07 July 2021

My UEA Story: Peter Kirton

Peter Kirton GraduationPeter Kirton is President and CEO of Sheboygan Paint Company in the USA, and has had a varied and full career in research and business, taking him all across the USA, UK and Europe. Peter studied Chemical Sciences and Pharmacy at UEA in the early 80s, and he was kind enough to share his perspectives on working in business and his favourite UEA memories.

I think I’ve lived a reasonably full life, but I can honestly say I was at my happiest and most fulfilled at UEA.

What was your ambition for your career when you started at UEA? Did you have a specific career path in mind?

Purely a career in research!

Tell us about your experiences studying at UEA.

I only found out about UEA because my girlfriend applied to do English.  It was the only uni she got into, so reluctantly I said goodbye to Bristol and Imperial…a decision I’ve never regretted.  I studied chemistry because I enjoyed it and deep in Maggie’s recession I thought I’d be more likely to get a job doing that rather than Economics. I was much better at chemistry than physics, so it’s something of a mystery to me that I ended up doing most of my study in physical and theoretical physical chemistry.  Having worked a year off, I gained an appreciation for what a privilege university was, and I enjoyed every moment. I wish it had been longer.  What I loved the most, and which contrasted with the experiences of many of my former school friends, was that UEA left it up to you as to how much you engaged, but if you engaged, the faculty engaged right back with as much enthusiasm as you could ever hope for.

What were your experiences of Norwich as a city? Is there anything in particular that you miss or have fond memories of?

The sense that it was an island, a little cut off from the rest of the UK, true to itself and authentic. I absolutely loved the place from the market to Pizza One to the clubs and pubs and the kindness of its citizens towards the students. I think I’ve lived a reasonably full life, but I can honestly say I was at my happiest and most fulfilled at UEA.

What have you been up to since you graduated? (Please provide a digest)

o    I went into polymer research with ICI, pursuing my Ph.D. at the same time.  
o    After 11 years running research groups in the UK, Netherlands and the US, I joined Valspar’s polymer business as new salesman in Boston, MA
o    Ran Valspar’s western region business out of Los Angeles CA before running my first stand alone business in gel coats, transitioned from that to running a global gun holster and body armour business
o    After being acquired by BAE, I completed an MBA at Pepperdine and returned to Valspar to run their European resin business
o    Moved back to Chicago in a global marketing role, transitioning to running Tennant’s floor coating business (we put the floors into Moderna’s labs!) and then joined Sheboygan Paint company, the 22nd largest US paint company as President and CEO

Peter outside CHE
Peter more recently, visiting campus

In your career what key tasks & skills are involved on a day-to-day basis, and what are/have been the most rewarding/challenging aspects? 

The most rewarding has always been the strategic turn around; testing my nerve with how bold to be and the sheer thrill and hard work of watching a business turnaround after walking through the “Valley of Death”, when so many think nothing is happening.

What personal or professional achievement are you most proud of?

The day I knew I might actually have some leadership qualities; we closed a holster production facility, and yet broke records on the last day. I gathered all the remaining employees together to say goodbye and thank you, and one by one many stood to say a few words about how much of a difference I had made and that I had been their best boss ever. I had no idea and left with tears in my eyes.

In addition, moving back to Europe from California with three days notice and turning a business around while going through a double dip recession and wildly oscillating raw material prices; all while the CEO I replaced tried everything he could to undercut me. That one was tough.
 

Is there any advice you would give to current students, wishing to follow a similar career path to you?

Don’t take 11 years to work out that you have a passion for business.

What is next for you?

Realizing the vision for my current company and concluding my career with a bang.  I’d love to do some consulting and coaching after that, and have a strong interest in environmental issues.