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
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
’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
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,
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
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.’
Shell Hong Kong, central planning manager
Shell Italy, general manager
Shell Netherlands, downstream oil director
Shell European oil products, vice-president
Shell International, external affairs vice-president