60 Seconds with Stephen Blank

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Meet Stephen Blank, Provincial Grand Master for Cheshire, member of the Board of General Purposes, member of the Grand Master’s Council, Chairman of the Project Hermes 2B Working Party and avid Manchester United fan

Once upon a time, Stephen Blank wanted to be a professor of mathematics. But eschewing academia for something more profitable, he wisely embarked on a career in finance instead. ‘I realised while researching for my MSc that, although I was pretty good at maths, there were some people quite a bit better and they were going to get the jobs. Furthermore, at 21, we wanted to get married and I thought two of us starving to death in poverty probably wasn’t a good idea. I changed track and qualified as a chartered accountant with KPMG in 1976.

‘I then worked for a specialist insurance company owned by Swiss Re of Zurich. The company started making acquisitions and also bought a Singer System Ten, one of the first minicomputers. I became part of the project team trying to make it work.

‘I then returned to the profession and became a partner in BDO Binder Hamlyn, based at its Manchester office. I pursued my interest in computers, learning VisiCalc on a Commodore PET. I became head of corporate finance and a member of the national partnership committee. I was reporting accountant for part of the electricity privatisation and then left to join one of my clients, Swinton Insurance, as group planning and finance director. Swinton was promptly taken over by Royal Sun Alliance and I left to pursue a portfolio career, acting as an independent director for a small portfolio of small and medium-sized businesses based in the north west. At first, part of the portfolio included a part time FD role, but today it’s deliberately much smaller, and my role is non-executive director. 

How did you first get involved in Freemasonry?

I became a Freemason in 1976, joining my late father’s lodge at Bridge Street in Manchester where I was working. It was a slow burn as Freemasonry goes, partly because it was a big lodge and partly because I was busy with work and family. So it took me 12 years to get to the chair. My first position was as District Secretary.

What do you find most inspiring about being a Freemason?I’ve been to places and met people I would never have encountered had I not been a Freemason. Some of those happened because I was fortunate enough to become a DepGDC, but even before that I always liked the variety of people that you meet in terms of background and age. Freemasonry gives you the chance to meet people who are not necessarily like you but who share the same values. It was wonderful to share a lodge with my late father, and now my son-in-law is in my lodge, which is great fun.

Is there a historical Freemason you find fascinating and why?

I like the masonic connections of some of the founding fathers of the USA. I also like the hints of Freemasonry that you see in the early documents. I’m not quite sure what they would make of politics in the USA today.

Do you have a hero in life you aspire to be like?

It has to be Sir Alex Ferguson. Not just because he was an amazingly successful manager of my football team. I met him on two occasions, and each time he was an inspiration. The first was on a VIP trip to Italia ’90 to see England play Germany with the directors of United – one of whom was my golf partner – and Sir Alex. We got on the coach to leave the game where the police had been unnecessarily aggressive towards the England fans. On our way to the hotel, Sir Alex asked the driver to stop for an England fan who had found himself in an unfriendly area without his friends. He invited him on the coach and asked the driver to take him back to his hotel.

The second was a business breakfast where he was the guest speaker. He told us about the manager’s traditional approach to coaching, which was to build up a black book of training techniques. He had just bought Eric Cantona and noticed that a few players stayed behind after training. It was unheard of at English clubs in those days.

Sir Alex decided to watch, and saw that Cantona was leading his own session. At first, he was annoyed that anybody felt they could add to what he was coaching. But he realised the value of what Cantona was teaching, so he tore up his little black book and started over. That showed me the importance of humility and an open mind.

What is your favourite hobby?

Watching Manchester United and playing with my grandchildren. I took up golf in my forties, but Freemasonry and frequent trips to London to see the grandchildren got in the way, so I gave it up about eight years ago. I have started playing again and I’ve got a big game with my son coming up soon. I read a lot, mainly science fiction but also historical novels.

Is there a place you’d love to travel to?

I have travelled extensively, including Australia, Japan, Thailand, India, Israel, Sri Lanka, the USA and most of Europe. A trip to New Zealand would be nice, but I have to say I don’t enjoy air travel these days. The south of France is my favourite part of the world overseas.

Which book would you recommend?

Martin Gilbert’s biography of Churchill. I didn’t include Churchill as my inspiration because I couldn’t live up to one per cent of what he did. But I enjoy reading the story because, if you can see the hand of the Great Architect in anything, it must be Churchill’s leadership during the war. He was, of course, a Freemason, but not really practising, so I didn’t nominate him as my fascinating historical Freemason.

Most memorable part of your Freemasonry initiation?

When the blindfold came off and I saw my father in front of me. I knew it was him, but it was still a very special moment. My father was way ahead of his time because, unlike most of his generation, he was open about being a Freemason. He was also a Grand Officer. The charge after initiation was wonderful to hear. I still remember learning that for our lodge of instruction.

If you were on Mastermind, what would your specialist subject be?I was tempted to say Manchester United but there are many people far more knowledgeable about the club than myself – including my son. I thought about the goals of Mark Hughes during the European Cup Winners’ Cup campaign of season ’90-’91 because I went to every game, home and away. The only subject I might stand a chance of winning would be the novels of Frank Herbert, my favourite science fiction writer.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received that you like to live your life by?The charge after initiation says it all. The number of times I’ve heard little bits of it quoted by Freemasons in ordinary conversation or in business tells me what an impression it makes on most Freemasons, and that can’t be a bad thing.

 

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