A Bookshelf at an Angle

Alumni Profile

Ian Carter

Chairman of the Board, Watches of Switzerland Group

The course was excellent for me. It was one of the few you needed to be sponsored for, which meant you had a company behind you and you were going to get work experience. It was a great balance between the educational and the work experience.


But it wasn't just the course that attracted Ian to UWL. He fondly remembers getting involved in the sports teams, his thriving social life, and the campus itself:

It was a great experience. The time I was there was fantastic, I really enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun. I wanted to be in London, and it was just an excellent location. It wasn't quite downtown, but it was a good area of London.

The work experience, and his final year dissertation, helped Ian secure a job at British Steel, working in their head office in the steel trading group. After a year and a half, he was approached by a head-hunter to join a growing business called General Electric plastics.

In something of a trend for Ian, he knew nothing about this field when he took the job. Drawing on the skills he picked up at university, he delved into research and learned all he needed to know.

I was lucky in the choices I made, because you really don't know at that time. I'm someone who kind of research things naturally, and it's served me well throughout my career.Having made that decision to move to GE, I moved very quickly into an international role. I worked in Belgium, France then moved to America, and effectively I've been in America ever since.

Ian's career can be summarised by reaching the top in things he initially knew nothing about, from running a chemical company at General Electric to Black and Decker, manufacturer of power tools, accessories and home improvement products. Focusing on Europe and Asia, this role allowed Ian to see the world. He estimates he's visited over a hundred countries.

It was during his time at Black and Decker that a mutual friend on the board of Hilton Hotels persuaded him to consider the opportunity to become their CEO. He attributes his willingness to learn and take on new challenges to the high-risk position he took at GE.

Having worked at Hilton for over 17 years, Ian began to reflect on the many boards he'd sat on, such as the Del Frisco Restaurant Group, Boston University's school of Hospitality and fashion brand Burberry.

“I wanted to do more of that, not less.” Ian admitted, which led to him stepping down as President of Hilton and taking up a position as Chairman of Watches of Switzerland.

Watches of Switzerland Group really appealed because of their capacity for growth, which allows him to help shape shape strategy. To achieve this, Ian has had to draw on many of the skills he's honed throughout his career.

It's all about retail experience, and in that respect it's very like Hilton and of course Burberry. The customer has choice, and ultimately, we want to make that choice an easy one because the retail experienceshould be the best with us. There are other ways it's very like Burberry because of the instore experience. So, it's bringing together skills I've developed over the years and hopefully add value to what is already a great business.

This ties in closely with Ian's motivations, finding places where he can add some value and give back. His focus has turned to the impact of the business in the wider world, how you can positively impact people's lives, setting up foundations and helping people.

At the very start, the motivation for me at least was just to be successful, to continue to grow and hopefully be promoted. I think as time passed there are other things that drive and motivate, like having an impact on the business in its broadest sense. So, when you chair a business, you start thinking about shareholder interest, long-term success, succession and development, ESG measures, broader environmental impact measures.

Ian's career is one that shows the importance of flexibility. Taking opportunities as they came up, keeping an open mind and learning the things he needed to learn at the time he needed to learn them, Ian's always been opening doors.

You may have a medium to long-term goal in mind, but what you can almost guarantee is that the route to that may not be perfect. You may want to get from A to D but there may be some meandering ! In the early years, be flexible. Be prepared to not take exactly what you want, but you can add value and you can gain value from it.

If you would like to hear more about Ian's experiences, his insights on managing global businesses during unprecedented times, or the many enterprises with which he has been involved, come to his talk, as part of the UWL Alumni Engage 2021 series.

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