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Aberdeen businessman Bob Keiller on making multi-million-pound deals and giving back to city

The 60-year-old sold his business for £783million after only five years and is now spearheading the Our Union Street campaign.

Bob Keiller standing up.
Bob Keiller has spoken about his business journey. Image: Scott Baxter/DC Thomson.

One of Aberdeen’s most successful entrepreneurs Bob Keiller has reflected on his years of success.

Despite having “no money” he raised £220 million for a management buyout of Halliburton to create PSN which he sold for £783m just five years later.

In recent years he’s been the face of Our Union Street as well as run a successful consultancy which has helped dozen of other entrepreneurs make their fortunes.

“A good dollop of good luck” and “strong support” from his family is what Bob believes has played a part in his hugely successful career.

From paperboy to engineering

Growing up Bob’s first venture in to the world of work was as a paperboy in his hometown of Jedburgh.

After leaving school at the end of fifth year Bob went to Heriott-Watt University where he did a masters degree in engineering.

But it was a far cry from what he actually he wanted to do.

He said: “I wanted to be an artist and paint pictures and design album covers for heavy metal bands.

“Art was my big thing and English was another strong suit.

Bob Keiller
Bob Keiller always wanted to be an artist. Image: Scott Baxter/DC Thomson

“But I could do maths, physics and chemistry as well and I thought having a solid trade to fall back on given how tough it is to make a living in the world of art would be the best.

“I thought engineering would be a good one. I was interested in computers which were quite new at the time and I wanted to find out about that world.

“So I moved to Edinburgh.”

In September 1986, Bob, who has been married to Lorraine for 37 years, joined the BP graduate programme and made the switch to the Granite City.

A place the dad-of-three has fond memories of as a young boy.

He said: “I moved to a place I didn’t really know well called Aberdeen.

“I’d been there once when I was six years old and could remember a lot about it.

“We stayed in a guest house in Bon Accord Street and went to the Capitol cinema and the beach.

“I was always very impressed by the place.”

Oil and gas career moves

During Bob’s four years at BP he worked both onshore and offshore.

After leaving there he spent two years working for TFCW Consultants based in Huntly Street before deciding to join Amerada Hess.

He said: “By this time I had two young children. The offer was if you want to come and work for us you’ll have two weeks offshore and three weeks onshore.

Bob Keiller pictured in 2018 during his time as Scottish Enterprise chairman. Image: Jim Irvine/DC Thomson

“I thought what a fantastic rota and again it was a big uplift in responsibility.

“I took that role and went offshore as a supervisor.

“I hadn’t told anyone I was a chartered engineer. But they could tell by some of the comments I was making on engineering proposals that clearly I had some background knowledge.

“I was asked to move onshore and take on the engineering budget for the asset I was working on.”

During Bob’s nine years at Hess, as it ended up being known as, he held six different job roles.

He left at the start of 2002 to join Halliburton.

Bob said: “When I started I didn’t have a desk or a specific job. I didn’t have anything.

“It was unclear what they wanted me to do.

“Initially I thought it was very discouraging but it gave me the type of freedom to listen to different people and understand the business.

“Probably a year later they announced it was splitting in to two.

“I joined KBR UK team in Aberdeen and I was asked to lead it before being asked in 2004 asked to lead the international team for the production services business.”

Leap of faith in buying the business

During this time he realised there was big potential in the business – but production services wasn’t well known or appreciated in the group.

He said: “Because of the way the numbers got put together it looked as though the business was pretty anaemic and losing money.

Bob Keiller pictured in 2015. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

“Whereas in reality I think it was just the way they were accounting. I thought it was a good business and struggling because it was part of a large corporation.

“That’s why in 2005 I went to Halliburton and said I’d like to buy the business from you. The difficulty of that was I had no money and the business wasn’t for sale.

“I had never done it before so it took a little bit of convincing.”

Start of PSN by Bob Keiller

But the following year Bob, who is former chairman of economic development agency Scottish Enterprise, managed to raise the £220m needed to buy the business and created PSN.

He said: “I approached various banks, investors and groups and convinced them. I told them an analogy about finding a Scots pine growing amongst these giant redwood trees and if you took it into an open space it would grow more quickly.

“My business model was to take it into an open space and let it grow more quickly.

“I had a good team around me. It wasn’t a solo effort.

“It was a big challenge because at the time if the business hadn’t achieved its goals we’d have lost any equity in the business and the whole thing could have fallen apart.

“It was a big risk financially and reputationally but that does stimulate you in to working harder and try to make a business that’s different.

“The first couple of years was chaotic but it began to bear fruit.

“In the space of five years we increased the amount of people in the business from 6,000 to 9,000.

“Turnover we ended up with was well over $1 billion a year.”

Desire to do something different

After five years Bob, who is chairman of Aberdeen Grampian Chamber of Commerce,  sold the business to Wood Group for £783m.

He said: “Each year we’d get approached by companies who wanted to buy us but we’d say no it was too early in the journey.

“We had a five-year plan and towards the end we got approached by several businesses and we asked two of them for offers and that’s when Wood Group bought it for $1bn.”

The business was integrated with Wood Group and Bob became head of the division Wood Group PSN.

Bob Keiller, CEO Wood Group PSN and Allister Langlands, chief executive of Wood Group after the deal was signed to join companies.

Then in 2013 Bob moved on to become chief executive of Wood Group in its entirety.

He said: “I had agreed with Sir Ian Wood I’d stay five years to make a success of it, this was on a handshake and not a contract, and I stayed for five years before stepping down.

“I knew I wanted to do different things and over the next few months I started to help charities, small businesses, enterprises and I thought it was an interesting area.”

Following his exit from Wood, he launched Aberdeen-based consultancy AB15, with Derrick Thomson, to pass on some of his entrepreneurial wisdom to others.

Through their consultancy, Bob and Derrick have trained thousands of people who, in turn, have raised millions of pounds, won hundreds of contracts and sold tonnes of products.

He said: “We both wanted to put something back in to the community and were at a similar stage with our careers.

“Most of the work we did was pro bono. Our business model was we would work with some bigger corporate customers who we would charge normal commercial rates and then use the proceeds to fund all the free work for others.

“It was a nice circular way of working.”

Bob business achievements were highlighted when he was made a CBE in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Union Street campaigning

In 2022, Bob, who was instrumental in bringing TEDx talks to Aberdeen, attended a meeting held at the Douglas Hotel in Aberdeen to discuss what he described as the “crisis in the city centre”.

Now a year later Bob and Derrick are spearheading the Our Union Street campaign which aims to help save the city centre.

He said: “I made the mistake of going along to the last hour of the meeting.

“That’s when I saw the need to bring clarity to what was going on. Derrick and I decided to offer our services free of charge and see if we could make a difference.

“Overall it’s made some good progress in some areas and slower in others.

Our Union Street bosses Bob Keiller and Derrick Thomson pictured on Union Street. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“So far so good. Still feels like we are in the foothills of the Himalayas rather than on top of a mountain but there’s tonnes of potential.

“We’ve taken on a project that most people would say we are crazy to do because we’ll never be successful and lots of criticism but we are already seeing things we wouldn’t before.

“I think it’ll take a few more years of effort to begin to see have we made a difference or have we not.

“But in the meantime I’m sure there’ll be other things that come up for Derrick and I.”

‘Hindsight is a great thing’

Looking back on his career journey so far it’s clear Bob has been supported every step of the way by his family.

He said: “Hindsight is a great thing. Most of the changes I made in my career weren’t pre planned or pre meditated and I faced lots of decisions where there was an option to go one way or another.

“But I genuinely chose the option I thought I would learn the most from.

“Sometimes that involved taking what appeared to be sideways or backwards step but ultimately through a blend of that and a good dollop of good luck and being married to Lorraine for the last 37 years with a strong family has allowed me to get on and do what I’ve done.”