Kevin Gaskell is a successful businessman and adventurer. When he’s not trekking to Mount Everest or walking to the North or South Poles, he’s turning around companies, or starting up new and exciting business ventures. Gaskell loves a challenge, writes Tamsin Napier Munn.
Defining moments. In every life, there are key moments that define the character of the individual and help decide the path he or she will inevitably take.
For Kevin Gaskell, serial entrepreneur, the determination to succeed was shaped by incidents in childhood.
“I grew up in a working-class family. My dad was an engineer at the local power station, my mum was a hairdresser.
“My comprehensive school was pretty rough – my first day at school, a guy had me against the wall with a piece of 2×2 timber with a nail in the end, and he basically said: ‘I’m the cock of the school, mate, if you want to challenge me, let’s do it now’.
“I thought ‘what’s the point’ as he was twice as big as me. But things like that I remember. I was bullied at school because I was the brightest kid. But being the brightest was never about me trying to show the rest; it was about me challenging myself. I fought back. I would never give up. Never give up.”
Although Gaskell was bright, he was always “afraid of failing”. He said: “Whatever I was doing I would always push myself harder than anyone else would push me.” While he excelled at sport, especially cricket, he wasn’t a ‘posh boy from a posh school’ and was devastated when he failed to get picked for Wales.
“I came from the wrong school, but didn’t give up. I plugged away and eventually I got picked. When you get a phone call asking if you would play for your country, it’s like ‘wow’.”
Those early challenges were followed by university, and then a scholarship to do an MBA. Gaskell recalled: “I was the youngest on the MBA course. I found business fascinating, especially the idea of getting a team of people to work well together.”
Gaskell became an engineer but also qualified as an accountant. He saw a job advertised in The Sunday Times by Porsche. “They were looking for someone who understood engineering, commerce, and who could lead a team. I showed it to my wife and she said: ‘that’s you’.”
Gaskell joined Porsche as commercial manager, touring the dealerships and “teaching them how to run a business”. But Porsche was in trouble, and in serious danger of going down. Gaskell had been put in charge of operations and when the board flew in from Stuttgart he found himself presenting to them.
“The finance manager and I explained in four hours with flip-charts how we would fix the company. We had built a new plan and we showed them how we could build a new business.”
Gaskell was just 32, but he took Porsche by the scruff of its neck and told the dealers they had to “do the basics especially well”. “It was about making the big decisions quickly. We cut the base costs very quickly, made a lot of people redundant very quickly, we made some very bold decisions on pricing the products – and we started to make it fun again. We took the team to Millbrook and let them drive the cars – we got them excited, many had never driven a Porsche before.”
With fundamental change, Porsche went from last to first in national customer satisfaction and became the UK’s most profitable car company. Gaskell led the brand with the “passion, pride and precision” that epitomised Porsche.
After four years, BMW approached. When Gaskell joined BMW in Bracknell, it was selling 45,000 cars. “I was told that the plan was to hit 54,000 in the next three years, but I don’t believe in setting numerical targets. I told the team that we would focus on being world class in every aspect and that the growth would come. I invited the team to use their passion and ideas to build something extraordinary.
“At times we dreamt of achieving levels that others thought we could never reach – but then we would work out how to get there. In the next three years we reached nearly 80,000. It was a huge change.”
After the BMW stint, the dot-com boom beckoned and Gaskell wanted a change from big corporate life. He chose to take up an offer from American investors in Cars Direct, an online car-buying store, which they wanted to bring to Europe.
The idea morphed into Epyx – which Gaskell built successfully while also being appointed as group CEO of EurotaxGlass’s, which later rebranded to Autovista.
More recently, Gaskell has led an number of MBOs, including steering an international team that converted 31 national print-based companies into a global leader in the provision of online data. Today he is chairman in a number of growing businesses.
He says: “It’s all about passion. I became a business leader because I am passionate about building things. I refuse to do anything unless I can do it properly. We have built 13 amazing companies in the past 15 years by inspiring ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results”
And what has he learned? “Make a decision – most of the stress comes from not making a decision. Make the decision, make it early, and make it big. Dream big.”