Wanderlust drives globe-trotting oil exec
Wild Geese: John Carey, Abu Dhabi: I came out in August with my wife to look at houses and it probably wasn’t the best time – it was about 48 degrees
A former executive at BP for 10 years, he was hired to spearhead the IPO for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company
Abu Dhabi may be home now for John Carey, but it seems like the oilman from Kilkenny is destined always to be on the road. Since moving to the United Arab Emirates in September, Carey has spent much of his time on investor roadshows in the US, Europe and across the Middle East, fronting the biggest initial public offering (IPO) from the region in over a decade.
A former executive at BP for 10 years, he was hired to spearhead the IPO for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) and help transform its business model. Even with almost $1 billion banked from investors, Carey isn’t planning on letting the grass grow green under him.
“The best advice I got at UCD was move around jobs and don’t stay in the same company forever,” says Carey. “I have found that hugely beneficial. When you move jobs, you leave your mistakes behind, but you gain so much in the new job – like I have learnt in just three months by coming to the UAE.”
Carey (55), who lives with his wife in Abu Dhabi, is committed to staying in the UAE.That still provides plenty of scope for travel to meet investors and business partners.
Carey has lived and run businesses for global companies in the United States, Britain and Finland, but it was South Africa which provided his first adventure.
“It was a pretty desperate time in Ireland when I graduated in 1983,” says Carey. “We had a class of 22 in chemical engineering at UCD and I think there was only about three of us who got jobs.”
Carey took off to South Africa – then an apartheid regime – where he worked for almost three years in a goldmine for Anglo American.
One of the advantages of being Irish abroad is that you will invariably find someone related or connected to you, according to Carey.
“If I went to the moon, I think my mother would find someone who was related to me,” he says. “Lo and behold, there was a cousin who was a nun working in Soweto and that helped me to know about the other side of South Africa. I lived in Johannesburg, but my black colleagues lived in Soweto.”
South Africa was very formative for Carey – not least because that’s where he met his future wife, an English nurse.
“She got a De Beers diamond for her engagement,” he recalls. “She would probably describe it as a pebble rather than a rock, but we got a discount worth 40 per cent because De Beers and Anglo American were part of the same company.”
After returning home in 1986, Carey got a job at the consumer goods multinational Unilever, where he was hired as an operations director.
“I was only 27 or 28 and I had two bosses who had the mindset that they were willing to take a risk,” says Carey. “I was very lucky because they gave me the job as CEO of its Simoniz business when I genuinely wouldn’t have given myself it. This was no humility on my part. I wouldn’t have interviewed myself, let alone given me the job.”
Regardless, that was how Carey got into leadership and, since 1990, he has been filling CEO or general manager roles.
In 1995, he went to work for Castrol, where he headed its European industrial business before being promoted to run its lubricant services division. BP acquired Castrol in 2000 and Carey was sent to Chicago to work with its global strategy clients.
“All of the senior leadership in Castrol took the money and ran but I was too young to do that,” he says. When Carey was running Castrol’s Northern European business, he went to Sweden to live for three months with his family to better understand the local working culture.
“What Irish people do better than any other nationality is the ability to talk at every level – from the CEO to the frontline shop-floor level,” he says. “I have learnt more from people who have worked for me than I have ever learnt from people I have worked for. That’s not false humility.
A proud Kilkenny native, Carey takes a hurl and a sliotar everywhere on his travels. He played in school and follows the Cats and the GAA generally avidly via the Internet.
“With the name Carey, I don’t dissuade people that the great DJ may be a distant relative,” he says.
Earlier this year, Carey left BP after a decade in the US so he could be closer to his family in Ireland and his wife to her family in the UK.
That plan was ripped up when he was asked to relocate to Abu Dhabi. But with 28 flights between Abu Dhabi and Dublin a week and more than 10,000 Irish expats, Carey says the UAE doesn’t seem that far from home.
“We came over in March and the shock was the lack of culture shock,” he says. “It’s a very international place. You have to be totally respectful, but I sometimes think the cultural difference between the Middle East and Europe is less than between the US and Europe – particularly at the moment.”
“It’s 28 degrees today and this is the nice time. I came out in August with my wife to look at houses and it probably wasn’t the best time to introduce her to Abu Dhabi when it was about 48 degrees.”
Carey has homes in the UK and US and says he is unlikely to retire in Ireland. He returns frequently to visit his mother and sister and was back for Christmas.
“I always had perspective in not ever taking myself or a job too seriously, he says. “Maybe that’s an Irish trait but it may be down to my father dying [when I was five] and surviving that.”