Consultancy from the business commandos

DAMIAN McKinney rings me from his boat off the coast of Guadalupe. This ex-Royal Marine commando turned entrepreneur tells me that he has always wanted to have a video conference from a boat, wearing a shirt and tie, pretending he’s in the office. “This is close enough,” he laughs.

After a 20-year military career in the Gulf, Bosnia and battling the narcotics trade in Central America, management consultancy is not the industry you would imagine a man like McKinney ending up in.

McKinney couldn’t really imagine it either: “I never wanted to be a consultant. I actually don’t like consultants. I’ve always thought you should be prepared to do business for real.” But despite this view, at the age of 37, McKinney left the military at the rank of lieutenant-colonel and started the firm McKinney Rogers. The company now operates in 14 countries with over 200 staff.

“I left the army because I had reached an age and rank where I only had about four years of action left,” McKinney explains. “I don’t want to sound like a warmonger, but I thrive on adrenaline and crisis situations.” He tells me how rewarding it is to take control of a crisis: “In 1991, at the end of the Gulf war, during the Kurdish uprising, I was given 30 days to set up a refugee camp and move 240,000 refugees. With 150 guys we did it. Now that’s real work.”

“I had this idea that if you wanted to go into business from the military, you had to do it before you were 37. To be honest, when I left, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I thought if I worked in management consultancy, I could see what lots of different businesses were like, then I could pick one and then get to work climbing its corporate ladder.”

But McKinney explains that he was frustrated by the new role almost immediately: “On my first morning, I was taken along to a client meeting and at the end of it, I had to turn to my colleague and say, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m not a stupid man, but what on earth is the end stage you want to reach with this client? And he turned to me and said, there is no end stage.”

It wasn’t until he landed a project with Barclays that he got a taste for consultancy: “I started working with the corporate director Martin Akers and he could tell I was frustrated. So he doubled my revenue-increase target from 7 to 14 per cent and told me to get on and do it.” McKinney loved the challenge: “We hit 32 per cent. Akers told me to just go off and do this for real.”

So McKinney, alongside a business partner, set up shop in his attic. Within two weeks, Diageo rang, asking him to do what he had done for Barclays for their Johnnie Walker brand. “I had no idea how powerful word of mouth is. I was a bit naive in that way.”

The business grew from there. “Soon they wanted me to do what I did for Johnnie Walker across other Diageo brands.” McKinney Rogers now has Walmart, JPMorgan and Bacardi as clients.

“So much of consultancy is like the military. You have to get inside the minds of your competitors, understand their motivations and know the environment you’re operating in.”

CV | DAMIAN MCKINNEY
Age: 51

Born: Uganda

Lives: Barbados with my Krissi, children and animals

Studied: BSc City University, MA Kings College, London

Number of staff: Around 200 (including associates)

Idol: Marcus Aurelius Caesar “He was a values based leader”

Awards: MBE 1986; Keeper of the Quaich for work on Johnnie Walker; Times Fastrack 2009, 2010; Queen’s Award for international performance 2010

Motto: “Never accept 'it can not be done’”

First ambition: Commando

Drinking: Bacardi Mojito

Reading: “History and adventure books. I just finished 'The Long Walk' by Slavomir Rawicz (his escape from a Russian Gulag in 1941)