Productive in construction: meet Andrew Kelly
hw sp 14 3 As the construction sector becomes an engine room of recovery in parts of Europe, HEADWAY meets Andrew Kelly who has forged an international career with $3b speciality chemical company WR Grace. Although Grace may not be a household name, within the construction products sector it is still synonymous with innovation in line with its roots. The company was founded by Irish-born Russell William Grace who started by shipping guano from Peru to the US in the mid-nineteenth century, having recognised its special properties. He later became Mayor of New York and, in fact, was Mayor when the Statue of Liberty was received from France.

Andrew Kelly joined Grace via AHEAD in 2001 as European Director of Sales for Concrete before progressing through increasingly senior appointments covering China, Asia Pacific, the Middle East, India as well as EMEA. Currently a VP and Business Unit Director with responsibilities across EMEA, Andrew provides a timely insight into this high profile sector.

At last the market in the UK is beginning to grow again after some difficult years. Yes, it remains difficult in a number of European markets particularly Southern Europe but there are some indications of much slower decline there and also pick up in Northern Europe. Slightly further afield Africa is very strong and although volatile the Gulf Region has very much recovered from a dip in 2009 to 2011.

The Middle East has some areas with pretty difficult construction segments especially since January 2011 - in Egypt and Jordan. The construction market in Saudi Arabia is probably the strongest and now about the biggest in the Middle East due to the demographic drivers for growth coupled with high oil prices rather than the visionary drive for construction in a number of Gulf States.

How different are the various regions you've worked in?
The markets are different culturally, of course, particularly China, India, Japan and Saudi Arabia and have their own structures and levels of fragmentation. Government spending is often a key component to construction industry and hence some of the Government structures and approaches play out to greater or lesser extents - I would say especially true in terms of more command economies/governments such as Saudi Arabia and China.

It's been 13 years since AHEAD attracted you to Grace. What do you admire about the company and its culture?
Grace has a very strong set of values and is particularly focused on long term relationship driven businesses and is very consistent in approach - obviously keen focus on quarterly results but a deep appreciation of the value of such long term relationships with the industry that it serves.

During my recruitment process, I was interviewed by several people, which helped both parties gauge my fit into the company. Looking back, I remember you talking about the company appreciating candidates with real intellect, Grace’s belief in a long term view - and their absolute belief in my word is my bond. Those are the factors that encouraged me to take the leap to Grace and that have encouraged me to stay year after year. Not to mention the exciting new challenges regularly thrown my way…

From a strong background in sales, how have your skills and personal attributes developed over the years?
I guess, mostly growth in strategic thinking, financial understanding and developing people and teams.
When you manage people remotely, you have to build strong personal relations and early on invest the time in face to face meetings and understand their cultural norms and fault lines as far as possible.

For this you need a deep respect and care of language and humour, hold everybody to the same standard of transparency and openness even if it’s very difficult in the local culture. Recognise and as appropriate celebrate and respect the local cultural and religious holidays. Certainly I’ve learnt about being in an ethnic minority and it is very interesting. Keeping a strong work ethic for yourself and your team will serve you well.

To young professionals embarking on their career, I would say be enthusiastic, work very hard, work ethically and be proud of what you do. When I’m hiring people myself I’m also looking for self-awareness of a candidate’s development needs, as well as the necessary technical competence and a willingness to be open about pros and cons personally of the job in question.

When AHEAD first knew you at Solvay in Belgium, you were one of very few multilingual British candidates in the sector in continental Europe. How do you feel about the fact that so few Brits master other languages successfully?
Rather sad, actually, as it’s a life skill that also broadens your personality. It’s also a missed opportunity at an individual level but collectively very damaging for a country as learning a language is also a key to help understand a culture.

Although I was a chemist by training, I was always interested in different languages and cultures and enjoyed trying to talk in foreign languages when on holiday. Relatively early in my career I was fortunate enough to be asked to go and live in Germany and then in Brussels. Being in a situation where I was working and socialising in the languages and a willingness to always have a go helped enormously.

Obviously though, you can’t be an expert in every language in your remit. But you can get to know the cultural and religious fault lines of where you are working or trying to do business. Always read the local paper in the morning in the hotel – as there is very often an English version. There will almost always be a few events that you can refer to and it gets you connected to the market.

Most of all, there’s no substitute for first-hand experience and exposure to diverse cultures. I can think of no better example than when I found myself in a meeting of a Saudi Conglomerate Saudi-isation Committee. It was a Saturday morning in August about 47C outside and in the middle of Ramadan. So no water and no coffee! Certainly, an unforgettable experience …

A combination of extensive travel and international assignments can be quite tough on a family. What have been the pleasures and pitfalls for yours? What have they had to give and gain?
You’re right. The ups and downs for the family are relevant. A trailing spouse has to build a life and find a network in a short time. Our kids have done brilliantly and are much more international in their outlook. But the pace of change does have an impact. When we went to Dubai, it was my son’s fifth school by the age of 9, and he had not known stability. But when they reach secondary school age, I think you need to be very careful, as we were, so everything should be fine. They have a wonderful global outlook and change is second nature. So, in our experience so far, it pays off…