“One of the things I’ve learned over many years in business is it’s too easy for business to become selfish, to focus on the wrong things, on earnings per share, on balance sheets, on cash flow. In fact the most important thing is to focus on delighting the customer, a lesson I learnt in IBM a long time ago but it has stood me in good stead in 40 years in the IT industry.”
Sir Kenneth, was born in October 1951, in Nottingham, to a white mother and an absentee Nigerian father. He grew up in what can only be described as the poor back streets of Nottingham, through the Fifties his favourite place to play was a bomb site. It was a poor upbringing and he was an interesting object for people weren’t used to seeing black people at that time. Not only was he the only black person that most of them had seen, he was also the only black person that he had ever seen. His mother had an eclectic group of friends, Indians and West Indians, as well as lots of white British friends amongst her group, and some family. So Ken led a fairly cosmopolitan life by comparison with most of his neighbours.
His mother had a very simple view, which was that if you didn’t try your absolute best then you hadn’t tried enough. She didn’t mind if I didn’t succeed at things, but she did mind if I didn’t try to succeed at things. His mother also had an amazingly developed sense of justice. Sir Ken once said to her, ‘Mum, you know, if you didn’t try and find absolutely every wrong that you saw, you’d live a lot longer.’ His mother died age 98.9, so he thinks he lost the argument, and she continued to the end to fight absolutely every injustice that she ever saw.
Sir Kenneth is very much an optimist, so he looks back through amazingly rose-tinted spectacles at most of his life. He admits there must have been some negatives, but he would have to work quite hard to remember them. He went to a state primary school where he had a remarkable headmaster, Mr Spencer. His personality was huge in the school and he thought that, irrespective of the poverty of their backgrounds, they should all have opportunity, and he sought to raise their aspiration. Mr Spencer taught him early on that there were no doors that he couldn’t go through. And he sits here as Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London saying, Mr Spencer, you were right.
Sir Kenneth passed his Eleven Plus and went off a revered grammar school called High Pavement, an18th century school, in Nottingham. While he was there his well-established 300-year-old grammar school was being converted to a comprehensive school. The headmaster decided the way to do it was to make life intolerable for all the old teachers at the school who had made and created the culture of the school. All the men who had made the school great in living memory, were replaced by enthusiastic young, more left-wing, comprehensive school type teachers. Sir Kenneth disliked his headmaster, not as much as his mother, who detested him, and it was mutual. He spent most of his time at secondary school in a bubble of distaste between the headmaster and the Olisa family. This was most apparent when Sir Kenneth won both the student and teacher vote to be head boy and the headmaster vetoed his appointment. He got his comeuppance however when Sir Kenneth eventually became head boy in his third year of sixth form. Although it was only a term, it was the term in which School Speech day was. So his first ever public speech was a “tear down the system” public speech, which he got to give in the Albert Hall in Nottingham, to a mass audience of shocked parents, quite supportive, and astonished boys, very very supportive, some teachers who thought he was quite a good bloke, and one very angry headmaster.
From Nottingham Sir Kenneth went to Cambridge University which he thought was wonderful. He attributes his success in life to his mother and her drive, and then to the experience that he had at Cambridge. He went to Fitzwilliam College of which he is now an Honorary Fellow. A very early memory is of his tutor, Dr Hardy saying “don’t waste your time trying to get a First. I’ve read your file. What you should be doing is getting out on the river, making friends. This is a place to drink deep of. You will get the best education by drinking deep.’ No one had ever spoken to him like this before. His entire life had been, don’t do this, don’t do that, you must do this, et cetera. There has never been that kind of opportunity. He studied a wide range of subjects, following Dr Hardy’s dictum, he became very politically involved.
He arrived at Cambridge as a natural scientist, he had loved chemistry and had had a lab at home. It was his life. Then he had a gap year job working for IBM, and suddenly computing was a lot more interesting than chemistry. At Cambridge, he discovered a whole world of other things that he hadn’t known about when he was at school. So after a year of natural sciences at Fitzwilliam, he changed to social and political science, and suddenly discovered anthropology and sociology and criminology and all those sort of things of which he knew nothing. It was like a child in a sweetshop, it was this, all this information, all this knowledge that other people had studied forever, all piled in. He remembers a lecturer teaching him about structuralism and thinking, rather than just having a smart opinion, one should try to understand things.
Sir Kenneth ended up working at IBM in his gap year mainly due to his competitive nature. Having realised he needed a job for his gap year he decided he would become a bus conductor for a year for Nottingham City Transport department, which paid £600 per year. However, his friend from school, Nigel, informed Ken that he was going to work for IBM as a computer operator in his gap year for the more lucrative sum of £800 per year. Ken decided this seemed a much better option and so he too applied to IBM and was taken on as their “wizard’s assistant” in the sales department.
He would travel to London first class, with his colleagues; they’d write stuff for customers; they’d go and do a sales call; come back to Nottingham again. While Nigel was down on the third-floor changing tapes. His love of technology really began then, but for rather bad reasons. He could have been in transportation, had it not been for Nigel. In his gap year, IBM spent quite a lot of money training him, and he was taught to program and he was taught about customers.
When he left Cambridge, he went back to IBM as a systems engineer. His job was to help the salesman sell a system, then design the solution and then write the code and then implement it. The first course he went on was nine weeks long, and they were taught more technical things, telecommunications and so on, but they were also taught how businesses ran, balance sheet interpretation, z scores et cetera, mini MBA stuff, case studies, practical as well in between the two. He thought it was a wonderful… And that was just in the first course. It took three years to make him into a salesman, and he was taught the sales skills, how do you ask a question, how do you answer a question, how do you structure a presentation, how do you put a slide together, how do you, how do you, how do you. All those techniques. How do you deal with an objection? As well as the underlying philosophies of technology and so on.
They were taught something that’s lived with Ken ever since and he still deploys daily, that need-feature-benefit was the way to structure a sales argument. What’s the need, what’s the problem, what’s the feature, i.e. what are you selling them, and then why is your solution better than everybody else’s. He feels that, drive-by selling is the model today, whereas it used to be, problem-solving. His great colleague Derek Rogers at IBM, used to say, IBM stands for I Bring Magic. And they felt that they were doing great work for people because they were helping their businesses run better, but they had to understand their business to be able to say that.
As only one of two black men at IBM Sir Kenneth wasn’t treated any differently. His boss Ray Parrott would talk to him about whatever they needed to talk about, the system, the customer, whatever. And he would treat him as an equal. He found IBM to be an amazingly American, egalitarian elite organisation, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Sir Kenneth could have gone to work for a British company but thinks it would have been very different. At that time he despised the UK computer industry, because he was very competitive. At IBM, they felt they were doing great work for humanity and the future of it and looked down on all the other companies.
Sir Kenneth began at the lowest possible level as assistant engineer; he became a salesman; and then after a few years as a successful salesman he became a product marketing manager. But the manager title was lower case, he wasn’t a manager; he just managed products – and that mattered to his peer colleagues. He finished at IBM probably about three levels up from the bottom. Despite this Sir Kenneth was invited to IBM’s 100th celebration in Upstate New York. It was a fantastic, nostalgic event. They played a film which everyone can see, which is the IBM 100th.
Sir Kenneth feels there are two very different business cultures. The aircraft carrier captain mentality which is all about maintaining the status quo. It’s all about the past. You can’t do most things. Versus a fighter pilot culture, where you don’t care about the past, if you’ve survived it, though there may be some lessons to learn; you care fundamentally about the present, and more importantly, the future. And those two different cultures are very different. IBM when he joined, it was absolutely a fighter pilot culture company. It was an entrepreneurial business. But that changed by the time he left. It just wasn’t for him any more and so in 1981 he went to a company called Wang Labs, which was very much a fighter pilot culture.
Everything was possible in Wang. Wang was totally unstructured. IBM, everything was possible, but it was structured. Wang was the other end of the spectrum. It was chaos. But it was constructive chaos. Two men, Dr Wang and John Cunningham, built the business up from nothing. Dr Wang was this genius who invented all sorts of amazing things, and Cunningham was a brilliant salesman. So Cunningham would go out and try and sell something; the customer would say, ‘If only it did this, then I might buy some.’ He would come back, Dr Wang would reinvent it, so it did this, and then Cunningham would sell it. And they built this enormous corporation. When he joined, the UK, they were turning over, eight million, nine million pounds or something, and they were turning over fifty or sixty when he left. Ken was head-hunted by Wang and found that quite a few IBMers were also there including Roger Clarke whom he had great deal of respect for and his presence dissipated any last nerves he had about joining.
When he joined WANG UK in 1981, there were about 100 people, including engineers, and it was probably a 1,000 when he left. He joined as a VS products manager (lower case!). This was a new type of interactive computing and he was part of the salesforce driving that forward in the UK. In those days, data processing meant adding up numbers, it was binary, and it was numbers. Word processing didn’t really exist, and Wang invented it, to all intents and purposes. There were products to do typing that then turned into documents, but it wasn’t word processing. So, if you were a PA typing letters all day, suddenly, you didn’t have these odd IBM 80-column magnetic card things, or worse than that, a typewriter, you had this machine where you could do fantastic layouts and document structures and you could type more easily. The only downside was, it cost £30,000, and a really expensive IBM typewriter, cost $3,000. So, the sales challenge for Wang was to persuade people that it was worth 30k. Sir Kenneth was responsible for the computing side. They had the first machine, he believes, in the world, that could do DP and WP on the same machine. And eventually, not in the beginning days, you could then take something out of DP, like a spreadsheet, and put it into WP.
Sir Kenneth had a meteoric rise in Wang, which was growing exponentially, because he had been trained by IBM. All the kings and queens in Wang were the people who had been trained either by IBM or by Xerox. Because both companies invested huge amounts in training people.
He was product manager for a product; then became product manager for all products, manager of managers as it were; then he moved into marketing properly; then he moved into sales, because you couldn’t really progress in Wang if you hadn’t been a sales manager, and he ran a sales district for a few years; then he became head of marketing for Europe.
Wang then hit the rocks in America. Dr Wang and John Cunningham fell out, and in the falling-out the company was divided between the two factions. The European management team were lifted and shifted, lock, stock and barrel as a package over to America and took over America. So he became head of marketing for Wang Labs USA
Wang was in a turnaround, and he learnt everything he knows about turnarounds from that experience and two big things stand out for him. Lesson one is, you can never over-communicate in a turnaround and the second big lesson is that you, you must remain obsessed with the customer. The minute you start to forget about the customer, in any business at any time, you are beginning to sound your own death knell. If you can get those two things right, then, you bring everybody together on a mission. Because customers don’t want businesses to fail; staff don’t want the business they work for to fail. So if you can communicate with everybody, if you remain obsessed with the customer, you will then find that’s reciprocated by the staff, by the customers et cetera, and you have a chance of success.
Sir Kenneth decided to leave Wang with a big dramatic bang. He constructed a management buyout of his part of the business, which his boss kept telling him was sucking cash, wasting time, irrelevant, et cetera et cetera, and he thought was generating cash and profitable, so it shouldn’t be very expensive. He was confident that one of two things would happen: He’d either be successful, which would be a big dramatic exit, or he’d be fired, which would be a big dramatic exit. Unfortunately, he was fired.
Sir Kenneth decided that if he were ever going to start his own business, it had to be then. So with a tiny amount of capital, he rented some rooms in a slightly damp basement in Knightsbridge. He took his new PA from Wang with him, and started a company called Interregnum, which became a technology merchant bank, listed on AIM. They built up a portfolio, survived the dotcom boom and bust and it morphed into being an oil and gas company. Sir Kenneth had ten very interesting, constructive, and wealth-creating years at Interregnum.
Sir Kenneth left interregnum in 2006, and started his current privately-owned merchant bank, Restoration Partners, where they essentially advise technology-oriented projects, and raise capital for them, and find people for them, and help them get their strategy defined.
Sir Kenneth was appointed as an Officer of the British Empire in the 2010 Birthday Honours for services to Homeless People in London and a Knight Bachelor in the 2018 New Year Honours for services to Business and Philanthropy. He was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London on 29 May 2015 and feels he is blessed with being unbelievably privileged to go to events at palaces and abbeys in his own right, as opposed to just tucking in with a brown ticket in the back row. He is very proud to be involved with the lieutenancy, which was created by King Henry VIII. As part of his role he will be handing out 30 British Empire medals at a bi-annual investiture in the Tower of London. The Constable of the Tower of London and he will both give speeches about the history of the UK, heritage, the importance of community and contribution, and then 30 nervous people will step up onto the stage one after another to receive a British Empire medal from the Queen via him. And they’ll go out into the world knowing that the Queen has recognised their contribution to society and community. He gets the honour of being the man who pins the medal on their chest – he has no complaints.
The biggest mistake Sir Kenneth made was not to follow his own advice. He is very fond of reminding people of the lesson of the orangutan, which is, you should never let go of tree A, as you swing through the jungle, until you are sure that tree B is secure. And the biggest mistake he made was at Interregnum. They had raised their first fund, it was going well, they were investing well, they had got good profile, they were doing it differently. They were confident they were doing to raise their second, much larger fund. And so they invested almost all of their first fund before they failed to raise the second fund. They were suddenly left holding a baby of all these investments and had no money to invest in them. That was a clear mistake, because had they held some money back, life would have been very different.
However, every cloud has a silver lining, and what ended up happening was, that he and his colleagues in Interregnum learnt everything they know about corporate finance in the year in which they moved assets around different companies and so on, to preserve the value that they had created.
Sir Kenneth feels privileged to be in the IT industry, and to have started out early on, to be among the pioneers. He wrote his first program in about 1968, and probably got it to work in about 1970. He was around in those days when computers were obscure concepts, as opposed to something that you carry in your pocket and briefcase. He has enjoyed that journey. The IT industry has transformed livelihoods, entertainment, safety, transport, everything, it’s been wonderful.
It would be easy to start to say, the development of the IT industry is finished, and, there are a couple of things that might change now but we’re cruising. But of course, what’s happening now is what he calls the age of ubiquity, the time when, everything will be a computer. It’s called the Internet of Things, but he thinks that understates what it is. It’s not things, it’s ubiquity. It’s the fact that everything will be a computer. At which point the applications to do good for humanity will be mind-blowing. He can’t conceive of them and it will be in the next decade, twenty years, that these things happen. But one can begin to see the early stages of exciting application.
He’d like to say, there have been so far three eras of development in IT, characterised by the mainframe era, the minicomputer era, and then the personal computer era. And if you look at those as in the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, we’re now into that next age, the age of ubiquity, when again a whole raft of things will be developed that one couldn’t have conceived of twenty years ago, never mind, 30, 40 years ago when I started.
One of the constants through Sir Kenneth’s life in the IT industry has been the doomsayers saying,” yes, but what you’re doing now will put people out of work”. There are some people he doesn’t mind putting out of work, like the men sent by others to risk their lives deep into the Earth to collect coal, when there are machines to do it? The progression of mankind is about technology and its application and shouldn’t be confused with how we then redistribute wealth. We can’t stop the technological developments, so what we have to worry about from a social policy perspective is, as we generate wealth, to make sure it doesn’t all accrete to the very few, and it gets shared with those greater numbers.
Sir Kenneth’s message to young people listening to this interview: training is really important; it’s not just about your personality, it’s about actually having knowledge and being able to do the job properly. Particularly as nowadays they have to find that training themselves because it’s not going to be put on a plate for them.
Sir Kenneth has a great interest in social inclusion and like to embrace diversity. He thinks the diversity of humanity is the exciting thing about being human so social inclusion is a natural bedfellow with embracing diversity, we should find ways for people in the human race to be able to join into the benefits of it, rather than not.
At school he did things for the Old People’s Welfare Committee. At university he tried his hand at helping, serving food and assisting in a hospice. He was very upset when he came back to the UK in the early Nineties, to see just how many people were living on the streets of London who hadn’t been there when he left in the mid-Eighties. He had a rant about this, and was then connected with a homeless charity, and was hooked. He joined the board of an organisation called Thames Reach, all that time ago, and brought business skills to a sector which is not a natural companion with business skills. They were pioneers at Thames Reach, for example, in recruiting former homeless people (“customers”) to work for them. Today something like 40 per cent of the staff of Thames Reach are people who have experienced street homelessness. Sir Kenneth feels that there should be no distinction between how you run a company and how you run a charity but that tragically there often is. To be successful the organisation, has to have a mission, it has to have a purpose, a mission, a reason to exist that can rally people, and it has to do good. And he doesn’t think that’s different in a commercial environment than it is in a charitable one.
Relatively recently in life Sir Kenneth has realised that his ability to compartmentalise does separate him from lots of other people. He can go to a meeting and only be thinking about what he’s doing now, and not have 1,000 other thoughts of other things going through his head. But the minute he’s finished, he can go off to a meeting to discuss governance at one of the large charities that he chairs, and there for that next hour he will be focused entirely on governance with that large charity. He thought it’s what everybody does but now realises it isn’t what most people do.