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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Contacts and Commitment

The last time Owen Kemp sat down for an interview, the reporter whipped out his breakfast and started tucking in.

"He had a hard-boiled egg. I thought, 'You must be joking!'" said Kemp, vice president for Hewlett-Packard in Russia.

As it turned out, it was an office prank. "They showed the video at the New Year's staff party," he said. "We all laughed."

That appetite for fun is just one element of Kemp's interpersonal skills that are crucial, he says, for success in Russia.

"If you can't be pleasant to each other in the office, how are you going to be with the client?" he said in English with a faint Austrian twang.

Kemp has been at HP all his adult life. He started in Vienna in the mid-1970s and has ended up in Moscow.

During the 30-odd years in between, Kemp traveled the globe opening new HP offices and overseeing successful growth projects that have cemented the firm's position in the IT sectors of the world's emerging markets.

The sporty jetsetter praised New York and the Middle East as his most interesting foreign assignments from the 137 countries he has worked in, Russia not included.

Kemp, 48, was born and schooled in Sussex, England, before moving to Vienna to study communications engineering at technical college. His mother is Austrian; his father died when he was a boy.

The labs at the Vienna college during the '70s were festooned with now-archaic Hewlett-Packard computing machines that Kemp couldn't be torn away from.

His fascination with all things IT led him to apply for a job with HP in Vienna, where the company's Central and Eastern European operations were then based.

Kemp's first assignment had him scooting around East Germany and Bulgaria to sell high-end medical equipment to official enterprises. Wherever he went in the former communist bloc, he was met with open arms, aside from the "spooky" border checks, he said.

"You see, we had something in common," Kemp began. "We were all interested in technology and I was an exciting person from the West," he added.

Still wet behind the ears, Kemp cared little for Cold War politics.

"My political naivete helped keep me afloat," he said.

Back then, he was selling equipment he knew nothing about. Once, he had to read the manual for a fetus-monitoring machine before selling it.

Through the '80s, his job was all about changing hats. "You can't sell equipment in Switzerland in the same way as you'd sell in Oman," he said. "I was like a chameleon."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Kemp says building contacts is vital.
In the early '90s, he put together a growth plan for HP's operations in Russia: He saw a talent pool that was not being tapped by foreign firms. HP searched for a year for someone to implement that plan in Russia, and in the end Kemp agreed to go and do it himself.

It was 1995 and Kemp was in Russia shooting for a twofold increase in sales. "We actually tripled our growth in the two-year period," Kemp exclaimed.

Kemp said his biggest challenge in Russia was the Russian managers' skepticism about his growth plan. "But they were just upset that I had essentially asked them to work harder," he added.

According to one of his business associates, one of the things that sets Kemp apart is his adept staff management.

"Owen is the ultimate diplomat," said Robert Farish, regional director of IDC, a global market intelligence and advisory firm.

"Even when individuals are not meeting targets, he still manages to pull the whole team in the right direction," Farish said.

Kemp said one thing as important as know-how in Moscow is "know-who."

"For anyone looking for success in business in Moscow, it is imperative that they build up a mini eco-system of contacts. You need people on site in Russia, so building up a network of dependable people, partners and experts in your field of work is essential."

Although Kemp is bursting with positivity, there are a few things that get him hot under the collar.

"A lot of the old Cold War-era bureaucracy is still in place," he said. "But the thing that really frustrates me is the foreign view of Russia.

"Moscow isn't that different to New York: It's got a great business climate and buzzing night life. It's a great place to be."

Kemp's commitment to HP borders on the ridiculous: "Chop my head off and you'll see an HP logo on my neck."

It's a commitment that has come with quite a sacrifice: "I screwed up my family along the way."

Kemp has a wife and 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, back in Vienna. He rarely sees them, though he walks around with two mobile phones: One for work and one a direct line to his daughter. "Maybe I would have done some things differently," Kemp said about his family.

Kemp lists gardening, pumping iron and renovating his Vienna house among his hobbies. "But I still find it impossible to switch off," he said, adding that he's always contactable wherever he is.

One thing that might have waned over the years is his personal ambition.

One day, would he like to be HP's CEO? "Ah, I don't think so," Kemp said. "It's too much traveling. And anyway, I probably won't be asked."