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In Conversation with Orielensis Master Grocer Deputy James Thomson | Host of the 2023 London Dinner

After Oriel, James had a thirteen-year career in the financial sector, first as a trainee and later a Chartered Accountant at PwC, then as an Investment Banker at Samuel Montagu (now HSBC Investment Bank) and Deutsche Bank.

A pivot into manufacturing and the property sector led to James becoming Chief Financial Officer at Smiths Group plc and Cushman & Wakefield, then Chief Executive of Keepmoat and MJ Gleeson plc, of which he is now Chairman.

During this time, James began dabbling in the policing sector, working as a Special Constable in the police force for twelve years alongside his day job, rising to the rank of Inspector. He was named Special Constable of the Year for the City in 2007. James later became common councillor at the City of London Police and Chair of the Police Authority (Police and Crime Commissioner). He is on the board of the Association of Police Crime Commissioners (APCC), which hosted the National Cyber Resilience Centre Group, for whom James was chair. James joined the board of the Serious Fraud Office in 2022, in his words: “bringing [his] interest in fraud full circle”.

James is currently serving as Master Grocer at The Worshipful Company of Grocers; an organisation that traces its origins back to 1180, when it was known as the Guild of Pepperers, responsible for the trade of a wide range of spices and commodities, and later for weights and measures for the Port of London.

James will be hosting the 2023 London Dinner at Grocers’ Hall on 9 May this year, and we caught up with him to find out more about his role as Master Grocer and where life has taken him since his Oriel days.

What kinds of duties do you undertake in your role as Master Grocer? 

“Today the Grocers’ Company has a charity that donates around £1m a year to a wide range of charitable causes. We support schools, encourage members to give their time, talent and treasure to supporting a wide range of causes. We also bring members together for fellowship around Company social and sporting events.  

As Master, it is a bit like being the Head of an Oxford College: you have to make it all work whilst navigating a slightly quirky governance structure and in an eco-system of 110 other Livery Companies in the City of London. The principal difference is that you are Master for one year only, although I will remain on the Court of Assistants, of which there are just under 30, following my year as Master.” 

What are your fondest memories of your time at Oriel? 

“As someone who never thought I was able to get a place at Oxford, I can remember vividly receiving my first and only Post Office telegram which simply said ‘Congratulations. Awarded scholarship to Oriel College’. I was astounded. I am immensely grateful to those that supported me on the journey to getting a place at Oriel.  

As a rower, my highlight was rowing in the Oriel Second Torpid in 1988 that narrowly missed getting Blades but ended up third on the river, sandwiching Christ Church between the Oriel First Torpid and Oriel Second Torpid. We narrowly missed that fourth bump, but it was an extraordinary performance for any second Torpid. It is probably a record that will remain unbeaten. The stroke was Mike Wigston – now Air Chief – as bow side stroke and I was number seven. I was also lucky enough to reside in 1:1, the Boat Club room, for my last two terms in 1988. It was the year that Oxford Blues was released, and American visitors seemed fascinated with visiting 1:1. 

I can remember quite clearly finishing my finals and finding out my results, which were pinned to the notice board in the Exam Schools. Over 30 years on, in 2020, I enjoyed meeting up with my Geology tutor and former Fellow of Oriel, Dr Paul Taylor, as well as my three other tutorial partners, including David Psaila my fellow Orielensis, together with our two tutorial partners from St Catz.  

Undoubtedly, in top spot for fond memories, are the many enduring friendships that started at Oriel and Oxford.” 

How do you think you time at Oriel has impacted your life and career? 

“Oriel was a transformative experience for me and I believe has influenced my life in many ways – from career choice to the very many close friends that I still have from Oriel over 30 years on. Oriel has had a much broader influence in my life: it was as a result of my father, Paul, also attending Oriel between 1958 and 1962 that, indirectly, led to me meeting my wife Kate. I was also pleased that my son Arthur attended Oriel from 2018 to 2022, studying Maths. Oriel has quite a lot to answer for in the Thomson family.” 

How did your interest in policing and national security evolve?  

“Whilst I considered becoming a police officer after leaving Oxford, I didn’t know anyone who was. As a result, I pursued a more traditional career route. After banking, before my move into industry, I did explore a career in policing and similar organisations and it was then that I discovered I could indulge my interest in policing by becoming a Special Constable which I did for over 12 years – policing the streets of the City of London in my spare time alongside my day job.  

I then felt I could contribute more by joining the City of London Police Authority Board rather than dealing with pub fights. The City of London Police is the local force for the Square Mile – with the number one priority being counter terrorism – as well as being the national lead force in policing for fraud, economic crime and cyber attacks.” 

Why is this work so important? 

“Fraud and economic crime now accounts for nearly half of all crime, and yet just under two per cent of police funding is dedicated to this issue. It is a huge cost to business, but it is also a crime that targets everyone, every day, including many vulnerable victims. Many people, not just the vulnerable, fall foul. Victims are often embarrassed to report these crimes and in some cases are at significant risk of harm: in some cases victims have taken their own lives. The City Police also works with the insurance industry to tackle fraudulent claims and ghost broking – where you are tricked into buying a worthless policy. We also deal with intellectual property fraud.  

Tackling fraud and cybercrime is not just a job for policing, it requires a proactive approach to preventing people from falling victim and it requires businesses to detect, disrupt and prevent fraud or cybercrime. This is why I campaigned with others to ensure that fraud was included in the Online Safety Bill as a priority harm, and that online paid-for advertising is also included, putting a duty of care on social media companies to prevent their platforms being used by fraudsters. Tackling fraud and cybercrime requires a whole-system approach, and businesses have a vitally important role to play. 

If we want the City, London, and UK to remain world-leading as places to do business, we must ensure that our legal system, regulatory system, and financial system remain strong. As part of that, we must ensure that the UK remains hostile to fraud, economic crime, and cybercrime.”