John Keogh, HR Leader for February

Executive Search Firm Principal Connections announce John Keogh as HR Leader of the Month for February 2021

Q. THE CAREER & THE PERSON Describe your career journey and tell us about John Keogh the person?

When I started my working life, it would be fair to say that I did so without having any clear career plan. My early years were spent in customer service, a tough environment and although I didn’t necessarily recognise it at the time, a good apprenticeship for the career that was to follow. As I progressed up the ladder, my interest was increasingly drawn to a role in HR. Having applied and gained promotion to a role in that area, I never looked back.

I'd describe myself as a real HR generalist. My roles over the years have embraced all aspects of HR and looking back now, I believe it is this broad range of experience that has helped me to continuously develop and adapt.

I started my career with Bord Gais and then moved to Philips, the Dutch electronics giant. This was my first HR Leadership role and the first time that I really felt that I could exert my influence in a meaningful way, even though I felt that I was still very much “learning my trade”

Moves to Director level roles in Danone/Irish Biscuits and then Becton Dickinson (BD) followed. I was now getting experience in diverse industries, a mix of commercial and manufacturing environments. I also started to take responsibility for HR at an international level, with BD, something I viewed as the next logical step in terms of my professional development, something that I was now managing with much more purpose.

Having moved into the pharmaceutical industry with Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), my role included responsibility for local operations and manufacturing operations across Europe, Asia and Puerto Rico. This was a richly rewarding time and the exposure to people and teams across such diverse cultural environments, was immensely satisfying.

In 2017, I made a decision to join SK biotek, the first Korean pharmaceutical operation to invest in Ireland. This transition from “big pharma” to the very competitive contract drug manufacturing environment, has been a great opportunity to re-energise and to make a real difference to the company’s performance and way of working. This aspect is a common theme throughout my career, a desire to make a difference and leave things better than before.

I consider myself to be a savvy HR leader, drawing on my deep experience whilst adapting to changing business needs. I have a strong work ethic, work is very important for me but I retain a positive perspective, with a good sense of humour. I count myself lucky that I have worked with many great people over the years and now I work with a company that makes life saving drugs for blue chip companies. What we do, makes a real difference to patients around the world and I'm proud to be able to play my part in that effort.

I'm also a qualified company secretary and have found this most beneficial throughout my career. The understanding of legal matters which the qualification provides, has been invaluable in all of my HR roles.

Q. THE COMPANY Describe your current organisation?

SK biotek Ireland, is a subsidiary of SK Pharmteco, a global contract development & manufacturing company. SK have state of the art facilities in the US, Korea and Ireland. We specialise in the manufacturing of cGMP API and Advanced Intermediates across the full product lifecycle, for global innovative pharmaceutical companies.

SK Pharmteco is owned by SK Holdings, one of the largest conglomorates in Korea, with turnover in excess of $200 billion and over 100,000 employees globally.

Q. THE CHALLENGES What do you see as the most important challenges facing HR Leaders today?

Not surprisingly, I see the Coronavirus pandemic as the most formidable challenge we face currently. People and companies, have been impacted in so many ways.

The challenge in HR is around how to find the balance between the needs of the business, which do not suddenly stop at a time like this, and, the need for the right level of flexibility and indeed, sensitivity, in relation to our employees.

Defining and establishing the future way of working and the necessary structures to support that, will be key aspects of HR work in the near future.

This will draw on all of our HR capabilities including organisation design, workforce planning etc.

We should embrace this opportunity to do great work, to play a major role in shaping that new landscape.

Q. THE ADVANCES What do you believe the biggest advances in human resources will be over the next five years?

Artificial Intelligence: the emergence of more accessible, practical applications and tools in this space is likely to continue over the next few years. Harnessing the potential of AI and applying these tools to add value for our organisations, will be critical. We'll need to become adept at integrating AI into how we work and indeed, to embrace it’s potential to radically change how we work.

Q. THE ADVICE What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

To position HR as a key influencer and driver of change within the organisation. The role of HR should be active, not passive. We should “get our hands dirty”!

Q. THE MOTIVATION What keeps you motivated day to day?

I'm motivated by the opportunity to positively contribute to business performance.

I enjoy when there is a difficult challenge to address, requiring complex strategic planning and problem resolution.

Working with colleagues and my own team, is very rewarding for me. I really enjoy the interaction and the partnership, the collective effort.

I'm lucky that my roles over the years and certainly my current role, have given me so much opportunity to work with great people – this certainly spurs me on and keeps me fresh and challenged.

Q. THE ACHIEVEMENT What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

I've led some very significant change programmes in my career so far.

I've successfully changed a long established non-contributory DB pension plan to a contributory DC plan, in a resistant unionised environment. This made a significant financial contribution to the company and radically reduced future pension liabilities. This would have been a landmark pension change at the time. I know that many other companies have tried to do likewise, with mixed or no success.

I have just recently concluded negotiation and implementation of a transformational change programme. The changes implemented were critical for the future success of the business. The programme needed considerable focus and resilience to get it over the line, with much resistance along the way and often, doubt within the organisation as to whether we would be able to get agreement.

I'd also say that I'm proud of my work with both BD and BMS in relation to their respective European Works Council (EWC) structures. Setting up, successfully running those structures and managing many complex European scale changes and issues, was a very positive experience.

Q. THE INSPIRATION Who inspires you professionally?

I can’t call out any one person as a specific inspiration, professionally. Rather, I'd say that I admire others who share a desire to do their best work, who have a strong work ethic and a pragmatic mindset. I also admire those for whom networking seems to come naturally. I have always had to work harder in that space to develop my network.

I've been lucky to work with and observe some excellent and canny professionals so far in my career and have learned a lot from them.

Q. THE PANDEMIC Describe how you have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic personally and professionally?

The pandemic has been difficult and challenging for everyone, in so many ways.

I count myself as lucky, I have remained employed and very busy! I'm humbled when I see the impact that the pandemic is having on others.

I've a very pragmatic perspective on life and don’t tend to get phased too easily. Whilst the pandemic has created new challenges for me, I tend to take them in my stride and remain calm and grounded.

I'm a positive person, my mind set is optimistic and I have a good capacity to screen out a lot of what might otherwise be distracting and counter productive. I stay in the moment and focus on maintaining my well being. This is very important for me and gives me the strength to shoulder the challenges that work and life throw at me.

Q. THE STAYING CURRENT How do you stay up to date?

Connecting with my network of HR and business contacts, as well as keeping abreast of latest developments in the profession via publications, journals etc.

Q. THE DOWNTIME Tell us about your interests and how you relax?

Reading is a long standing interest and helps me to relax, switch off. I have broad tastes in literature.

My real passion is music. I'm an avid listener, with a particular taste for classical, modern jazz, electronica.

I also play (badly but enthusiastically), piano, guitar and drums. Music has been a lifelong companion, a way of calming the mind and expressing myself creatively. My father was a pianist and I think I inherited that passion for music from him.


Congratulations to John Keogh on being named Principal Connections' HR Leader of the Month' for February 2021.


SK biotek Ireland Limited, is a contract development and manufacturing organization with over 50 years of active pharmaceutical ingredients manufacturing experience.

SK biotek Ireland is the most recent addition to the SK Group. Headquartered in Seoul, Korea, SK Group is ranked in the Top 100* on the Fortune Global 500 list; creating value by taking the initiative in the field of energy and chemicals, information, telecommunications, semiconductors; employing over 84,000 associates globally with annual revenue of US$122 billion.

SK biotek Ireland, based in Swords, Co. Dublin, has almost 400 associates on campus, comprising of scientists, chemists, engineers, quality professionals carrying out research, development, manufacturing and marketing roles.


Principal Connections is Ireland’s premier retained executive search firm and the Irish Office of Agilium Worldwide Executive Search Group. We offer five interrelated talent acquisition and advisory services to private, public and not-for-profit organisations across Ireland which include:

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  • Leadership Consulting & Assessment

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