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Stephen Kelly: oration

Read professor Ian Colville's oration on Stephen Kelly for the honorary degree of Doctor of Business Administration in June 2016.


Stephen Kelly
Stephen Kelly

Chancellor, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Mr Stephen Kelly, Chief Executive Officer of Sage, Britain’s largest technology company. It is particularly appropriate to do so in this award ceremony because Stephen graduated from this university in 1984 with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration. Stephen is one of our own, and if I can express a personal delight in introducing him it is because, as a newly appointed lecturer at that time, I taught Stephen in his final year. My first memory of Stephen was listening to him brief the rest of his year on his second placement in Saga Holidays. In Stephen’s own words, he would acknowledge that he was an unexceptional student, but trust me he stood out even then.

In one sense, Stephen’s career hasn’t progressed very much at all, moving one vowel from A to E: from Saga to Sage. But in a better sense, the journey since first graduating from Bath to become CEO of Sage that employs 13,500 people, with sales of £1.5 billion and operating in 23 countries, is a phenomenal one and worth recounting briefly here. Along that journey Stephen spent 9 years at Oracle with the legendary Larry Ellison, learning the high tech business. He left to join a Californian start-up, Chordiant, in the US and it was there that he got his first experience of being the CEO. To this day, Stephen is the only British Citizen to lead as CEO both a FTSE 100 company and a US Nasdaq listed company. In 2006 he returned to the UK to rescue another FTSE company, Micro Focus and increased the market value by 7-fold in 4 years.

And then like something out of Monty Python – ask your parents – he did something completely different. In 2012, he became Chief Operating Officer for Her Majesty’s Government, where he led the efficiency drive for the Civil Service. Stephen and his team – a close-knit, committed team, as leadership doesn’t exist without followers – were responsible for some £20 billion annual savings - savings equivalent to the salaries of 1 million junior nurses. Appearing for the last time before the Public Accounts Committee before taking up his Sage appointment, the then chair Margaret Hodge, not given to handing out bouquets, thanked him and his team for what they had achieved and said in a sincere, glowing tribute, that his leaving HM Government was a great loss to the public sector.

The public sector’s loss was the private sector’s gain and in particular the people of the NE of England as Sage is the largest private sector employer in Newcastle. Under Stephen’s leadership at Sage, the share price has increased 70% against a 5% decline in the FTSE100. Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister appointed Stephen recently as a PM Business Ambassador to promote British business overseas.

Whether it be in the public or private sector, this side of the pond or that side, Stephen Kelly has consistently over the years made a major difference to the organisations in which he has worked. A track record like that is not a fluke and while he may tell you otherwise, it is not luck either. The attribution is to genuine ability, dedication and personal humility.

Stephen has boundless energy, despite only needing a few hours sleep a night, a trait he shares with other notable leaders, to which he blends intelligence, values and a passion for bringing out the best in people. He also gives back. Stephen has launched the Sage Foundation – a major charitable and volunteering drive. Amidst this busy schedule Stephen has also at given two presentations to my Change Management Forum comprising an audience of university alumni who are interested in learning more about management and leading change. The sessions were very open, truthful and inspiring reflections from the heart of his leadership experience.

Stephen stands here today not just as a person but as a role model for all students as to what sort of journey you can go on with an undergraduate business degree from Bath, and the contribution to society you can make along the way.

Chancellor, I present to you Stephen Kelly, who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Business Administration, honoris causa.

Professor Ian Colville

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