Interview: Never too late

Mark Watts, chief executive of the RSPCA, is an insider who went for the top job instead of retiring.

Mark Watts
Mark Watts

Mark Watts was planning to retire after 28 years at the RSPCA. But when the chief executive position came up and he discovered that there was a waiting list at the local conservation group he had planned to volunteer for in his retirement, he changed his mind. "I decided I'd be better suited to the challenges of this role than the challenges of retirement," he says.

Watts was appointed chief executive in February (Third Sector Online, 20 February) and he says his bedding-in period has been short. "I know the people and the trustees, so that gives me an advantage," he argues.

He also has the benefit of experience. In his previous job as finance director, he has already faced some of the challenges that most chief executives would like to avoid altogether. Five years ago, for example, the RSPCA narrowly avoided strikes when 200 staff were made redundant because of a financial crisis.

Watts approaches the subject with calm diplomacy. "There was no way we could have foreseen the decline in the stock market, which unfortunately coincided with us drawing on our reserves," he says. "We got to a stage where we had to put the brakes on quickly. With the benefit of hindsight, you could say we might have survived a bit longer. But given the circumstances at the time, the actions that were taken were right."

Those circumstances included new headquarters - a giant, modern building costing £16m, which attracted much controversy. "The two events didn't coincide completely," says Watts. "The commitment to the building was already there."

As chief executive, Watts is getting to grips with a number of new challenges. "This role has drawn me into new areas, such as the more technical aspects of animal welfare - the more 'pointed' end of the organisation," he says. "It's going to take a while to familiarise myself with that."

He has already spent several days out on patrol with the RSPCA's inspectors and is also familiarising himself with the realities of working with government. The latter does have its risks, he says: "There can be a danger. We do get quite heavily involved with national agencies - we've had a lot of involvement with Defra over foot-and-mouth - and we often have to criticise what these agencies do. We have to keep a reasonable distance.

"It's a question of cooperation rather than trying to take on the jobs that they're responsible for. Local authorities and central government should accept their responsibilities towards animal welfare."

On campaigning, Watts won't be drawn into squabbles with groups that complain of double standards when it comes to campaigning organisations and charitable status. "Our campaigning is always for the benefit of animal welfare and we go out of our way to avoid party politics," he says, evidently well briefed on the Charity Commission's recent campaigning guidelines. "Fox hunting did bring us into conflict with people who have very strong views. But I think those people might share our views on other animal welfare issues."

With many charity directors recruited from outside the sector, the appointment of Watts is perhaps unusual. "It does an organisation no harm to promote from within from time to time," he says. "We're far from the days when heading a charity was a post-retirement job. The sector has become a lot more demanding. I'll admit my primary motivation for joining the RSPCA was not the cause. I was fed up with London and wanted a job closer to home. But it developed rapidly. You can't fail to be drawn into it."


Watts CV

2008: Chief executive, RSPCA
2002: Director of corporate services, RSPCA
1991: Director of finance and support services, RSPCA
1983: Director of finance, RSPCA
1980: Chief accountant, RSPCA
1976: Chief accountant, BBC Enterprises
1970: Assistant television accountant, BBC

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