Cair Lerion Blog #17: An interview with Kent Henschen

In our latest conversation with marketing and communications leaders in the heavy industrial space, Jonathan Rowland spoke to Kent Henschen, an authority in the fields of international marketing, corporate communications, PR development and business development.

Can you give us a brief history of your career?

My professional experience includes marketing, communications, business, and public relations management in industrial and heavy manufacturing organisations, with particular expertise on integrated marketing strategy and application. Most recently, I’ve extended my marcoms experience into real estate and business advising practices.

You have worked in marketing and communications in various industries over your career – including for what was then one of the largest mining equipment suppliers in the world. How have you seen the marcoms space change in that time?

By its nature, heavy mining equipment is a very short-cycle business. It – and mining in general – is an early leading indicator of upturns and downturns in the economy. I learned the knocks of marketing from the very early stages of the last mining upturn and, like everyone else, gained great insight through the challenges of the steep downturn.

It was a time when in-house marketing people were fewer in number and wore numerous hats, so having diverse experience was key for me in moving into the heavy manufacturing environment. I had started in manufacturing as a tool design engineer (Associate’s Degree in Tool Engineering, later completing a BSc in Business Administration) and a product designer, then had moved into inside sales and product management. This background prepared me well for moving into a position of product management – for shovels and drills, at the time. I was able to work closely with engineering and field personal to support product development to build the product story, literally from the ground up. This experience allowed me to speak and write about the machines with confidence.

As new technologies were made available, the marketing challenge increasingly became how to educate and intelligently argue their benefits for huge multi-million-dollar pieces of equipment that needed to be not only fast and efficient but highly reliable. Marketing took on more roles inside and outside of the company, integrating marketing, communications, public relations, investor relations, and international and domestic sales support functions, through the application of new technologies, data analysis, field research programmes, and customer and employee communications channels. Integrating all of these functions became increasingly critical to the early success of the product.

Who/what were the biggest influences on your career?

My wife, my father, several co-workers, who became and have remained friends over the years, and my faith in Jesus Christ as a Christian Wilderness Theologist.

Would you say you had a particular philosophy or approach to communications that holds whatever the industry you happen to be working in?

In the early years of my career in manufacturing, there was always an integral link between sales and marketing. In fact, the sales function was, more times than not, the overseer of marketing and, in the extreme, marketing simply played a collateral support role.

I’ve always been of the philosophy, however, that marketing, in its most basic form, is and should be a primary driver of a company’s joint sales and marketing efforts. It only makes sense that the market research, data analysis, customer analysis, and product management side should lead and oversee those functions that then interact with specific target regions and customers. Marketing is tasked with the big picture and long-term product development and support. Sales is tasked with the more focused, regional and customer-specific development. Business has evolved to this model as a necessity for meeting market needs by the most efficient means. 

Do you time-tested strategies or tools for developing a marketing and/or communications?

Where marketing and sales are actually separate, a teaming approach needs to be developed to ensure sales receives guidance and relevant communications to support market development and penetration. To coin an old phrase, ‘centres of excellence’ are a primary marketing structure I have used and continue to use. It’s pretty basic: these are integrated centres of responsibility that include web design and e-management, copywriting and publishing (supporting both promotion and product publishing needs), brand/graphic design and event support, public and community relations and, when necessary, investor relations.  

You’ve worked with companies of different sizes. What are the different challenges and opportunities that come with larger global company compared to smaller companies?

Intuitively one would think that the larger the company, the deeper the pockets. But that is not necessarily true. The value in the larger companies is in the brand and brand support they wish to maintain and expand. Many times, larger companies are in ‘marketing maintenance mode’, meaning that they are not investing to expand; they are investing to maintain. They are not creating anything new, except in campaigns or events.

My preference is working with smaller growth-oriented companies that may not yet have the dollars to invest in large marketing programmes. They do know they need to develop their brand by setting goals and properly managing marketing communications. One doesn’t need to spend a lot of money on brand development; one needs to spend the right amount of money on the right channels to have the biggest impact. As a creating challenge, every new marketing manager’s creedo should be: do more with less.    

Social media, podcasts, YouTube, blogging… these have really changed the landscape when it comes to marketing and communications. Which of these would you have liked to have had when you were starting out your career – and, conversely, are there valuable ‘old-fashioned’ lessons we’ve lost sight of?

We can do more, reach more potential customers, with social media alone than anything that could ever have been done by print media, hardcopy distribution, and multimedia advertising. With minimal cost, a small business can hit thousands of people in a fraction of the time it took to create, print, stuff, and mail. And thanks to target marketing, a company has a better chance today than ever before that their social media ad will be viewed and the viewership can be tracked.

The video realm is phenomenal. There has been evolution, resulting in rather large production costs, but with the right tools a small business can still independently produce and publish at reasonable costs.

However, I always caution clients against putting all their eggs only in the social basket, so to speak. Depending upon the product, of course, there remains a relatively large section of the customer population that is not e-centric. There is still a place in the marketing agenda for hardcopy (pdf) documents and print ads. The best marketing campaigns address the communications needs of varying customer markets.  

What advice would you give to young marketers or PRs starting out on their careers?

Figure out early what your differentiator will be. Marketing technology, electronic graphic design, computer programming… these are all hot topics with lots of people in them and more entering all the time. If that’s you too, then you need to decide what will make you stand out from the crowd. Another option, if you are in college considering a general marketing major, is to consider a minor in business administration or better yet, psychology. In fact, as a marketing manager, a background in psychology can be your differentiator. It will certainly help you in developing a more accurate corporate (small “c”) marketing philosophy to apply in a career.   

You currently have a number of ventures on the go – from a business advisory to real-estate and helping set up a museum… all basically set up from scratch! Can you tell us how you’ve found the experience of building something new and what have your found helpful to know or learn along the way?

Well, my personal driver, if you will, is start-ups. Whether supporting the start-up of new small business or starting-up (remaking) a marketing or communications function in a larger company, I prefer the creation of something new. I had the opportunity in my corporate career to start, remake, and develop marketing and communication functions for several companies. As an independent advisor and mentor, I have worked with numerous people in both their career and business development to create and manage new and unique functions. I am an entrepreneur at heart, so starting and managing personal businesses is a natural extension of a creative nature.

And finally, how do you unwind at the end of the day?

The biggest part of my down time is spent in nature, hiking and bicycling with my beautiful wife of 35 years, Lisa, and sport fishing whenever possible.  For me nature, wilderness if you will, provides calm – and from there creativity begins.

Based in the Milwaukee area in Wisconcin, US, Kent Henschen has over 25 years of experience in the marketing and communications space. He is currently Principal Advisor at business advisory, Evergreen Ridge Business Partners LLC, as well as licenced realtor. He has previously held senior leadership positions with responsibility for marketing and communications at a number of international companies, primarily in the mining industry.

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