Dublin Business Lunch 2017

Kerry Kehoe

The annual Dublin Business Lunch was held on 22nd September 2017 at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, Appian Way, Dublin 6.

Kerry Kehoe (CCR 1962) was the speaker at this lunch.

Kerry is the retired CEO of various DuPont companies in the USA, Japan & Europe. Kerry is on a three day visit to Ireland for the 55th reunion of his CCR class. Kerry studied Chemical Engineering at UCD before taking PhD in Chemistry Engineering at Cambridge (where Kerry also founded the university’s first GAA club). From Cambridge he joined the DuPont research centre in Tennessee. Kerry decided to make the move out of the labs to the commercial side of the business and to that end took an MBA at night class. Kerry retired as CEO of DuPont Polyester in Europe and moved to New Mexico where he is now a professional actor.


    Address by Kerry Kehoe (CCR 1958-’62)

  1. I understand from Paul (Paul Murphy, the Branch Chairman) that the objective of these talks is to give some career advice to the younger members here. One thing I learned about presentations in 33 years of corporate life is to give the bottom line up front, so here it is.
  2. The secret to having a successful career is to enjoy your work. In both my careers I woke up virtually every morning looking forward to going to work. That is my definition of a successful career.
  3. The big question of course is how to optimize your chances of doing that. I am going to answer that and I will give you 5 pieces of advice in all. So have your pencils ready. But first a quick summary of my life experience.
  4. As the name suggests I am from Co.Kerry. I was at Roscrea from 1958 to 1962, got a degree in Chemical Engineering at UCD, a PhD from Cambridge, also in Chem. Eng. and then went to work for Dupont’s Fibres Dept. in one of its research labs in Nashville. While there I took night classes to get an MBA from the University of Tennessee. After two plus years in research I moved into the business end of things. There is a good story about how I managed that but there is no time for it here. Once in the business end,  I was identified as having what DuPont termed corporate promotability, which meant I was a candidate for upper management. As a result, I then spent the next 5 years in what was essentially an extensive training program.  DuPont at the time was a roughly $40B company and the Fibres Dept. made up about $15B of that. It had 4 divisions and I worked in all 4, in different disciplines and different businesses. At the end of that 5 years I got my first management position and proceeded to work my way up the corporate ladder until I was heading major multinational businesses. Among those in which I worked were Kevlar, Nomex, Industrial Nylon, Textile Nylon, Lycra, Tyvek and Polyester. I had several international assignments.  I headed the Fibres organizations in Mexico and in Asia Pacific and at one point I was chairman of DuPont India and Pakistan. Trust a U.S. company to put those two together.

I left DuPont to become CEO of another multinational corporation called DuPont-Sabanci, that was part owned by DuPont. That was initially based in London and while there, at a Roscrea dinner, I met and hired a young financial expert called Paul Murphy. I recommend to you younger people here that you come to events like this. You will be among more senior people who have your best interests at heart, will try to help you and may even be able to offer you a job.

I left that company 16 years ago and began my second career, something I had long planned. I have been a teacher of Maths and Logic at the school and college level. In addition, I am a professional actor, mostly on stage but also in film. For 10 years I helped manage a theatre. I am also front man for a band that will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year and that performs sporadically, in the UK. Our genre was described in a recent U.K. magazine article as “retro acid folk”. None of us in the band has any idea what that is but it is, apparently, what we do. We are pretty bad but enjoy ourselves and have something of a cult following.

I met and married my wife Gillian, an art historian, when we were in Cambridge.  We have two daughters. Larissa is a corporate lawyer with Netflix in San Francisco and Sinead, like her mother, is an art historian and is a curator of Asian art at the Cleveland Art Museum in Ohio. Gillian and I live in Santa Fe NM but are in the process of moving to Portland, Oregon, primarily because we miss the rain.

  1. Now back to that question of how to maximize your chance of enjoying yourself in your career?  What I did, initially by chance and later by design and what I advised my children to do was this – (1) Pursue your passions and (2) Try to do only things at which you are good. That suggests getting others to do the things at which you are not good. Generally one is good at things about which one is passionate.
  2. I have 3 passions that were the underpinnings for both my careers and they came into focus for me when I was in Roscrea, where I was lucky enough to have them nurtured. Those passions are maths, problem solving and performing. My success in my corporate career relied heavily on an ability to do quick mental arithmetic, to identify and solve a variety of problems and to communicate. My second career of course is mostly about communicating but because I helped run a theatre, the maths and problem solving did come into play.
  3. I remember my first day in class at Roscrea. I was sitting in the front row and directly behind me was Kevin McNiff. We were being taught English by Gus Martin, later Senator, Doctor and Professor Martin. As he declaimed about something poetic, the said McNiff piped up “I don’t agree with that”. I immediately ducked under my desk. I had gone to the Christian Brothers for 6 years prior to Roscrea. Based on my experience of them, I knew that a duster was about to be flung at McNiff’s head and that I was in the line of fire. No duster, however, was thrown. Instead Mr. Martin said “well let’s discuss that”. I knew I had arrived at a kinder gentler place, with teachers who were interested in their students.

One of the most feared teachers was Fr. Emmanuel, known as Rubber. He recognised my passion for maths and problem solving and he encouraged it. He used to give me special problems to solve, beyond the usual homework, because he knew I enjoyed solving them . He gave me books of problems to solve in the holidays. When I went to Cambridge and I had to choose the college to which I would belong, I chose Emmanuel College as my personal tribute to him. My third passion that developed and was nurtured at Roscrea was performing. We had an actor from the Gate Theatre, Dermot Touhy, a friend of Gus Martin’s,  who came to direct Shakespeare and other plays. Early in my time at Roscrea I tried out for a part in Hamlet and I was cast as the Player King, a small speaking part, and several other walk on parts.  When the local girls’ school came to see the show, to my great surprise, I was mobbed for autographs. It was because my name was in the programme 5 times and they mistakenly thought I was a star.  That is when I became hooked on acting.


8.How did I choose what to pursue for my higher education ? Did I have a game plan for it and my career ? The short answer is “no”. I was given no career guidance that I can recall. I chose Chemical Engineering in part because my father was a civil engineer and my mother a scientist. I didn’t know what chemical engineers did and just had a vague idea that I might end up doing technical work in a factory.

When I was finishing at UCD I decided that I wanted to remain a student but with more play and less work. At that point I also liked the idea of being in management so I applied to business schools. I was accepted by a few but could not find any who were prepared to pay me to take the degree. That is when I applied to PhD programs, not because I was wanted to be a researcher or an academic but because I wanted someone to pay me to keep being a student. Cambridge offered me a fellowship. That was the extent of my career planning to that point.

  1. At UCD most of what I did academically was theoretical and I was good at that. When I got to Cambridge I learned a valuable lesson about my capabilities, or rather, lack thereof. I discovered that PhD students, having chosen a topic, had to build the equipment on which to run their experiments. My peers seemed to be comfortable doing that but I had no idea how to go about it. I took some of the techies from the lab for a beer and explained my dilemma. “No problem Paddy” they said – I think I was one of the few Irishmen at Cambridge at the time and people were fond of addressing me as Paddy, which happens to be one of my names – “we will build it for you”. In a matter of weeks my equipment was built and included high tech measuring devices that allowed me to run it for hours on end without supervision. As a result, I would arrive at the lab at 10am, set up my experiment for the day, get the equipment to steady state and depart by noon to pursue whatever was on my social agenda. At the time I was playing rugby for my college, singing with a couple of bands and acting. I was also playing Gaelic Football for the university – a long story involving Edna O’Brien that I don’t have time to tell. I would return in late afternoon, look at results and then do an hour or so of data analysis and decide what experiments to run the following day. The important point is that because other people did a lot of the work for me that I could not do, I finished in 2.5 years having done only the things at which I was gooddata gathering and analysis. At that point I was pretty sure that my future should be in management.
  2. Back to my career at DuPont: As I moved up the management ladder I found my leadership philosophy was at odds with the norm in a conservative and somewhat militaristic DuPont. My philosophy was that an organization should have fun and that people having fun would work hard. DuPont thought the two were mutually exclusive but I found that concept worked well for me as I managed large organizations.
  3. There are 3 additional pieces of advice about doing business that I would like to pass on to you younger members. I would not presume to teach the older hands anything new (3) Listen to what your customers says they want and then work with them to figure out what they actually need. The two are often not the same. Related to that (4) Never accept as fact the premises supposedly underlying a problem. Check them out for yourself. – the decision earlier this year to close the college because it could not be profitable is a good example of this. A group of past men and parents refused to accept the premises behind the decision. Finally (5) When you have to make a presentation, practice doing it in 5 minutes. That will force you to identify the key points you want your audience to hear. If you can’t deliver an argument in 5 minutes, you don’t understand your subject.


  1. Paul suggested that I address the issue of working for a big corporation versus a smaller firm.

DuPont had about 40,000 employees spread all over the world.

Over a 33 year corporate career I had 22 assignments for an average of 18 months apiece. Sometimes it was 4 months, sometimes it was 3 years. I relocated 14 times and lived in 7 countries. That is hard for some people. It can be very hard for wives and children. My family was very resilient and handled it but it is not for everyone. Having to move is a factor with big corporations. I knew, however, many people who never or rarely moved. They may not have reached the heights of management nor earned the salaries that went with that but they enjoyed their work and their lives. So, by my definition, their careers were successful.

A major plus of a large corporation, if you are adventurous, is the opportunity to have many different jobs and experiences. I get bored easily and I was always ready to move on and always relished the next challenge.

I think working for a smaller company may be inherently riskier in terms of employment guarantees and there may be fewer opportunities to work in different disciplines. Some benefits are that there is less likelihood of multiple relocations and therefore one has the ability to set firm roots and build and maintain a stable social life for oneself and family.

Whatever choice you make I recommend that you be guided by informed self interest. In a large corporation and in some smaller ones you are ultimately a cipher to be discarded when corporate profitability dictates it. You owe an employer your dedication and best efforts but you don’t owe loyalty to the detriment of your own self interest or that of your family.

If you find you are unhappy in a job, make plans to leave it and find another.

The hope, of course, is that you will enjoy your job  but remember this: No matter how much you enjoy your work, it is not who you are. It is just something that the person you are, does. Don’t define yourself through your job and when you leave it have other things you want to do.

  1. I hope that all of you have the good luck that I did and I encourage you, as far as possible, to make your own luck by pursuing your passions and planning to have fun.

Kerry Kehoe