Profile: Pieter Berkhout, Shell International - Refining the Shell image/Pieter Berkhout will steer Shell International into a new age of awareness

Shell International’s external affairs vice-president Pieter Berkhout took up his post this month without having held a previous PR job. But he is not a man to be daunted by unfamiliar situations.

Shell International’s external affairs vice-president Pieter

Berkhout took up his post this month without having held a previous PR

job. But he is not a man to be daunted by unfamiliar situations.



He learnt to fend for himself at an early age. After leaving school in

his native Holland, Berkhout’s father bought him a one-way ticket to

Germany, told him to get a job with steel company Hoechst, and left him

to pay his own way back after three months. As a young man Berkhout

worked selling cars, and developed a passion for them. He can dismantle

an engine and put it back together again. For years he has driven a

vintage Triumph and refers to it as his ’girlfriend’.



While he was studying for his law degree, his father again

intervened.



Unimpressed with his son’s grades, Berkhout senior gave his son

responsibility for financing the rest of the course. Berkhout worked on

cruise liners transporting tourists and immigrants between Australia and

Holland. During a stop over in Peru he bought a cargo of ornate tables,

which he sold at a profit back in Holland.



Soon he was paying his way through university with a thriving furniture

import business. After graduating he married, at the age of 23, and in

1970, bored with the furniture trade, he gave the business to his

brother and joined Shell as a trainee.



In his new post Berkhout is responsible for corporate communications and

advises the operating companies on external affairs strategy. He

oversees a department of 35. His role, he says, is to ’bring a business

perspective’.



’I can help manage this costly communications effort in a way that helps

with our overall corporate goals, I can prevent it from going its own

way,’ he says.



Berkhout’s knowledge of the company should enable him to keep its

corporate goals in sight and communicate them to staff as well as the

outside world.



Apart from exploration and refining, he has worked in most other areas

of the company during his 28 years with Shell. During the 1973 oil

crisis which followed the Israeli Yom Kippur war, Berkhout helped

develop home insulation systems for Shell Netherlands customers who were

struggling to pay their heating bills.



In 1974 he was in London helping to plan the transportation of gas

across the world. The following year he was posted to head Shell’s

central planning unit in Hong Kong. He promptly disbanded it, failing to

see the need for long-term planning at a time of such political

uncertainty in neighbouring China.



Berkhout worked for Shell in Germany, was general manager of the

company’s Italian business, and spent a year in Paris, expanding Shell’s

business in Eastern Europe and Russia.



For the last few years he has been responsible for reorganising Shell’s

downstream business into a pan-European operation. His job was to build

teams of people able to work on a regional, rather than national,

scale.



His task in terms of communications will involve effecting an even

greater change in working habits. ’We are trying to transform this

company from one which was fairly isolated to one which stands in the

middle of society,’ he explains. ’Shell has to remain commercial to

survive but it has to pair commercial and environmental objectives.

Communications play a role in all this.’



Berkhout himself is used to change. During his career he has lived in

six countries, and has learnt seven languages as a result. More

importantly, the need to constantly adapt to new societies and make new

friends has meant that he and his wife have developed a very close bond

with their children. Whenever they can, the family get together for an

adventure holiday.



He is now 55, but age seems unlikely to be an impediment in carrying out

his task at Shell International. According to his secretary for the last

four years, Christel van den Heuvel: ’He has so much energy and his way

of working is energising: he never shows doubt or uncertainty.’



HIGHLIGHTS

1975

Shell Hong Kong, central planning manager

1989

Shell Italy, general manager

1994

Shell Netherlands, downstream oil director

1998

Shell European oil products, vice-president

1998

Shell International, external affairs vice-president



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