Meet the Leeds United fan who saved global corporate giant DHL Express from catastrophe

Ken Allen is a miner’s son from the heart of Yorkshire who saved a global corporate giant which seemed in terminal decline, writes Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

Monday, 25th May 2020, 9:32 am
Updated Monday, 25th May 2020, 9:36 am
Ken Allen

MANAGEMENT consultants love to devise snappy phrases that contain a universal truth.

But perhaps only a lifelong Leeds United fan could have created a saying that would never find its way into any stuffy academic text book.

Being a CEO is like being a gardener in a cemetery, according to Ken Allen, the Yorkshire-born boss who saved DHL Express from catastrophe.

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“You have a lot of people underneath you, but none of them are listening,’’ he said.

“Why don’t people listen? There is too much formality from management, who are not connected to the front line and sometimes not even to customers.”

A true “people person” who rose to become one of the most influential figures in the global corporate world, Mr Allen has packed his experiences into a memoir, called Radical Simplicity.

More than a decade ago, Mr Allen earned plaudits for his leadership of DHL Express, the once troubled courier, parcel, and express mail service. He pulled the company out of an “existential crisis” and huge losses to transform it into a global giant with its highest ever level of profitability.

He’s taken a long and winding road from his birthplace in Horbury, West Yorkshire to become the CEO of a division of a global company with more than 300,000 employees.

Over the years, he has rung the bell on Wall Street, shaken hands with the Pope, consulted with the Prime Minister of France, and even met the Rolling Stones.

Mr Allen believes the lessons outlined in his book are relevant to all companies, regardless of their size.

“The old days of command and control management are dead, we believe in management who believe in more empowerment and less bureaucracy,’’ he said.

The best managers must support and not direct, enable and not regulate, Mr Allen believes.

They should also seek to add value rather than increase their team’s workload.

Perhaps above all else, bosses should celebrate success, have a good time and be happy. He is putting this policy into action in his current role as CEO of DHL’s eCommerce division.

Speaking from his home in Egypt, the former Ossett Grammar School pupil said: “Happiness is the ultimate destination. I never really had a plan to become a global CEO.

“There are a lot of people who come in with great ideas but they don’t understand the importance of the core business and what you are really good at. There is a natural bias to over complicate things.

“I found a real synergy with the frontline workers. I like to spend a lot of time with them. They tell you what is going wrong.”

It was this focus on listening to the views of frontline staff which proved the springboard for reviving DHL Express.

Altogether, he has spent 34 years at the company, including a 10-year stint as global CEO of the business, which is division of Deutsche Post DHL.

When he first took on the role, the company was in dire straits.

“I knew what a mess DHL Express was in because I had been with the business for 20 years. I thought, if not me, then who?

“I thought we had to re-focus on what we were really good at.”

He said the company had previously bought businesses around the world and tried to integrate them with the international operation without taking time to understand the culture, IT systems or processes.

He said: “They soon became loss making. We got stuck into turning it around and refocusing. When people get behind you it’s amazing how quickly you can achieve things.”

The no-nonsense, miner’s son achieved an astounding financial turnaround after years of stagnation and loss.

“The real heroes aren’t the turnaround specialists,’’ Mr Allen said. “When a business gets into a mess like that it’s always a result of the actions of senior managers but they reward themselves and move on to something else.

“But the people on the frontline suffer.

“You have got to spend more time with your customers. From focus comes growth. We started to fly our own aircraft and we now we have got one of the biggest aircraft fleets.

“With more focus, you become good at spotting opportunities and become more efficient. “

“It’s about doubling down and tripling down on frontline people. When something does go wrong, frontline staff have the greatest empathy with customers.”

The coronavirus pandemic has placed the emphasis on people who deliver the essentials for every day life.

“The courier going to your home is like a lifeline,’’ said Mr Allen. “I hope we give all the front line workers in all industries the recognition and reward they deserve for safeguarding and servicing us all.”

“Loyal customers are the greatest way to achieve profitability. But simple doesn’t mean easy. It’s about being clear about what you do. If a container is misrouted we can work out what has gone wrong.

“It means more empowerment and less bureaucracy.”

Radical Simplicity - which has the subtitle - How simplicity transformed a loss-making mega brand into a world-class performer - has earned rave reviews on Amazon.

Many of the reviewers are former colleagues who praised his drive, insight and humility.

Mr Allen said: “We believe that motivated people deliver great service quality that leads to loyal customers, which are the most critical element of any profitable business.”

Mr Allen is still a passionate Leeds United fan who has fond memories of watching the team lift the FA Cup at Wembley during the Don Revie era. One of his prized possessions is a Leeds shirt signed by Alan Clarke.

When he talks about his business philosophy, he sounds like the very best form of evangelist.

Simplicity is a forgotten discipline and execution is always more important than strategy. Business must always be conducted with a human face.

He added: “When you have a great day at work, you feel good about society as whole.

“You need a decent functional background but people skills are increasingly important. You have got to be yourself because everybody else is taken.”

For a decade, Ken Allen was the CEO of DHL, one of the world’s largest employers with operations in 220 countries and territories.

He is a miner’s son from Yorkshire, who led DHL’s financial turnaround after years of stagnation and loss.

He believes the key to rising to the top of your company lies in a simple message and philosophy.

His book Radical Simplicity is billed as an accessible read for entrepreneurs and managers at any stage of their career, packed with motivational material and no-nonsense tips.

The lifelong Leeds United fan describes himself as a global citizen. He was born in Yorkshire, lives in Belgium and Egypt and travels the world to promote his philosophy.

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