When Matthew Vatcher stepped onto London Business School’s campus to begin the year-long Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy Program, he was quite literally following in the footsteps of his father. Three decades earlier, his dad, David Vatcher, entered the same program on a full scholarship from Britain’s Royal Navy. When the younger Vatcher began the program, it was to transition from a career in engineering to business—and to fulfill a requirement for a job offer from his father.
The elder Vatcher has had a career that led him from the British Embassy in Washington D.C. to Silicon Valley to private U.K.-based rollercoaster design companies to his own rollercoaster design and manufacturing company, Dynamic Motion Rides. When the opportunity came for Matthew to join the family business it came with hesitation and a stipulation. For Matthew, it was a big decision and step to walk away from a rising career at London Heathrow to a fledgling venture. And David didn’t want to hire him without a business degree.
“If he joined, I wanted him to do a business degree,” the elder Vatcher explains in a phone conversation with both Vatchers. “And that was probably a shock, although I had this in the back of my mind for some time.”
Indeed, an offer with a stipulation of a business degree was a bit of a shock for Matthew, a budding engineer. “It was unexpected, I think,” Matthew says when asked how he felt about the deal. “Obviously, it was a great opportunity to be able to just take a year and develop myself, from a management perspective.”
‘IT’S SOMETHING HE’S GOT TO EARN’
It wasn’t just any business degree the older Vatcher sought for his son. He wanted him to complete the same program that had changed his life three decades before. “When Matthew showed potential in a position at the company, I decided it would be a better fit if he completed the Sloan Program first,” Vatcher says.
And then, without being prompted, Vatcher explains his decision. “The fact that Matthew’s my son doesn’t give him a ticket to join my company,” Vatcher announces, very matter-of-factly and kind of harshly. “It’s something he’s got to earn.”
And so Matthew is busy earning his place into the company—a four-year-old venture that certainly did not come without resistance and setbacks.
A FULL LBS SCHOLARSHIP OFFER
When David Vatcher was 15 years old, he did something many parents wouldn’t be thrilled about. He dropped out of school and took an apprenticeship with Britain’s Royal Navy. But Vatcher wasn’t like most hormone-raging 15-year-olds, awash with emotion and absent of logic. He had a plan. He joined the Royal Dockyard Technical college, which at the time, provided the best technical education in all of the U.K. And he had immediate success.
“After five years, if you’re the top student out of four divisions, you get a full scholarship to university,” Vatcher explains, brimming with pride and confidence. Sure enough, he was the top student for five straight years, got the scholarship and then a degree in naval architecture from Newcastle University and went right to work as an architect for the Royal Navy, designing ships and leading multiple projects.
But that was only going to satisfy his fervor for personal and professional growth. Each year the Royal Navy would send one person to London Business School’s Sloan program, which is also offered at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and MIT, to expand their senior managerial skills, Vatcher says. A close colleague completed the program the previous year and had nothing but high praise for the experience. So Vatcher applied.
“Originally I applied to MIT, but the British government didn’t really want to pay my expenses to go to MIT but they would pay for London, instead,” Vatcher says.
‘POUNDING SOME LEATHER’
Vatcher was one of 34 students to go through the program in 1984 and over half of the students were international—which ended up being the most beneficial aspect of the program for him. “I spent a year learning how other people tick and what inspires them, “ he explains.
As an engineer, he was also approaching the program in hopes of developing his accounting and financial prowess. He found those needs were met but he also spent time learning about the soft skills of business. Vatcher took the newfound skills, which were put to use immediately, back to the Royal Navy.
“One of the key roles as a naval architect was the position as assistant naval attaché for technology transfer in the British Embassy in Washington,” he says. “And this typically went to someone who was 10 years older than me, and almost as a swan song, for some reason the year I was sent there they decided to try a much younger guy.”
At 33, Vatcher found himself as one of the youngest people ever to work for the British Embassy in the United States. “I remember in the first one or two days sitting in my office saying, ‘well I can either sit in this office and enjoy myself for the next three years, following in the path of my former colleagues, or I can get out and pound some leather,’” Vatcher recalls.
Vatcher pounded some leather. “I had a phenomenal three years negotiating major deals and when I left the British Embassy, I was completely shocked with what happened in the last week,” he explains. “One of the most senior apples in the U.S. told me I probably knew more in the designs of the U.S. Navy than any American.”