How to get ahead in a merger world

August 16, 1996

For me 1996 will go down as the year of mergers. Last year saw the merger of the Further Education Unit and The Staff College (where I used to work). This year I have presided as a governor over the merger of the Association for Colleges and Colleges Employers Forum and the merger of South Bristol College and Brunel College to form the City of Bristol College. I have to say that it is easier being a governor than being an employee in a merger but the process is no less interesting for that.

The three mergers have had me contemplating what makes for a successful merger and what characterises mergers of institutions which are quasi-autonomous - not quite charities, not quite commercial companies and not quite agencies of the state.

The AFC/CEF merger was the easiest. The bodies were relatively equal, the membership support was massive, the leaders were relatively free (the fact that the assets came indirectly from state money brought only the remotest of state influence) and the major imperative was to ensure fair play.

The FEU/Staff College merger was the hardest. The state, at least in the form of the Further Education Funding Council, was there at every turn. The idea was the dissolution of the pre-existing bodies and the emergence of a successor body - under new governance and management - and without the presupposition that existing forms would continue in any way. Consultation produced results about the desirability of the thing which could be read in at least two different ways. And for at least some of the participants the unspoken question of "why are we doing this was", never far away.

The most interesting turned out to be the local college merger. For those who think mergers might take an age it is telling to reflect that the South Bristol/Brunel merger took less than a year from the start of serious opening talks to completion. A number of ingredients made speed and success possible.

The first was the logic of the case. Both colleges were strong in financial and market terms. But their strengths were complementary. Second, there was a great emphasis on consultation - in mergers consultation with staff, students, competitors and significant others is rather like fresh air - you cannot have enough of it. Third, the senior staff roles were for the most part complementary and we did not have to face the forcible eviction of any existing tenants. Fourth, we acted as if it was a commercial merger with early due diligence studies, feasibility studies, strategy plans and the general construction of the conviction that value would be added and the sum would be more than the parts. We had a governors-based negotiating team. Whatever else a merger is, it is a negotiation.

A fifth factor was the presentation of the case and the compliance with the security of the inspectorate, on the one hand, and the FEFC regional committee, on the other. The hardest question posed was what would we do if the merger was not approved. The only answer I could think of was "cry"!

In some ways the final ingredient was the most difficult. In the post-Nolan setting how do you integrate two different sets of governors, some of whom have to jump on their swords anyway? The answer is to decide a balance between the ancien regime (for the sake of continuity) and new blood (for the sake of a fresh start).

Last week I chaired the inaugural meeting of the foundation governors of the new college. It was a measured and quiet affair. But as I contemplated the issues ahead I realised that while mergers can be easy - the fun starts afterwards.

Keith Scribbins is interim chair of governors, City of Bristol College.

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