Hugh Mackay

  • Degree Programme: LBS Sloan Masters
  • Global Nationality: British

Hugh Mackay was looking for excitement and adventure in both his career and personal life after working for big corporates for 18 years. Having completed the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy in 2001, the former CEO of Europa Oil & Gas reflects on how the Sloan helped him pursue his entrepreneurial ambitions in the energy and mining sector

You live your life going forward, but when you look backwards, you often get a sense of perspective. It turns out that my career has been lived in two 18-year segments. The LBS Sloan fits neatly in the middle. I call the first 18 years my FTSE-100 years. I joined BP as a graduate after studying geology at Edinburgh University. I spent eight years there working as an exploration geologist in the UK, Oman and Egypt followed by 10 years with the former leading British independent oil and gas exploration and production company, Enterprise Oil. Working mainly in South East Asia, I made the transition from a technical role to a management role and ended up becoming Manager for the Southeast Asia business unit.

Living and working in Cambodia and Vietnam between 1995 and 1999 – and doing the job that I was doing – was an absolute privilege. That’s not something I realised in hindsight: I was very aware of it at the time. When I joined Enterprise Oil as Exploration Manager in Phnom Penh, there was no oil and gas infrastructure in the country. Cambodia was emerging from the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge and was starting to rebuild its economy following the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement. Enterprise Oil was at the leading edge of all that.

Life in Cambodia was spent liaising with governments officials, managing complex multi-million USD dollar drilling programmes and – sometimes – meeting royalty. On one day, I actually met two kings: the king of Cambodia and the king of Malaysia. I was in my 30s! I had a lot of responsibility and every day was exciting, intellectually stimulating and challenging. When the oil price crashed in 1999, I was sent back to the UK to do an office job in Aberdeen. I wasn’t prepared to be a ‘bum on a seat’ and felt a strong desire to go back to school. So, I was accepted onto the LBS Sloan Masters, quit my job, and never looked back.

When you’re mid-career and self-funded, the choice is limited in terms of business education. The London Business School Sloan Masters really is the only option in terms of quality. And for that reason, it attracts some of the most talented professionals from around the world. Many of my cohort were excited by cultural immersion in British life; despite being a Scot well-versed in British culture, I also benefited hugely from the diversity of London and the LBS student cohort.

The Sloan was the platform I needed to transform my career and transition to the next 18-year chunk of my career in the start-up and entrepreneur space. It helped me go off on a different route, move into a new sector and have the confidence and skills to grow a business from nothing. It was where I learned what it means to be a leader. Things go wrong in business all the time: before COVID-19, Brexit was an issue, and before that, it was the great financial crisis of 2008-9. Then there are the organic boom-and-bust cycles in the economy and in the markets. I saw a few in my time working in oil and gas. Setbacks are inevitable, but what I learned on the LBS Sloan Masters is that leadership is about how you deal with them, how you overcome them and how you motivate and guide your team and employees through them. Crisis is what leadership is for.

Some of my Sloan classmates would turn out to be the first investors in a mining startup I set up with two other geologists in 2006. It was called Avannaa Resources and eventually became Greenland’s leading grass roots mineral exploration company.

My main role as Chairman of Avannaa involved fundraising, presenting the business plan to investors, marketing the company and eventually selling it. I had the time of my life. It was a similar feeling to the one I had working at Enterprise Oil in Cambodia – anticipation, challenge and excitement. I actually went out to Greenland myself to prospect for minerals; searching for diamonds and zinc in West Greenland and copper in East Greenland. Eventually, we farmed out the copper exploration in East Greenland to Anglo American and zinc exploration in North Greenland to Boliden.

When it was just a concept, I presented Avannaa as a fundraising opportunity to the E-100 club, London Business School’s venture capital network. While we didn’t get any money from them, it was an excellent early opportunity to showcase the business model and test the pitch in a challenging environment. LBS has an incredible network.

For me, one of the most valuable aspects of the Sloan was the teaching on the interplay between strategy and marketing. How to write business plans was also a highlight – and was a big contributor to my ability to take on challenging roles post-graduation. I referred to my notes for many years as I drafted business plans and pitched to investors. This was especially true at Avannaa Resources, where I wrote the business plan and raised USD $3 million in seed money, which got the venture off the ground.

After we sold Avannaa, I reconnected with my roots in the oil and gas industry, joining AIM-listed Europa Oil & Gas as CEO. The founding leadership team had left and I led its transition from survival to expansion. I introduced a bold strategy, rationalised its portfolio and led an almost £15 million equity fundraise. I also led the development of a leading exploration portfolio in Atlantic Ireland against competition from supermajors. I can’t imagine being able to take that job and achieve what I did without the tools, knowledge and confidence I gained from the LBS Sloan Masters.

I’m now in the position of contemplating the next 18 years. Admittedly COVID-19 has put a spanner in the works for immediate 2020 ambitions and goals. Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from dealing with bumps in the road at the school of hard knocks. I’ve gained significant business experience in that environment including at the hard rock mineralisation face (rather than coal face) and I’m now looking to deploy that experience in a non-executive capacity.

I’m happiest when life and work is an adventure; the most professionally and personally satisfying times were spent in the Arctic and Southeast Asia. While geographically very different they were both intellectually stimulating, involved good people and were very enjoyable. That’s the benchmark for what I’d like to do in the future. The next adventure might be in the development of Arctic policy. Britain is an Arctic-facing nation: I have a house on the north coast of Sutherland facing the Orkneys, the Faroes and, beyond that, Greenland. If you live up there, you feel more connected with those lands than you do with London and the South East. I also see huge new energy opportunities in the non-OECD world.

The future of our world should be lower oil and gas consumption. Certainly during the COVID-19 pandemic, our daily consumption of oil dropped. As countries exit lockdown, demand for energy will pick up again – largely driven by rising non-OECD demand. If we’re to meet the 2017 Paris Climate agreement to keep global temperature rise below 2oC, then consumption of fossil fuels must decrease. The dynamics of evolving supply and demand continue to impact the price of oil and gas and the commercial case for exploration and production.

Assuming that we ‘walk the talk’ and don’t revert to consuming ever more fossil fuels, there could be huge opportunities for cleaner energy options, such as wind, solar, hydro, tidal, biomass, battery and carbon capture and storage. Liquid hydrogen, for example, can be used to power heavy transportation, like container ships and lorries. That new energy reality is of huge interest to me, particularly in the non-OECD world where the delivery of low-cost, clean and reliable energy is of critical importance.

My advice to people considering the Sloan? Commit to making the most of the opportunity and make sure you get involved with all aspects of the unique London Business School experience. Outside the classroom, the School offers so much in terms of clubs, events and incredible networks of experts, which add as much value as the coursework itself. If you really want to reach the top and be an exceptional leader when times are hard, the LBS Sloan Masters will give you the tools and skills you need.

Find out more about the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy