10 June 2005
The next president of CIPFA is a chief executive who balances enthusiasm for her adopted town with a determination to enjoy life to the full. Mike Thatcher reports
Diane Colley is not your typical local government chief executive. Before our interview in advance of her becoming CIPFA president, I am told she has a penchant for Harley Davidsons, a passion for travel and a personable, down-to-earth character. Oh, and she's known for her sense of fun and determination to enjoy life.
When we meet at Rugby town hall, the personable nature is soon apparent. Colley comes to greet me herself and has a friendly word with the receptionists, with whom she is on first-name terms. Rugby's chief executive and chief financial officer is most apologetic that she couldn't pick me up from the station, but promises (and later delivers) a return trip including a tour of the town.
Colley's people skills are clearly one of her strengths. Despite a long career in finance, she is, she admits, 'much more of a people person than a number cruncher'. Everyone I speak to notes her openness and accessibility.
'Diane has always employed an open-door policy,' says council leader Craig Humphrey. 'If you've got a problem, you can get in to see her – and that's not just the politicians, it's anybody. I remember a time when you had to see senior officers by appointment. Well, that's certainly not the case with Diane.'
As Rugby is a hung council, the political infighting can be challenging for a chief executive, says Humphrey. 'Politicians have a tendency to be desk-thumpers when things are not going well, and I am not unknown to thump the odd desk,' he says. 'But Diane is a very calming influence.'
Unfortunately, however, it turns out that the Harley Davidson rumour has been slightly exaggerated. During our chat, in an office dominated by rugby balls of varying sizes, Colley confirms that she actually owns a Suzuki Intruder, affectionately known as Suzi. 'It's a serious, serious bike,' she tells me. 'A feet-forward job. When I'm 50, I'm going to buy myself a Harley.'
But the passion for travel cannot be denied. She spent the weekend before our interview in Dubai, which followed recent trips to India, Bahrain, Indo-China and Lithuania. A subsequent exchange of e-mails elicits news of a weekend trip to three US states – part of her plan to visit all 50 of them.
David Poynton worked with Colley in the mid-1980s and remembers her wanderlust even then. 'I think she is a really good example of a chief executive who has the right work/life balance,' he says. 'It is too easy for anyone in that position to devote themselves totally to the job. But she recharges her batteries, enjoys herself and comes back enthused about taking on the next challenge.'
And is the institute's incoming president really such a party animal? 'I'm usually the social secretary when we are at conference,' she admits. 'Life's too short to take it all seriously.'
However, it is the devotion to Rugby – the town principally, but also the game – that is most apparent during my visit. Colley might be a Black Country girl, born in Wolverhampton and retaining the accent, but she has adopted Rugby as her spiritual home. 'If I were a stick of rock, I'd have Rugby stamped through me,' she says.
Colley has been chief executive and chief financial officer for nine years, taking up the combined post when she was only 36. For the preceding three years, she was borough treasurer.
Over this period, she has been at the forefront of making Rugby attractive both to tourists and businesses. She has overseen the opening of a visitor centre and a new art gallery and museum, while forging strong links with Rugby School and the hierarchy of the game.
'Because of her enthusiasm, she's a really good ambassador for the town,' says Poynton, who is now finance director at Harrogate & District Foundation Trust. 'She is not doing it because she is chief executive; she is doing it because she really enjoys it.'
Although Colley was not a rugby fan before she joined the council, she realised soon into her tenure that she needed to find out more about the game that was supposedly invented by Rugby School student William Webb Ellis in 1823. But it wasn't difficult to get involved, given that the first match she attended was a World Cup semi-final.
Subsequently, Colley has pledged to visit every premiership ground (she's halfway through) and was famously interviewed on Sky TV wearing her England top after the side won the 2003 World Cup.
'I have ambitions for Rugby, but I don't have ambitions for myself,' she says. 'The one thing I don't have is a huge ego. I don't need to stand up on a plinth like a gob on a stick – that's not me and people know that.'
Colley also claims not to have a career plan. She joined Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council in 1980 – one of its few non-Oxbridge graduates – and began her CIPFA studies. She qualified in 1984 and joined West Midlands Regional Health Authority the following year as assistant regional treasurer. She then returned to her roots at Wolverhampton Metropolitan Council, as principal accountant, and later joined Redditch Borough Council as deputy borough treasurer.
At Redditch, Colley was originally one of two deputies. She then took on the combined role and was later promoted to head of financial services. This was a section 151 officer role and, aged 31, she was one of the first female treasurers in the country. As she admits: 'You almost don't need a career plan when you find yourself in that position.'
Having a plan for her year ahead as CIPFA president might also be unnecessary, given that it will inevitably be dominated by the proposed consolidation with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. Colley is a fan of the merger and will be pushing for a 'yes' vote in October.
'I remember the last vote [on merger]. I was in favour then, and I'm in favour now,' she says. 'It is about having a stronger and more credible voice for the accounting profession.'
Her opinions are likely to be taken seriously by the members. She is a popular figure and always pulled in the votes when she stood for election to the CIPFA council. In fact, she topped the local government category seven years running and achieved the overall top spot five years out of six.
But is she not concerned that she might be the last CIPFA president? 'CIPFA has 120 years of history, so you are bound to have a certain tinge of sadness that CIPFA as we know it might no longer be around. But it is about what is in the best interests of our members and the public services generally.'
Diane Colley will take over as president of CIPFA at its AGM on Thursday, June 16