Damian McKinney Explains How His Military History Helped Him Set Up His Own Management Consultancy

McKinney Rogers is one of the UK's best-known management consultancies. Co-founded by Damian McKinney, the ex-Marine applied the lessons he learned in the military to his business, and now has Walmart, JPMorgan and Bacardi as clients.

Here, he discusses how the military life influences his management style and why he hates being a management consultant.

Tell me about your life before management consultancy…

I grew up in east Africa, which was a very freeing experience. If I wasn't at school I was wondering around the town with my brother – I didn't even know what racism was until I came to the UK.

I moved to Britain when I was 10 for school and we stayed, although we went home for holidays as often as we could. Then I joined the Royal Marines – there were no military people in my family but I loved the idea of being a commando. I signed up in 1979 and after 10 years left as a lieutenant colonel.

During my time in the marines I spent most of my time in operations. I served in the Gulf War as well as on various missions in Central America and Bosnia. I also worked with the Ministry of Defence running the global operations for the navy and the truth was I loved the excitement of doing it for real, rather than being a planning officer sat in the back room.

When I resigned – partly because of ill health as I’d developed arthritis – I knew I'd always had a burning desire to do something in business. I'd got to 37 years old and knew I had another 20 years ahead, of which four would be in ops and the 16 years in administration roles.

So I told myself I'd spend a year as a business consultant and then decide what sector I wanted to get a real job in through that.

How did you start?

I'd got a business degree while I was working in the army so I used that to get a foot in the door.

On my first day though I struggled. 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'.

That made no sense to me. I said, how do you judge success if there's no end stage? And he replied, 'you've been in the military for too long – it's called revenue'.

How did you get beyond that difficult opening day?

I've been very lucky at times in my career and one of those times was working with Martin Akers. He was a director in the corporate bank section of Barclays. He got straight away that I was frustrated with management consultancy and the simple 7% revenue target so he doubled it to 14% and told me to get on and do it. That year we hit 32% and Akers said to me, have you ever thought of doing this for yourself?

After my time at Barclays I set up McKinney Rogers and after two weeks got a call from Diageo's chief operating officer Ivan Menezes. I liked him – he asked me to pick what brands I wanted to work with, and I picked the malt whiskeys because that's what I liked to drink. He shook his head and said 'tough, we're giving you Johnnie Walker' which at the time didn’t have a great rep.

The business grew from there. Soon they wanted me to do what I did for Johnnie Walker across other Diageo brands.

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.

And for me, behind everything is a simple plan; I hate being a consultant. That sounds odd maybe, but what I like doing is being on the front line and actually implementing the suggestions – you need to be able to do it for real in this business.

If you hate being a consultant, why did you choose management consultancy at all?

It's a good question. I suppose I didn't want to do any of the normal jobs that men from the military tend to do – working for charities and trusts and so on. But I genuinely didn't know which area of business I wanted to work in. I suppose if you'd asked me then what my ambition was, it would've been to be the chief executive of a FTSE 100 firm.

How did you fund the initial few months of the business?

Originally there was just myself, Alistair Rogers and Clare McCarthy as our finance manager – and we had zero funding.

We just had one rule – we weren’t paid by the company until we had sold to a client – and we got paid as associates. We didn't pay a salary until we were making regular revenue.

In the first year we made £0.5 million, which was about 20% profit. I'd leveraged a bit along the way, but I always made sure revenue was driving the process.

How did your military background assist you?

I was shocked at how much I'd learned in the marines that was applicable to the business world. The language is different, but there are lots of areas where the lessons I learned were of use.

Now, Americans talk about the golden generation of workers who came from the military and returned after World War Two to help build the US – now we've got ex-servicemen who’ve been at war for far longer than any of those men were and have a lot to give to society still, but they’re not getting through. In management, you need to have values and believe in what you’re doing – you need integrity and honest and to be able to understand risk-taking – that’s all in military training.

What hurdles did you face?

Well for the first two years it was tough. I'd never worked through a recession before where I had to worry about getting paid – just before 9/11 happened we were due to sign a contract with Diageo and then the stock markets dived and the CEO issued a statement to cancel all consultancy contracts.

I went to see them, and thankfully they wanted and valued my services so they employed me as an agency instead and got around it. But the lesson was that you couldn’t assume anything – and that helped us for the most recent recession.

The other big lesson was to do with people – you assume you can trust everyone and suddenly people leave your organisation and try to take the client with them. Other times, poor performers had a real sense of entitlement and when we had to cut back they didn't take it well.

On the flipside there are some people we've had since day one.

And if you go into a partnership you need to make sure there are no compromises at all on your goals at the beginning of the venture. The easiest solution is to sit down and decide what success looks like in 10 years' time and if you don't have the same answer you need to look at it again.

Alistair and I didn't have that conversation. I was all about strategy and he was more about leadership development, but we never said what we wanted the business to be in 10 years' time.

What do you consider your biggest success?

Finally getting that 10-year vision in place. That and, having been told we couldn't create a business from an attic in Devon, proving everyone wrong and opening 33 offices around the world.

On a personal level, it's setting up the foundation in Africa for assisting disadvantaged individuals to help them run their own business – it's about giving those people a chance. We take on 21 students a year and we try and find those kids, typically the eldest of an orphaned family who have lived in slums and despite everything provided for themselves and their siblings.

What does the future hold now?

Now we've moved from running one company to running several in difficult countries. We're looking to set up our own drinks company soon as well as pursue a number of opportunities in Africa.