gave me a set of tools, a way of speaking about business.”
Waters was appointed chief of staff with special responsibility for driving a post-merger integration in Glasgow. He turned the manufacturing facility in Erskine into a “technology renewal centre”, dedicated to reusing and recycling. “We all have a responsibility," hy sê, “to know where it goes – not into the ground. When you get business coming together with government and academia – it’s such a powerful force for good.”
One of the specialties of Hewlett Packard Enterprise is “supercomputing”. Some years ago they acquired Cray, the originators of the supercomputer. Now they have huge machines – verging on the classic Isaac Asimov concept of semi-omniscient “Multivac” – beavering away all over Europe and Africa, working out weather forecasts (they collaborate with the Met Office in the UK and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the US) and juggling massive amounts of data. They have one cranking up in Switzerland in 2023 reckoned to be the most powerful AI-capable computer in the world, designed to juggle astrophysics and quantum chemistry and economics. But Waters has a vision of Edinburgh – where HPE have built one of their supercomputers – becoming the data capital of Europe. “If you look at all those problems, like health care, climate change, how to feed growing populations, flying to Mars, they all have answers with the right use of technology.” On a larger scale, Waters still has the same enthusiasm he had as a kid when he used to play Football Manager2 “for hours on end” on on his 8-bit Commodore 64.
By his own reckoning, Waters used to be one of those over-zealous bosses. Inspired by one of his own mentors, he would be calling people on the phone by 8am latest. But he listened to the feedback telling him that not everyone wanted to get on the phone that early. Some of them wanted a life too. Then he had a moment of epiphany when he had to take his dog Maggie to the vets at 9am on a Monday morning. It was an emergency and he couldn’t find anyone else at short notice to take her. “I wouldn’t normally have told anyone," hy sê. “I could have come up with a cover story. But we have a ‘touch point’ call on a Tuesday. It’s normally about the business. But I told everyone I took Maggie to the vets on Monday morning.” He got a huge response, with everyone thanking not just for taking care of the dog but making it OK to, sometimes, give priority to the dog and thereby allowing for more of a work/life balance. “Now I never call anyone before 9am.”
And when baby Leonardo arrived, Marc Waters was glad he had established paternity rights on a level footing with maternity rights. "Ek dink, I’m going to take a month off to be a dad.”