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December 6, 2012 10:21 am
Howard Kerr is tall and immediately disarming. Wearing a navy suit, he sits, sips his coffee and appears at ease with the world. He says he is always the optimist – “the glass is always half full” – and he never shies from a challenge.
Taking on the role of chief executive at BSI, the multinational standards body, was no exception.
“Coming into BSI, there were a lot of myths surrounding the company, which I had to overcome,” he says. “Many think we’re a part of the government and a body that imposes unwanted things upon you. In fact, it’s a commercially viable business that is international.”
Established in 1901, originally as the Engineering Standards Committee, BSI – which stands for British Standards Institution – is an independent business services organisation, providing standard-based solutions in more than 140 countries. Services include certifying management systems and products and providing assessment certification and testing of products and services.
Mr Kerr decided to take the top job at BSI in 2008 because “it was a good brand”. He says: “There was the opportunity to do a lot with it and it is a small enough company where I can touch and feel. There are a lot of stakeholders, which makes the company very rich, broad and consensus driven.”
Mr Kerr grew up in Hartlepool, Teesside, in north-east England. He attended state school, which he recalls was “very interesting” during the area’s pit closures and the winding down of the coal industry throughout Britain in the 1970s.
After his A-levels he went to Oxford university, where he studied geography. “I was the first in my family to go to university. I was surprised I got in, but it opened a whole new world of opportunities.
“I never had a grand plan that I set out for my career. It’s been opportunistic and has evolved along the way. I’ve consciously made choices at critical stages,” Mr Kerr adds.
After leaving Oxford in 1980 he opted to join Associated British Ports as a management trainee and hated it. But for Mr Kerr no experience is wasted. “It taught me what I didn’t want to do,” he says.
His dislike for the job was fuelled by an impasse between management and unions: “Management didn’t manage and the unions wouldn’t allow them to.”
He left in 1982 and followed his yearning for travel. His plans for a six month trip turned into nearly two years away from the UK, and on his return, he took a job as a teacher to pay the bills.
But he soon began to make his overseas experience pay, joining Inchcape, an old British trading company that now focuses on automotive distribution. It was the beginning of a working career that toured the world.
“I went to work in the Middle East, the UAE, which meant that I was there during the Iraq-Iran war, managing the company’s frontline response. Ships would have to gather off Oman and be escorted through the straits,” he says.
For Mr Kerr the Middle East was exciting, but he wanted to do more and headed for Tokyo. “It was a time when the Japanese were buying up the world. I ran Inchcape Pacific, working with Japanese staff and customers.”
In a business development role, he started a joint venture in Shanghai and oversaw Inchcape’s market entry into Vietnam and an acquisition in Taiwan. Then it was back to Inchcape’s London headquarters, where he pursued an MBA while working.
His globetrotting with Inchcape next took him to Hong Kong. But by this time, Inchcape was starting to be broken up, so he left the company, and Hong Kong, to join SHV, a family-run Dutch trading group. “It was very Dutch,” says Mr Kerr enthusiastically. “Even though it was a family business, it was run like a corporation.”
He worked under Piet Klaver “who really was an inspirational man”. And it was Mr Klaver who gave Mr Kerr a taste of running his own business. “At the age of 36, I was thrown into Thailand to run a gas business that was just completely broken.”
He worked tirelessly to rebuild the business and keep it afloat during the Thai currency crisis in 1997 and managed a remarkable turnaround: “It was a challenging cultural environment. When you have customers and workers from a different country with a different language it is very difficult to manage. But this is not a bad thing.”
It had long been his dream to live in Paris and he was given the chance to move with his family to the French capital with SHV, where he was involved in an ecommerce and procurement programme. But within months, he was called back to the UK to head Calor Group, also owned by his Dutch employer.
“I led Calor for five or six years. I cleaned it up and got it going again,” he says. His next challenge was to return to the Netherlands to take up a position on the board of SHV’s energy division – and face a weekly commute, as his wife and children remained in the UK.
This arrangement lasted two years until he took the job at BSI. What made him make this career move?
“It ticked all the right boxes: a great brand that is strongly emerging; it’s across sectors; and it’s a complex business ripe for take off, as it’s previously never realised its full potential,” Mr Kerr says.
BSI has adopted the catchline “making excellence a habit” as it refocuses its business on its customers. In the past, BSI was “very product focused”.
It appears Mr Kerr’s running theme is “brand” and whether it and the business behind it have potential. “BSI is like Calor. It was misunderstood and had lost its way, but there was the opportunity to do a lot with it,” he adds.
Developing a brand such as BSI poses plenty of challenges. “There are a lot of different groups who work with BSI who have needs that must be met, but the challenge makes us better – BSI is robust and international.
“When our processes are applied to a business, it is a lot better for it.”
Your first big break?
My headmaster told me I could go to Oxford. It was a lightbulb moment.
Your mentors or role models?
Piet Klaver. I joined him rather than the company. He understood the value of customers.
What else might you have done?
I would definitely be a teacher. I like the idea of helping people to improve.
Your hobbies or interests?
I love active holidays and reading histories and travelogues. I find foreign culture fascinating.
Your career advice to others?
Keep your opportunities open and have a global perspective. Travel when you can – learn how the world operates.
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