Portfolio chair Steve Kent talks to Rachel Bridge at Drax about management buyouts, pharmaceuticals and biscuit eaters
When Steve Kent was six years old he had his future career all mapped out. He was going to be either an astronaut or a bus conductor when he grew up and even had his own ticket-punching machine and conductor’s hat.
In the event he didn’t pursue either of these careers, but his journey through life has been every bit as interesting.
After training as an accountant, at the age of 32 Steve found himself working as CFO alongside another future private equity chair, Andrew Vaughan, in a business called Workplace Technologies. The two of them led a management buyout backed by 3i and just a few years later floated the business on the Stock Exchange. Eighteen months later it was bought by a US firm.
It was Steve’s first experience of private equity and it made a deep impression on him. He says: “It was the first big thing that either of us had done and it was quite formative. It was a huge learning curve and has influenced everything that I have done since.”
Steve stayed on as CEO of the business under the new owners and then took up a posting with the company in Belgium. The project came to nothing though and so after a year’s career break in Portugal, Steve returned to the UK and joined a company called ClinPhone, which provided clinical trials systems for pharmaceutical companies.
He initially joined as CFO but when the founders left and the existing backers, HG Capital and Montagu, bought the company, Steve became CEO.
The business grew strongly and in a re-run of his previous experience it again listed on the Stock Exchange and was then bought by a large, NASDAQ quoted, American firm.
Once again Steve stayed on to run the business, joining the board of the American firm, but in 2012 he decided it was time for a change of direction. After giving it some thought, he chose to embark on a plural career as a private equity-backed chair.
He says: “It was a very deliberate and conscious decision. I thought seriously about taking on another CEO role, and I had offers, but I decided that actually what I really wanted to do was a broader variety of work.”
Steve’s first chair role was with Phlexglobal, a pharmaceutical management system business, and he now holds three chair roles, all in the pharmaceutical sector.
He says: “I love that each of the companies contributes something really important in developing new treatments for us all. I did not set out to be just involved in the pharmaceutical industry, but at the same time I was happy to let it happen. Each time I looked at the opportunity and thought, this is such a great company, with good people doing something important in a sector I know and I think I can help, I would love to be involved.”
For Steve the secret to being a good chair is to be fully engaged in the business, so that he is really able to add value where needed, whether that be supporting the CEO or managing the relationship with the private equity investors.
He says: “I have this hatred of chairs who are what I call biscuit eaters. They rock up to the board meeting and just eat the biscuits or fall asleep. That is not the purpose of the job. The role should not be about running a board meeting, which frankly anybody can do, it should be about engaging with the business and helping the management team in a way that is suitable for them. Chairs who just show up for two days a month, arriving at 11am and leaving at 3pm, can’t add the value that they could, and that to me is a missed opportunity.”
Steve clearly loves the particular focus of working in private equity-backed businesses.
He says: “Private equity is a unique formula. There is no other financial structure available to a company which has such a galvanising effect on the management of a business. Because the goals of the management and the shareholders are aligned, everybody in the business is pulling in the same direction and that is hugely liberating. People become very focused and do things they didn’t think they were capable of in order to make the business successful, so you get tremendous growth and tremendous results. It is awe inspiring.”
Drax sector lead: Nick Harlock
Director, Chair Network
Tel: 0203 949 9559