Lady Barbara Judge: Chair of the Institute of Directors on how mother’s dementia battle helped inspire her ‘executive alumni’ scheme

Lady Barbara Judge has quickly made herself comfortable at the Institute of Directors, changing the restaurant interiors at the venerable 112-year-old Pall Mall institution and getting the kitchen to bake the soft cookies she likes.

Next up for the institute’s first female chair: displaying more paintings of women – loaned from the National Portrait Gallery – to make female entrepreneurs feel at home.

The IoD, which offers training and a central London meeting place for business people, is trying to recruit more young members and women. Today, however, Lady Judge is turning her attention to old people.

“Too many people retire too young,” she says, ensconced at a corner table. “They just come up to retirement age or they think their whole life they wanted to retire – and when they do, they find it kind of boring. As I always say, how much golf can you play?”

During her three-year term which began in May, Lady Judge, 68, wants the IoD to enable young entrepreneurs to benefit from the wisdom and experience of their elders by pairing them up in an “executive alumni” programme.

“Young people starting their own business can’t afford a finance director. My idea is not that retired people should volunteer, they should be paid, maybe £200 a week. Together they will build businesses which will be good for the country and good for them.”

She adds: “I have this grave fear that if you don’t have a reason to get up in the morning, you won’t get out of bed.”

Her fear is personal. Her mother, a great influence over her life, was associate dean of the New York Institute of Technology and was still working until she gave up four years ago. “The day she retired at 87 she started to go downhill and now she has dementia. She’s in a wheelchair because she forgot how to walk.”

Lady Judge, who has dual British-US citizenship, visits New York once a month, but her mother doesn’t always remember she was there. Frustrated, she has joined the board of Dementia UK and in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society is planning a big fundraiser for World Alzheimer’s Day next September. It is a typical reaction for someone who has juggled jobs with aplomb since settling in London 20 years ago.

Lady Judge’s mother steered many women’s careers – even when men didn’t think they should have one. She devised a course entitled “The World of Work for Women” which advised them to “wear white gloves” – which meant dress appropriately – write a CV, and answer ads even though they said “men wanted”. It was her mother’s advice that turned Lady Judge away from ambitions to act towards the law.

“She said to me, if you become an actress you will spend all day auditioning for parts that you won’t get so you’ll have to work at night to pay the rent. If you want to act, go act in front of a jury.”

So she took to law, becoming a mergers and acquisitions specialist. It was in those years that Lady Judge discovered the uniform she has stuck with: ditching a long, Farah Fawcett-style haircut and short dresses when her boss said he would fire her if she didn’t smarten up. Regardless of dress code, a turning point in her life came in 1980 when Jimmy Carter’s administration was hunting for a woman to become commissioner to the Wall Street watchdog, the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Lady Judge was closing a deal in California when the phone rang. It was the head of her firm who delivered the shock that she’d been shortlisted – and informed her he had told them she wouldn’t be interested because she had just been made a partner.

Her response was: “You call the White House back and tell them I’ll be there on Wednesday.” It emerged that Lady Judge had been recommended by the most senior female  broker on Wall Street – whom she had met on a coach tour of China a year or so previously.  “The moral,” she says, “is to always be nice to single women – especially on a bus.”

The role opened doors. After a stint in banking in Hong Kong, she settled in London in 1993, and married businessman Sir Paul Judge in 2002. Further appointments came thick and fast. Having chaired the UK Atomic Energy Authority, she got the call when the Japanese power company Tepco needed help to plot a future for nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown.

Even though her career had taken off, she never stopped listening to her mother’s voice, either on the phone or in her head. To demonstrate, Lady Judge tells two stories. One is her encounter with Richard Desmond, the Daily Express tycoon, at a charity event in 1996 where she was a guest of the television presenter Jeremy Beadle.

They got talking. In those days, Desmond was in magazines, and had just started celebrity title OK! but wanted to get into TV. Could Lady Judge help him get some airtime on the then very limited satellite platform?

Having done deals for Rupert Murdoch and having set up her own media consultancy, she agreed. The deal was that if Lady Judge helped Desmond into TV, he would give her 10 per cent of the channel as her fee. When it became clear the late-night slot he landed would be given over to adult content, she began asking questions.

“They called it end-of-the-pier. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was off-colour jokes.” She decided she couldn’t keep the shares and handed them back.

“I said: ‘I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to own this channel, even a little bit.’ I thought my mother would be proud of me for standing up for what I believed in. As I walked out, Richard said: ‘Well, if I ever do sell this channel, we’ll see if I’m a gentleman.’” Desmond still owns what became Portland Television, owner of Television X and Red Hot.

The second story, from five years later, involves William Hill. The bookmaker was preparing to float on the stock exchange and a headhunter sounded out Lady Judge for the role of chairman. “I didn’t ask one person, not even my mother. I thought I cannot be advocating something I don’t believe in. I’m American.Americans don’t gamble.”

At a string of lunches afterwards, her friends berated her for not asking their advice and going for it. The role would have made her the first woman chairman of a FTSE 100 company. Her son, Lloyd, who now works in private equity, said: “Why didn’t you call me, mother? This is England, not America. In England everybody bets, even the Queen.”

Lady Judge adds: “The lesson of this story is that everyone needs their own private board of directors, they need people who they trust to go to for advice. They don’t have to take the advice, but they have to ask for it.

“Arguably that was the worst business mistake of my life. I haven’t regretted it although I think about it. I have to do what I think is right no matter what it costs me.”

It is that sort of guidance she hopes the IoD’s young entrepreneurs will pick up from the retirees she wants to pair them with.

It is also more wisdom passed down from her mother. Lady Judge sighs. “She was such a guiding light for me. I miss her so much.”

The CV Lady Barbara Judge

Education: Studied history at University of Pennsylvania and then went to New York University Law School.

Career so far: Joined New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison as an associate in 1969. Made partner at New York law firm Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays and Handler in 1978; commissioner of the US Securities and Exchange Commission in 1980; director of merchant bank Samuel Montagu & Co in 1983. Chairman of UK Atomic Energy Authority from 2004, board member of the Royal Academy of Arts, chairman of the Pension Protection Fund. Chairman of Institute of Directors from 2015.

Personal: Married to businessman Sir Paul Judge. They live in a Thames-side apartment and keep a house in the South of France. Relaxes by writing restaurant reviews.