Business

Rupert Soames: The power boss who says keep things simple

Rupert Soames

Rupert Soames and the company he leads often deal with people in dire situations.

He is chief executive of temporary power generation business Aggreko, which helps communities around the world in times of desperate need - such as when a natural disaster knocks out a city or region's electricity supply.

Earlier this year Aggreko teams raced to Oklahoma City in the US after a tornado ripped through its suburbs. In 2011, Aggreko helped to provide electricity for parts of Japan worst affected by the earthquake and tsunami that hit the eastern side of the country.

Mr Soames says: "If you can help alleviate the problem, get the waterworks going, the pumps going, and get the hospitals powered up and so on, it's hugely rewarding work."

'Orange blood'

Mr Soames comes from a family full of leaders: his grandfather was the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, his brother is the Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, and his late uncle Duncan Sandys was a former UK defence secretary.

Mr Soames' own leadership successes have not been in the political arena however, but in the world of business.

Having worked in the upper ranks of Misys (a software company specialising in the banking sector) and Avery Berkel (which manufactures weighing and food processing equipment), Mr Soames was appointed chief executive of Aggreko in 2003.

Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Aggreko is now one of the UK's biggest companies, and its share price has increased more than tenfold during the time Mr Soames has been in charge.

Image caption Aggreko helped to provide electricity in Oklahoma earlier this year

In addition to responding to natural disasters, it provides temporary power - and heating and air-conditioning - to everything from construction sites to factories, ships and oil rigs.

It also supplies sports stadiums, and was used at the main stadium of the 2012 London Olympics.

At Aggreko, Mr Soames says he joined a culture of people who are dedicated to the company, and care deeply about helping the customer.

"Our culture is incredibly strong," he says. "By culture I mean the attachment of the people to the business."

"We call it 'orange blood', which reflects the fact that if you go and cut a vein of somebody from Aggreko, they'll bleed orange or diesel."

Strategy versus tactics

In explaining his leadership philosophy, Mr Soames believes too many businesses follow unnecessarily complicated paths when aiming for success.

By contrast, he sticks to two simple factors - strategy and execution.

Image caption Aggreko's power generators are used by companies around the world

Mr Soames says it is crucial for a company to have the right strategy, which demands an understanding of the market and where it is going. And that once that is in place, good execution is essential, which requires the right structure.

"That's the technical bit, and that's all you need to know about running a business," he explains.

Another problem he sees at other companies is the confusion between strategy and tactics.

He says strategies deal with the long term, and these should stay constant. Small changes and fine tuning of how things are done are tactics.

"Two to three years is tactics," he explains.

"You know it is correct to keep changing your tactics. It is on the whole wrong to keep changing your strategy unless the strategy's wrong."

Family influence

Mr Soames also says his family background has been important in honing his leadership skills.

He comes from a large family, and as a child he had to make an effort to be noticed.

"I was the youngest of five," he explains. "In order not to starve I had to eat very quickly, and in order to be heard I had to talk very loudly.

"It was quite a tribal atmosphere in the household."

But whatever a boss's background, Mr Soames says they need to learn from their surroundings and from others; books are not enough.

He credits his curiosity and belief in innovation as also being important to guiding him to where he is today.

Yet ultimately, Mr Soames says you have to be true to yourself to succeed.

At a previous job Mr Soames was sent to see a professional to prepare him for a new level of managerial responsibility.

"I went to this guy who was about 150 years old, and who lived in Florida, and got my brain reprogrammed," he explains.

However, the results confused both him and all his colleagues.

"I came back as a different human being and they hated it," he says of his colleagues' reactions. "And I hated it."

After a few weeks Mr Soames went back to being his old self. "Everybody sighed relief."

'Irrational optimist'

But despite his successes at Aggreko and his financially comfortable upbringing, things haven't always been easy.

He was unemployed for a year prior to joining Aggreko, and the experience made him understand what it is like for people who have fallen on tough times.

Image caption The company helped to power the main stadium at the 2012 Olympics

He now makes sure to extend a hand to others in need, just as some people did for him during his hard times.

Mr Soames also credits his supportive family and his own innate optimism with helping him to pull through.

"I've always been an irrational optimist," Mr Soames says.

"I've always believed that things would work out for the good even when presented with evidence to the contrary."

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