Rouse in Profile: Rupert Ross-Macdonald

A man of many parts

Rupert is currently Chairman of Rouse, having served as Chief Executive from 1999 - 2013

In August 2003, the planet Mars was closer to the earth than it had been for nearly 60,000 years, and Rupert was fascinated, scanning the Cornwall skies through his recently acquired Celestron telescope.  He had recently returned to London after several years working in Asia, and astronomy had become one of his great passions.  It still is, though there are plenty of others. Rupert has always been one of those people who are quick to see possibilities and excited by new ideas.

His early childhood in the south of England was a very happy one. He went to the local village school with a group of close friends, and assumed he would be accompanying them on the next stage to one of the good secondary schools nearby.  So he was a little taken aback when his parents decided he should enrol as a boarder in the Bedford School in the Midlands (the school his father had attended)  …..however, the decision began to make sense when, a couple of years later, his father moved to Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf to run the government owned aluminium smelting operation.  Bahrain turned out to be a very comfortable place for westerners by the standards of the Middle East at the time and Rupert’s school holidays became exotic adventures.

He had from the outset been intellectually precocious, winning an academic scholarship to Bedford.  In his early years there, he was very studious and perhaps it was unsurprising at the time - though he would now say also ‘unwise’ - that he should have been put up a year.  Being already young for his class, he now found himself with boys two years older - and lots of scope for distraction.  In an environment that placed a great deal of emphasis on sport and other extracurricular activities, being pigeonholed as one of the ‘academics’ did not feel like a great place to be. It’s fair to say that Rupert’s youthful diligence started to descend into a modest and mildly grumpy teenage rebellion. 

It was around this time that one of his other enduring passions was aroused: music.  If you had asked him about his ambitions and aspirations then, he would without question have said he wanted to be a rock musician.  His particular passion was – and remains – the electric guitar.  He had started playing in his spare time and was keen to get into a band, which meant working during school holidays and saving up to buy an electric guitar.  Then, he and a group of school friends formed a band, which they named Blueprintz.  They spent most of their time rehearsing (without ever quite getting the songs right), but they had a lot of fun, and at the peak of their fame played at a Bedford street party, part of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977.  The band itself may not have reached great heights in the real musical world, but its keyboard player, Marius de Vries, has - he’s a well-known music producer and composer (Madonna, David Bowie), and executive music producer of last year’s award winning film, La La Land.

At around this point, Rupert’s German teacher, made what proved to be a very smart suggestion.  An exchange student from Berlin had just spent a year at Bedford School and this teacher came up with the idea that Rupert should spend a term with the student’s family in Berlin, attending school there.  It was the best thing he could have done – he fell in love with Berlin (still a cold war enclave at the time) and his German reached a new level. After he returned, he did well in the Cambridge entrance exam - and Modern Languages seemed the obvious choice.

It was also in this period that Rupert’s love affair with Asia really began.  In 1979, three years after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, China had begun letting in foreign tourists for the first time since the Revolution and Rupert’s father had taken the family on an officially sanctioned tour, believing the opportunity might disappear in a year or two.  The trip (which also took in Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong) had a huge impact on Rupert: he was enthralled.  He knew immediately he had found something he wanted to explore further. 

Studying Modern Languages at Cambridge involved reading French and German literature in the original languages.  That greatly appealed to Rupert and for years his interest in literature continued.  It’s only relatively recently that he’s become fascinated by the sciences (not least because he was less than a natural at school) and tended towards non-fiction.  These days Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe or Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time are likely to have a more prominent place on his bookshelf than Proust or Goethe. 

University also brought with it enviable sporting opportunities and Rupert threw himself into rowing with gusto (despite the freezing early morning starts), and spent time improving his squash.  He also traces his love of cricket back to those days - although admittedly as a spectator, usually propping up the bar or eating cake. 

Although reading European literature and philosophy was enjoyable, it wasn’t obvious that it would provide the ideal career path; Rupert viewed it as a means towards a different  end, even if he didn’t know quite what.  It was at this point that his ever thoughtful godfather, Mike Woods, subtly steered him in the direction of the law.  Mike had trained as a barrister but spent most of his career as a consultant, and was by then managing a law firm in Bermuda.  Partly seduced by the prospect of a Bermudan holiday, Rupert was persuaded that simply training as a barrister would open the door to many possibilities, So he decided to transfer from Modern Languages to Law - which meant giving up his summer vacation and undertaking a very intensive final year at Cambridge, followed by a year at the Inns of Court School of Law in London.

A year’s pupillage at the Bar followed and it confirmed that Rupert didn’t really see himself as a future practising barrister; he wanted to make use of his legal qualification as well as his languages. And, not least, he wanted to go back to Asia and generally broaden his horizons beyond the very traditional English institutions in which he had spent much of his childhood and early adult years.

So he answered an advertisement The Wellcome Foundation Ltd had placed in The Times .  It was for job that would make use of his litigation training and linguistic skills and provide the opportunity to travel.  It seemed ideal – and so it proved to be.  Rupert remained there until, in January 1991, he joined Rouse & Co., the exciting new venture that Peter Rouse, ex-Baker MacKenzie (of whom Wellcome had been a client), had just started in London.

Looking back, Rupert says he has ended up having the career he would have chosen, but in ways he couldn’t have imagined.  If you had asked him at the outset what his ideal career would entail, he would have said three things: travel, business and doing something different, not being part of some monolithic institution.  And that’s exactly the way it is.