Don Porter

One of the most valuable lessons Don Porter ever learned, in his first few weeks at Lancaster University, was how to build up a close-knit network of friends and contacts quickly and efficiently.

As managing director of MSB - one of the UK's top management consultancies - and a leading figure in the Conservative Party (former deputy party chairman), he cannot put a price on the value of his contacts book in making links with existing and potential clients in the UK, Europe and the Middle East.

These advanced networking skills - which later secured him close links with Margaret Thatcher - might not have become so highly honed, had he not arrived at Lancaster University bereft, having left a tight circle of family and friends back home in Macclesfield, Cheshire.

"There were some real challenges in the early days," admits Don. "This fantastic group of friends from school and local political activities was suddenly flung all over the country. So I looked around and realised I had to get stuck in making links with a far wider cross-section of people than I had done at home, driven by the need to replace something special that was no longer there."

He then had to do it all again, when his new close-knit group graduated and he decided to stay on to do a Masters: "I had to start again from scratch," he laughs. "But this time it was a much easier task, because I already knew how to go about it! It is something Lancaster University taught me that I have relied on all my life."

For a man who went on to lead the Conservative Way Forward - the campaign group designed to adapt Thatcherite values and outlook to modern life and politics - Lancaster was a perfect training ground. He became deputy chair of the Conservative party on campus, edited the University magazine and was active in canvassing at election time.

"In my first two years at Lancaster we always seemed to be sitting in, locking in, locking out or demonstrating," he recalls."It was so very different from my background or desires."

He had arrived at Lancaster buoyed up by a love of history and a feeling of incredulity that the department he was joining featured great names he saw quoted in his A-level text books. He reels off the names of department head Professor Austin Woolrich, Professor Harold Perkin and Professor Geoff Holmes as examples.

The young Professor Eric Evans sparked his interest in Britain in the 1790s and the political writings of Burke and Payne. This enthusiasm led him to extend his studies to do a Masters on the changing fortunes of social elites between 1850 and the outbreak of the first world war.

With a heavy timetable in both history and in politics he admits that he spent most evenings and weekends studying. It took him a while to get the balance right, but soon he found himself playing as hard as he was working - a useful attribute throughout his adult life.

Squash and tennis gave him an 'in' on the sports scene, but it was politics that gobbled up most of his time. His political career had started young in Macclesfield, when he rejected the Young Conservatives lack of drive and joined the main party, becoming ward treasurer at his first meeting at the tender age of 17.

He completed his third degree at Lancaster in education, before deciding that neither teaching nor a life in academia offered him the chance to be part of making big changes happen. In a drastic alteration of direction, Don followed a school friend's example and applied for a graduate traineeship with British Airways. Out of 3,500 applicants, Don was one of the 33 selected. He loved it straight away and had found his niche.

From 1977 to 1986 his career with BA took a steep upwards trajectory - in customer services, heading the airline's sales and marketing training department, and working closely with Sir Colin Marshall, BA's chief executive, to turn the 40,000-strong company from an operationally-focused to a customer-focused workforce.

Given his ability to make friends in high places, it was not long until he was headhunted in a James Bond manner by Lloyds Bank in a lunch after a speaking engagement, where he was told "if what I'm about to say embarrasses, we'll take it that the conversation never took place".

The offer of a job to become chief manager of corporate communications - requiring a complete redesign of the bank's service strategy - proved irresistible, despite his love of BA. It also involved a major cultural change programme affecting 54,000 employees in 2,500 locations in the UK and a further 17,000 world wide.

But his entrepreneurial streak and a dislike of bureaucracy prompted him to leave leave Lloyds Bank and to set up MSB, with the man who had taken his job at BA in 1986, Brian Hamill. Don received the CBE in 1996.

His capacity and desire for hard work is enormous. Sixty hours a week at work and another 40 dedicated to his work for the Conservative party is his common pattern. He puts his ability to do this to the disciplined data analysis skills he gained on the history and politics course at Lancaster.

His gratitude has been expressed by his nine-year service on the University Court. His company is also working with Lancaster's Management School to design a course aimed at the Middle East.