'It's just like windsurfing'
Just six months into the civil service job, he spoke with a relaxed authority about the changing landscape of post-14 education. He illustrated one point with his own experiences of learning to windsurf.
He was bullish about the government's agenda, and while he committed himself to getting, "as much funding as possible", he urged delegates not to lose sight of the "main game".
"We've got an opportunity to make a difference," said Mr Marshall. "Other people are looking to us. Let's address funding barriers but not lose heart about putting the learner at the centre of everything."
He acknowledged the scale of the skills gap - 18 per cent of employers say there is a problem - but insisted businesses must face the challenge as well as schools and colleges.
Jane Davidson, minister for the department, rushed off to another appointment, leaving the podium just as Steve Fowler of the Welsh Secondary Schools Association started to criticise funding levels. But Mr Marshall stayed for lunch, where he mingled and chatted with the delegates.