The Square Mile and Me: James Ashton on Occupy London, the City’s history, and Balfour’s oysters
Each week we ask the City’s great and good to delve down memory lane. This week, it’s James Ashton, the chief executive of the Quoted Companies Alliance, representing small- and mid-cap listed firms, and a former newspaper journalist
What was your first job in the City?
I wrote about advertising and media for Reuters, based on Gray’s Inn Road. It gave me an early chance to interview some big business figures including Sir Martin Sorrell and Jeff Bezos.
When did you think the City was the place for you?
As soon as I began reporting more widely. Nowhere else has the same buzz, whether from those early First Tuesday networking events or a Mansion House dinner. And what great stories. Take Barclays, an odyssey summed up brilliantly in Sir Philip Augar’s book. Later on, as Evening Standard City Editor, I got to explore more nooks and crannies, including the Bank of England’s basement cash vault.
The City could always tell a better story
Who is the City figure you’ve most admired?
Difficult choice. There have been so many innovators, going all the way back to John Castaing, also a newspaperman, who first listed stock prices in the coffee houses in the late 1600s. How Lance Uggla grew data provider Markit over 20 years is a much more modern but barely-known success, although he should have listed the shares in London. And in getting Crossrail constructed, Jo Valentine was relentless – just as every trade group boss should be.
What’s one thing that has surprised you about joining the Quoted Companies Alliance?
The degree to which we get listened to in government and by regulators. For our small and midcap members we are an effective check on the unintended consequences of one-size-fits-all regulation. That’s a testament to the work of my predecessor Tim Ward. We’re not complacent: I need to build on those relationships and turn up the volume a little on what we do.
What’s been your most memorable moment in the City?
When I ate with Xavier Rolet at the London Stock Exchange the Occupy London protestors were in full view, camped out below on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was a reminder that the Square Mile can always explain itself better.
We’re going for lunch and you’re picking – where are we going?
Either branch of Balfour. Great oysters. Or Vinoteca on St John Street is very friendly.
And if we’re going for a drink after work?
The Ned. Or heading west, the Ivy Club.
Are you optimistic for the City in 2023?
You’ve got to be. We are one of the world’s leading capital markets and a London listing is still a kitemark of quality internationally. There is vigorous agreement that we need to boost competitiveness. Our job is to make sure the government’s Edinburgh Reforms keep up momentum because we are still losing one public company per week.
One thing you love about the City…
It’s where ancient meets modern. St Bart’s the Great, the church next to our office, is 900 years old this year and provides a calming oasis. Around the corner, BT’s old headquarters is being reimagined and the Museum of London is moving into Smithfield. The City is constantly being remodelled and that’s exciting.
… and one thing you’d change
We’re the QCA: we want a better deal for growth companies on the public markets – less burdensome regulation and cost, more buyers and sellers. Bring back independent equity research and some of the Tell Sid excitement for retail investors too. It matters: for City jobs, yes, for London’s global reputation, certainly, but also as fuel for the wider UK economy.
Where’s home during the week?
Haslemere in Surrey. Somehow I joined the commuter crowd.
And where would we find you on a Saturday afternoon?
West Wittering if I’m lucky. I’ve lost so many weekends in the last year to The Everything Blueprint, my book on the microchip designer Arm, which is out in May.
You’ve got a well-deserved two weeks off – where are you going?
The south of Sweden. Beach, forest, cinnamon buns – need I say more?
James Ashton is the chief executive of the Quoted Companies Alliance. He is also Chairman of Oscar’s Book Prize, an annual prize for the best picture book of the year for young children. As of 2021, the Prize awards the winner(s) £10,000. The prize is awarded in memory of Oscar Ashton and runs in partnership with Amazon, supported by the Evening Standard.