From getting collared by Burton’s MD, to being chauffeured to Old Trafford in Sir Roland Smith’s Rolls, Sir Cary Cooper shares his journey from a working-class Jewish immigrant family to the heights of global academia.
50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the Manchester Business School Cary Cooper is the doyen of organisational psychology. Now in his eighties, a lifetime spent extolling the virtues of work-life balance, has seen him write and edit over 200 books and receive a knighthood in the 2014 Birthday Honours for services to social science. Helping leading corporations and international government bodies foster workplace wellbeing at Robertson-Cooper, he works from only nine to five and takes the weekends off – to spend with his wife, four kids and six grandchildren.
My father was from a village called Buky in Soviet Ukraine and my mother was a from Braila. Like many in the diaspora, he took the long voyage across the Atlantic to make a better life for himself, the family name shifting from Kuperman to Cooper. It was in West Hollywood where he met my mother, a first-generation Romanian immigrant who had dreams of becoming an actress, and they raised me in the Jewish community of Fairfax.
Out of his barbershop, my father ran a horse racing bookie, which was totally illegal in California. If you can believe it, he even knew the infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel, but my father was never a violent man. The shop was the hub of the community of Eastern European Jews – all the men kibitzed and did their business there. As a kid, I would answer the telephone and tell my dad: ‘somebody wants $10 on Blue Boy in the third at Santa Anita, what does that mean?’ As I got older, I got wise to it.
My father was a very good gambler, he’d play poker at home long into the night. He never went to school and had worked as a barber since the age of 10, but he was an ambitious man and that gambling money paid for us to move to the more prosperous side of town.
Now, it’s very unusual as a Jewish parent to not want your child to go on to higher education. Coming from the poverty of the diaspora, you scrimped and saved and made sure your kids were educated; but my father didn’t want me to go to university, he wanted me to work. My mother, who was very achievement driven, said otherwise – so he said fine, but you’re going to have to pay for own way.
So there I was at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). As a student working my way through college, I saw the way people were treated like disposable assets – how America’s success is built on the backs of people. And I saw the contrast, look at Europe, look at England – they treat people properly with liveable pensions, a health service. A year spent working as a social worker with the homeless and African-American communities in south central LA, I used to have to take my clients to the hospital. If you had any savings, they was taken from you. I saw what happened to them and to their families, the deprivation, the way they were treated and I took that with me and asked: ‘how do we make the workplace a better place for people?’
Being the first one in my family to go onto higher education, I never thought I was good enough to be there. At the start, my grades were terrible, which reinforced the feeling – but the real reason was I’d joined the Jewish fraternity and found a girlfriend! But I got worried I’d flunk, so I started to put the effort in which caught the attention of a very distinguished Jewish professor, Fred Mazur.
My undergraduate degree was more in economics than it was in psychology, but I got turned onto the workplace management side by Fred during my MBA. He was Eastern European too and spoke 20 languages, I mean the guy was a genius, and I guess he saw something in me. I think 80% of all the guys I went to college with became lawyers – typically Jewish! – but Fred told me I was an academic and wanted me to taste Europe, so he arranged for me to go to Leeds of all places. The department of management studies at the University of Leeds had a link with UCLA – it was the centre of global research during the 1960s and 1970s.
Leeds is a small community and word gets around fast. I was in the city for three days, living in Chapeltown at the time, and the managing director of Burton Menswear, who had heard of this American boy coming over, came to meet me and ask if there was anything he could do for me.
When I completed my PhD, I was offered a role as a lecturer in psychology at Southampton University, and after few years went by, I got a phone call from this gruff Mancunian, Sir Roland Smith. He was the chairman of Manchester United, but he was also the head of the management school at the University Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), which was like the Imperial of the north. He said a number of people were talking about me and wanted me in Manchester. I’d been to the Free Trade Hall from Leeds a couple of times, but I barely knew anything about the city.
My wife was pregnant with our second child, but I jumped on the train to find out what this was all about. Roland was there waiting for me at the station in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. He took me to see a game at Old Trafford and put me up in a suite at the Midland Hotel. Here I am, a 33 year-old lecturer with barely two pennies to rub together in a suite that was bigger than my whole house!
The next day he takes me into the university and 20 guys were sitting around this table. One of them was Labour minister Lord Vivian Bowden, the head of UMIST at the time. Guess what, Roland had ambushed me with an interview for a senior lecturer role with the promise to make me a professor in a year’s time: ‘Whatever you get paid, I’ll pay you more,’ he says. So I called my wife, who grew up in Ashton-under-Lyne, and said: ‘you won’t believe this, we’re coming up north.’ And we never left. So boom, just like that, Roland changed my life.
At that time, workplace management was an emerging field. Until 1964, the UK didn’t even have a business school. London Business School and Manchester Business School were formed by industry, who gave money to something called The Foundation for Management Education, of which and Manchester and London were the two pillars.
Roland had no money for the professorship he promised me, but he was an entrepreneur, so he approached the foundation saying: ‘I’ve got this star guy who we need to give a chair – otherwise we’ll lose him’. This was exactly the same tactic he’d use to raise the money to buy top players at Manchester United. So I became probably the youngest professor out there in the social sciences field – in those days you had to be 60-plus!
I spent 29 great years there and ended up becoming Deputy Vice Chancellor – I loved the school to bits, but when it merged with the University of Manchester, Roland advised me to leave. He was my mentor until he died– he was like a substitute father to me.
My father was never impressed by what I had achieved, but it never bothered me because I think he didn’t understand that way of living. I often went on sabbaticals to see them. Every time I went back to LA, I met my old Jewish fraternity friends for lunch – they were much better off than I was at the time – but they never paid! Even as a young professor, my pay was right at the bottom of the scale, so I didn’t have a lot of money, especially with four kids and two marriages.
My mother was the one who was desperate for me to be to be successful – lawyer, doctor, nurse, she didn’t care what the hell I did! After I got my PhD, I flew back to LA for a big conference and my mother said: ‘I want you to come to the bank with me because I want to show you where our will is’ and all this kind of stuff. She took me over to the manager of the Bank of America branch, and she said: ‘I want to introduce you to my son, Doctor Cooper.’ Classic Jewish mother – you couldn’t do a skit on it!