LONDON - Kevin Gaskell's life is running according to plan. Even when the plan changes, he still knows where he is going.
Gaskell, the managing director of BMW (GB) Ltd., admits he is driven by challenge and change.
'I have always had an impetuousness in my character, a willingness to trust my own instincts. If I feel a need for change, I will act on it,' he said in an interview.
Gaskell likes his challenges big - like climbing Mt. Everest and taking control of the British sales arm of BMW before turning 40.
Although he did not reach the summit of Everest on his attempt last year, Gaskell says the climb still marked the attainment of a longtime dream.
'I am not yet an experienced enough mountaineer to get right to the top,' he said. 'But I would like to make the climb in future.'
For now, like many other milestones in his life, Everest is behind him and he is off in search of new challenges.
He keeps his goals in blue books that look like cash ledgers in a wall cupboard of his large and light third-floor corner office at BMW's headquarters in Bracknell, England. His office is furnished much like the interior of a BMW 7 series - smoked wood, black leather and chrome.
'Ever since I was a student, I have charted my life and ambitions in five-year plans. It's all part of the process of knowing where I am going - knowing exactly what I want,' he said.
Knowing exactly what he wants led him to the top of BMW.
Challenge: Make the best better
When assessing his life a few years ago, Gaskell decided there were only two jobs in Britain that he wanted. One was to be the British boss of Mercedes-Benz. The other was to run BMW in Britain.
And he aspired to reach one of those jobs by the time he turned 40. Gaskell was appointed managing director of BMW GB in November 1996; he turned 40 last November.
With 200 dealers, 5,000 staff members and 63,000 in unit sales in 1998, BMW GB was irresistible.
'The No. 1 brand. Excellent for customer satisfaction. Excellent for dealer satisfaction. BMW had been my model when I was at Porsche. The challenge coming here was `How do you make the best even better?''
His answer to that question is to encourage his colleagues to 'think outside the box, to relate our business not necessarily just to others in the motor industry but to other businesses, like retailing and telecommunications' where speed of delivery and customer satisfaction can be as valuable as the service itself.
Gaskell has made his career by thinking outside the box. After attending school for civil engineering, he became an accountant at a chemical firm. Shortly thereafter, he found himself thinking: 'I've learned as much of this as I need to. It's very useful. Now what do I do with it?'
Gaskell was ready for the next challenge.
A tougher challenge
The self-confessed 'car mad' Gaskell joined Porsche Cars Great Britain Ltd. in 1986, while still in his mid-20s. At that time, he said, 'The management's planning consisted of asking `What's the sales target for next year?' and answering: `Well, how many cars can you get?''
Four years later, the company had three years' inventory on hand and its sales had dropped from 3,500 cars a year to 600. Breakeven point at the time was 2,200 units a year, Gaskell said.
'Then, just when you think it can't get any worse, they make you managing director,' he quipped.
Gaskell cut employees by 60 percent, trimmed breakeven from 2,200 to 800 sales a year and restructured the 13 departments into four.
'Some hard business decisions had to be taken that were incredibly painful,' he recalled.
'The day I told the staff, `By the end of this week, 100 of you won't be working here any longer,' I went back to my office and closed the door with tears in my eyes. I knew every one of those people. I knew their wives and kids. I never want to go through that again.'
The key to success
Discipline. Application. Elbow grease. Compelling ambition. An overwhelming, relentless desire to get things done and to be the leader. Gaskell says these are the ingredients of the rocket fuel that has propelled his life and career.
Many successful people share some or all of those characteristics, but Gaskell has an extra component, something that - more than any other single factor - might explain why he has traveled so far, so young.
Moving on and changing the plan, frequently on impulse and without prior intent, have been a large part of Kevin Gaskell's career. They are also revealed in his story of the day he decided to stop playing cricket.
Growing up in Wales as the son of a chief engineer at the local power station, Gaskell played cricket for his school, his county and his country. By his late teens, he had talent close to professional standards, but ...
'Even though I knew I had some talent, I recognized that there was such a huge gulf between me and the top professionals that I decided to settle for club cricket while I built a career,' he said.
Then one day as he sat listening to teammates complain about internal club politics, Gaskell realized he had had enough. He decided he wanted to see more of his children, now 10 and 7, and that was it. 'I believe that you reach moments in life when a period ends and, when that happens, you close the book and move on.'
Before becoming passionate about what people drive, Gaskell was interested in what people drive on; he started his career as a civil engineer. 'When you drive across Europe, when you see some of the great feats of engineering like the viaducts; they still take my breath away.'
He was, however, less enchanted by the industry itself. Having graduated from Bradford University with an engineering degree and a master's degree in business administration, he joined a big civil engineering company and, within five years, had risen to senior engineer.
During those years, he discovered that the industry was infected with 'crass bad management and inefficient operations, and I just got bored with it.'
Gaskell decided he needed a broader business base of commercial skills that would let him work in other industries where he might get the opportunities he wanted.
With that long-term view, Gaskell joined the Dow Corning chemical company as a management accountant and slogged through night school to become a certified accountant.
'It was blood, sweat and tears, hard effort, rather than being particularly bright, that got me through,' he said. Also, he had the support then - as he has for more than 20 years - of his wife, Penny, whom he met when they were in their first term at university.
Gaskell stayed four years with Dow Corning. He conquered the complexities of double-entry bookkeeping and learned to read a balance sheet and a profit-and-loss account. It was then that he made one of his dramatic life detours and joined Porsche.
More detours ahead?
Was Gaskell looking for the opportunity to be rich?
'Not primarily,' he said. 'I've always lived a pretty simple lifestyle. I did know, however, that I would like to run companies. I do like to be in control. I enjoy working in a team, but I also like to be the one who makes the final decision.'
Gaskell's interest and drive are reflected by the books he has read recently: The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; Einstein's Universe by Nigel Calder; Touching the Void by the mountaineer Joe Simpson.
The energies reflected in these books and the passions woven together in Gaskell's life will carry him on through his next five-year plan. And one of the moves he could make in the future would be to start a company of his own.
'It is certainly one option,' Gaskell acknowledged. 'And, if I'm going to do it, I'll need to do it soon, otherwise I'll be an old man.'
In the meantime, between Easter and October, when the weather permits, Gaskell keeps his imposing body in shape by regularly making the 21-mile journey from his home west of London to his office by bicycle.
At the start, the ride will take him almost an hour and a half. By October, he will have reduced that time to just over an hour. In the process, Gaskell reduces his weight from 92 kilos to 'my best fighting weight' of 87 kilos - what he weighed when he was 20.
Gaskell enjoys setting records for himself. Most of all, he likes to hit his targets - and conquer his Everests.