HAIL to ‘El Jefe’, a businessman who is able to turn his hand to anything – and make it work
From hamburger vans and life insurance to automotive electronics and office equipment, Kenny Picken’s CV reads like anything other than that of a man at the helm of a travel software company.
A wall-sized mural of the Sydney Opera House dominates his roomy office where, just minutes before we sit down, he received a phone call with news of the latest on plans to raise “a few million” in growth funding to create 200 new technology jobs.
Most of those posts will be based at the East Kilbride offices of his firm, Traveltek, which is taking on external investment for the first time in 14 years of trading.
Picken says: “We have been encouraged by the interest and enthusiasm for our business model. We are in advanced negotiations, and hope to have a deal done by May.”
That agreement will be with a single private equity house leaving Picken with majority control of the business. That should suit ‘El Jefe’ – as it says on his name plaque – right down to the ground.
With little interest in school, Picken left after his fifth year at Stonelaw, near Glasgow without telling his parents. Working at odd jobs from an early age, he was keen to make his way in the world and focused his efforts on his part-time posts, one of which was at a Jet petrol station in Burnside.
It sat across the road from the supermarket that his mother frequented, forcing Picken to keep a sharp lookout and periodically dive behind the counter to avoid being spotted.
When the station wasn’t busy, he and owner George Grey would discuss business opportunities such as setting up car wash, dry cleaning or laundrette chains. This was a big influence on Picken, and honed his innate desire to be in charge of his own destiny.
He says: “He would speculate wildly on the types of ventures he would launch, and how I would be involved in them. He would get involved in what my career moves would be, because like me he had no formal education.”
It was nearly a year before Picken finally owned up to his parents that he was no longer in school, much to the dismay of his father, a commercial director with Wimpey Construction.
But, once convinced that Picken’s mind was made up, dad managed to persuade his son to take an electrical apprenticeship at a nearby housing development.
That was over in less than two days once Picken discovered that his predecessor had spent 18 months doing nothing but drilling holes through which to feed wiring.
He jumped ship to a training programme for underwriters at Commercial Union, but ten months later he was off again, launching a burger van business out of Rutherglen and central Glasgow.
The burger business was sold 18 months later, after which Picken moved into refurbishing alternators and starter motors. That business evolved into KP Auto Electrics, one of the biggest of its kind in the west of Scotland before it ran into financial difficulties and folded in 1988.
He found his groove again joining Alcatel to sell office equipment. He moved to a similar job at NCS in 1990 and spent five years there before getting involved in what would eventually become Traveltek.
Originally a software and computer reseller, the business was defaulting on its debts when one of its creditors invited Picken to take over. A colleague was also writing travel software on the side, and asked Picken if the business would sell it on his behalf.
The firm recovered to sales of £1 million when the computer industry crashed in 2002. Picken sold the hardware business, which accounted for three-quarters of turnover, to NCS and concentrated on travel booking software.
Revenues rose to £2.3m before the economic crash, but the recovery coincided with Traveltek’s launch of an updated platform that allows large operators to simultaneously manage bookings through shops, franchisees, websites and home workers. Emirates, Barrhead Travel, Hay’s Travel and Trailfinders are among its current users, taking sales to £4.3m last year.
In addition to 200 new jobs, Picken is also projecting a rise in annual turnover to £25m within three years.
“I ran one business that failed and the computer business would have been in trouble if we had not sold it,” says Picken, who owns 66 per cent of Traveltek. “Those were tough times, but you also learn from those experiences.”
30 SECOND CV
Born: Edinburgh, 1957.
Raised: Edinburgh, Leeds, Glasgow.
Education: Stonelaw High School, Rutherglen.
First job: Paper round.
Can’t live without: I just love being in charge of my own destiny.
Kindle or book: I don’t use either, but I am very much a gadget person.
Favourite mode of transport: I am a sailing enthusiast, so I have a couple of motor boats, but I like travel in general. I like to drive, and I don’t mind flying, but I don’t like airports so much.
What car do you drive: Range Rover.
What makes you angry: Not so much these days, but I do get very frustrated and annoyed about a lack of attention to detail.
What inspires you: I am inspired to turn our business into a truly global success.
Best thing about your job: Meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures.