Alumni Profiles: Kate Ellis (MBA’91D)

Business as a force for good

INSEAD opens up choices and I chose variety: in the 27 years since I left Fontainebleau my career has taken me to many different workplaces, including car assembly lines, oil tankers, trading floors, prisons (though never overnight…) and now some of the world’s largest nuclear installations. Always surrounded by smart, dedicated professionals, I have loved testing out what the commercial profession can bring to the table: how can we help to provide the goods and services that people need, or help solve some of society’s most intractable challenges?

An engineer by profession, industry appealed to me because I liked the idea of many diverse people coming together to make something which other people wanted – that neat cycle that keeps so many of us entwined as creators and consumers. I started my working life running an assembly line at Jaguar Cars – I was determined to learn what it was really like at the sharp end of manufacturing. After three and a half mind broadening years at Jaguar I decided that an MBA would be a great way of building a wider understanding of the business world, essential if I was to progress. I also hoped that it would give me some of the confidence which all senior people (i.e. men) seemed to have – this was very much the era of the glass ceiling and female role models were nowhere to be seen in my working world.

Having grown up in a multinational household, INSEAD was the obvious choice and it turned out to be everything I had hoped for and more. Yes, you certainly grew your skills in marketing, accounting, corporate finance and so on, but you also learnt how to lead in unfamiliar situations, how to engage diverse groups and you realised that what you had to offer really did have value even among very smart people! Best of all, the diversity of backgrounds of my fellow students opened my eyes to the range of opportunities to be explored.

Of course, choice means making decisions and I have been fortunate in always being able to work for organisations whose values I felt passionate about and whose mission I believed in wholeheartedly. They have also supported my desire to be active in the not for profit sector – I am on the Boards of a theatre, a large local charity and a UK business school (not a serious competitor of INSEAD’s yet, but one day…). The learning here has worked both ways – while I bring commercial and corporate experience and expertise to these Boards, my not for profit work has broadened my ideas and, I believe, made me a better leader.

From INSEAD I joined BP where I spend 22 very interesting years in jobs as varied as running a chemicals business, negotiating the commercial contracts underpinning the construction and operation of an international gas pipeline and leading the internal Group engagement around the launch of BP’s new Helios brand. And finally having the Commercial Director role in BP Shipping, which introduced me to a fascinating world of complex, high risk operations combined with a proud history and deep sense of tradition.

Family ties then called and I took a year’s sabbatical in order to be with my parents, which was a special time I will never forget. However, once I came to consider ‘what next?’ The ideal opportunity came up when I saw that the UK Civil Service was looking for Commercial Directors.

The commercial teams in each Government Department negotiate and manage the UK Government’s contracts – each year it spends almost £50 bn on goods and services. The idea is to harness the creativity, resources and expertise of the private and not for profit sectors in order to address some of the most difficult challenges in society. As a Commercial Director I sometimes feel like an interpreter between two very different cultures and it draws on every ounce of my previous experience and expertise.

After two years as Commercial Director at the Ministry of Justice, a year ago I moved to become the Commercial Director of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. In each instance I have had the privilege of learning from experts about how we are trying to solve complex social challenges – from the criminal justice system seeking to reduce reoffending to the nuclear sector dealing with the legacy of nuclear infrastructure. If we are successful, we achieve the ideal cycle of society benefitting from innovative solutions, provided by thriving businesses, generating good jobs…all the while providing good value to the taxpayer. I believe that I may be planting the INSEAD flag in new territory….

If you are interested in sharing your alumni story, please contact the UK alumni association at uk.manager@insead.edu

October 2018