Simon Kleine - Leading from the back

The V-P of corporate comms at Western Union is on an evangelical drive to expand the firm's image and appeal, finds Hannah Crown.

Chief Objective: showing the chief executive the real value of comms (Credit: Julian Dodd)
Chief Objective: showing the chief executive the real value of comms (Credit: Julian Dodd)

If Simon Kleine had not embarked on a career in PR, he would have liked to be a police detective. This is unsurprising on first impressions, as he seems to possess the qualities needed for solving complex crimes. Calm, methodical, analytical are all attributes he associates himself with, while clarity of thought comes up consistently in his musings about effective communication.

The 50-year-old father of two is the son of a German immigrant who came to the UK and set up as a market gardener in the 1940s. Kleine is by no means a typical smooth PR man, despite having carved his niche through some of the globe's most ubiquitous brands - Visa and American Express - and at the start of 2012 joined the rather less sexy money exchange service Western Union.

Kleine, 50, one of the speakers at this week's PRWeek's Leaders in Comms conference, joined the firm in January at a time when it began trying to broaden its appeal and improve its image.

He calls it a 'very successful business with a very defined customer', but says one of its aims now is to be 'better understood'. Kleine talks of the company's grip on the money transfer market in rapid statistics - 70 million customers, moving close to US$80bn (£49.3m) last year, customers whom the business defines as 'under-served': those who are not able to get a bank account or credit card.

Early in our interview, Kleine broaches the subject of fraud and money laundering, two big issues for the company that have generated a lot of negative press in Italy and Spain, where he says consumer fraud scams are popular media fodder.

Despite these media pitfalls, Kleine is proactively seeking headlines to avoid the 'negative energy that results if you don't talk about a brand'.

'If you don't talk about the business and customer relationship, people create their own preconceptions and these may not be the ones that you want,' he says.

In a bid to combat this 'vacuum' of ideas, and to 'demystify the business beyond its core product', he was responsible for presenting Western Union's chief executive Hikmet Ersek to foreign press earlier in the year to talk about the brand's expanding mobile, internet and b2b services following the creation of development arm Western Union Ventures in 2011.

Kleine's evangelical drive to broaden perceptions of the business is a theme echoed by Fiona Wilkinson, director of comms, Visa Europe, who gave him a job in 2005. She credits him with helping to bring debit into the mix, now one of Visa's most lucrative revenue sources, and building Visa's profile in Europe where credit is traditionally less freely available.

She says: 'Simon was a brand evangelist. He was very good at getting under the skin of the business and gaining confidence at its most senior level across Europe. It is difficult to do and he did it better than anybody has before, or since.'

Kleine started out as a politics and sociology student at Warwick University. Growing up in an era of Labour leaders Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, whetted his appetite for politics, and then he 'kind of fell in backwards' to PR. 'Politics prepared me quite well. I was very much into the issue of political behaviour,' says Kleine. He was not particularly active, but 'had a lot of conversations with friends, some of whom are now MPs' (such as Labour MP John Mann, though they are not in regular contact).

Kleine's first job was as youth development officer for the United Nations Association, before moving to the Consumers' Association - now Which? - as senior campaigns officer, a move he describes as his 'biggest career break'.

He cut his teeth in crisis comms at Heinz in the 1990s, during a notorious baby food tampering case - before a stint at American Express and agency-side at Counsel PR, which is now part of Huntsworth.

Nigel Dickie, now director of corporate and government affairs at Heinz, was CEO of Counsel from 1989 to 2005. He says: 'Simon was always calm and never flustered. Even from an early age, he brought a thoughtful and considered approach to the art of comms, as opposed to others in the industry who might react on instinct.'

When asked how he views himself, Kleine shuns the image of the brand evangelist, insisting he is a 'backroom person'.

'My job is to help the chief executive to engage with the media. It is about having that clarity of focus - showing the real value of comms, not just PR for PR's sake,' says Kleine.

It seems that, under the guidance of this unflappable policeman-preacher, Western Union is likely to generate a few more column inches in the very near future.

CV

2012

Vice-president corporate comms, Europe and CIS, Western Union

2005

Vice-president corporate comms, Visa Europe

2002

Director of public relations and government affairs, NTL (now Virgin Media)

1997

Vice-president international corporate affairs, American Express

1995

Head of corporate comms, Bhs Storehouse

1991

Board director, Counsel PR (now part of Huntsworth)

1990

Corporate public relations manager, HJ Heinz

1986

Senior campaigns officer, Consumers' Association (now Which?)

1984

Youth development officer, United Nations Association

SIMON KLEINE'S TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

Getting my job with Consumers' Association. This got me into an incredible public affairs role where I was dealing with a range of issues of importance to consumers, including the safety of cookers, consumer arbitration rights, car servicing standards and ozone depletion, to list just a few.

These issues brought me into contact with Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels in a role where I was representing the organisation, but I also learned that I wanted to work in the broader comms field.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Sally Susman at American Express (now executive vice -president, policy, external affairs and comms at Pfizer) - a most astute PR comms mind and a top boss, who lets you get on with the job, values your efforts and backs you to the hilt.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Show your worth through results and never be arrogant.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

A natural PR aptitude; willingness to take ownership and accountability; common sense but with lateral and creative thinking; and drive and enthusiasm.

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