Shandwick’s Charles Skeeles prepares to take Shanghai by surprise
Charles Skeeles says his favourite James Bond film is From Russia with
Love, ‘because of the Trans-Siberian Express journey.’ And this is
precisely how the former director of Shandwick Consultants intends to
arrive in Shanghai on 1 November, to take up his new post as CEO for
Skeeles, 37, bounds breathlessly into the room. Although it is tempting
to dwell on the analogy of him as the 007 of the PR business, it belies
the importance of his new role in developing one of the fastest growing
markets in the world. ‘China is a true frontier country - nowhere is
changing so quickly and so dramatically. It will build 40 airports in
the next five years and computer usage will increase tenfold,’ he says.
He is excited rather than apprehensive about his first overall
management role: ‘It’s PR on a different plane. I felt I had to give it
Born in Kuala Lumpar, Skeeles spent his childhood between Britain and
Asia, where his father was stationed with the Ministry of Defence. He
didn’t discover his PR nous immediately, beginning his working life in
marine insurance and then banking consultancy. But by the mid-1980s he
found his niche in financial marketing, joining Ogilvy and Mather under
financial PR head Alastair Eperon.
Skeeles went with Eperon when he joined McAvoy Wreford Bayley two years
later, at the time of the stock market crash. ‘It was a hot company at a
turbulent time,’ he says.
He joined Shandwick Consultants in 1989, keen to work on international
brands and big issues. Seven years later his CV reads like the index
page of a world atlas. He helped prepare the Bangkok Stock Exchange for
privatisation, promoted the Turks and Caicos Islands as a financial
centre and communicated oil licensing opportunities in the Falkland
Islands and the list goes on.
One former colleague says Skeeles’ good humour may be mistaken for
flippancy. However Shandwick set him ambitious new business targets and
he has brought in the bucks.
More sheepishly he recalls his crisis communications work for Skoda
cars. ‘That was a bit hairy, particularly when wheels had fallen off. I
think I made the press comment ‘it could happen to any car’,’ he groans.
The account landed him with the nickname ‘Skoda Skeeles’ among
contemporaries, amused at the connotations for a man who is in love with
his Lotus Elan.
International travel, fast cars, scuba diving and, it seems, James Bond-
like daring. He tells of a marketing trip to Rio de Janeiro where a
colleague was mugged: ‘I ran after the thief, who threw away the credit
cards, but I continued the chase,’ he says. ‘He cycled off and I threw a
slate at the bike, which just caught his mudguard - apparently not the
most sensible thing to do.’
‘He’s bigger than Ben Hur with solid gold wheels,’ says Paul Taaffe,
president of Hill and Knowlton Europe, Middle East and Asia. ‘He’s
creative, entrepreneurial, builds a strong team and is the ultimate
client guy.’ Taaffe has no doubts about how he will handle the Chinese
challenge: ‘He’ll eat it alive.’
Skeeles’ client Dr Tomita, European MD of Japanese telecoms giant NTT,
says: ‘He understands our culture and brings some ideas and angles that
are new to the Asian business mind. Absorbing the Chinese way of doing
business will be a challenge but if he can, we should be able to use his
services in a similar way in that market.’
Skeeles knows he’ll be going into a relatively low-tech environment,
with a major language barrier. His management skills will be tested to
the limit. Nevertheless his broad experience should stand him in good
stead in building client confidence. ‘A lot of people talk abut
international business, but it doesn’t work unless you understand the
situation of the people on the other end of the phone.’ he says.
‘It’s up to me to pitch and hustle,’ adds our man in Shanghai. Let’s
face it, nobody lives twice.
1981 Account manager, Noel Alexander Associates
1985 Senior account executive, Ogilvy and Mather
1987 Senior account adviser, McAvoy Wreford Bayley
1989 Consultant, Shandwick Consultants
1996 Chief executive officer,ÿ20Shandwick China