Blair Kesseler’s career has taken him from accountancy via politics to charity. Tom Fleming reports
The wishes of his father led a young Blair Kesseler into the world of accountancy, but an abiding interest in people meant he ended up working with the homeless.
About 40 years have passed since the Birmingham-born chief executive of young people’s charity St Basils started out on a career which has also taken him into manufacturing, sales and politics.
And, looking back over that period, he believes it is the young people he meets every day who have been the biggest influence in his life.
Blair, who was born at Loveday Street Maternity Hospital and educated at King Edward VI’s Camp Hill Grammar School for Boys in Kings Heath, always nurtured ideas of being a journalist.
He said his foray into accountancy quickly proved all wrong. “Although I have a facility with numbers, I have always thrived on interacting with people so to be faced with just the numbers was very difficult,” he said.
After sticking it out for four years, Blair joined the family manufacturing firm, Banks and Davis Ltd. He said: “I was brought in to assist on the manufacturing side of the business but while I was there I ended up getting involved in some sales and realised that I could put my patter and cheek to good use.
“I really enjoyed the thrill of sales and it came easily to me – it couldn’t really have been any further removed from accountancy.”
After gaining some more sales experience at various companies around the Midlands, Blair returned to the family business as sales manager. Having worked closely alongside his father, he was a natural successor when his father retired and led the business as managing director for a number of years.
He said that period at the helm of a company taught him some valuable lessons about business and how to run a successful company, which would be extremely handy years later.
Following a 14-year stint, Blair went solo acting as a consultant for companies in the Midlands.
Meanwhile, his interest in politics started while he was still at school and led him to a life-long association with liberalism.
“Going to school 45 minutes away from home meant that I had plenty of time to read on the bus. Having tried various papers for size, the only one I could manage with all my schoolbooks was the Daily Mirror – then a left-leaning radical paper,” he said.
A ‘closet Liberal’ for many years, Blair joined the party in 1974 and fought his first local council election in the Brandwood ward the following year.
He continued: “When I joined I wanted to make a difference. There had just been two general elections in one year and the Liberal Party had managed to win a couple of seats so I was hopeful I could continue this winning streak.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t and wasn’t elected in Brandwood – a feat I managed to replicate at regular intervals right the way through to 1995.”
However, despite his election record, Blair did rise within the party to become chairman of the Birmingham Liberal Party and the president of the West Midland Liberal Party.
He was a prominent member of the local negotiating team and was heavily involved in bringing the West Midland SDP and Liberal parties together to form the new Liberal Democrats party.
As a result, he became the first regional president of the new party and continued to become chief agent in Birmingham until his resignation a year after joining St Basils. Blair said: “There was a clear conflict of interest when I joined St Basils. I had joined an apolitical charity that couldn’t be seen to favour any party so I had to resign from my position in the party.”
Asked if he misses the buzz of the political arena, Blair said: “I miss hearing all the gossip first and knowing what was going on before anyone else.”
Having worked at St Basils for more than 15 years, Blair has become a respected figure in the corporate community. He has been a key figure in driving the charity forward and securing its place as one of the most influential charities in the Midlands.
He counts many of the young people who have come through St Basils’ doors friends and inspirations.
And when her talks about the St Basils, he starts to sound like a proud father.
“One of the best elements of St Basils is being given the opportunity to witness the young people building themselves a platform for the rest of their lives. They have been a constant source of inspiration for me,” Blair said. “It does sound corny but it is like a family. Everyone is so passionate that you can’t help but get caught up in the emotion. In fact, some of the stories you hear from the young people are incredible. If I had hair it would have been permanently stood on end for the last fifteen years.”
One of Blair’s proudest moments at the charity was the first St Basils awards evening, which was held at the ICC in 2003 to tie in with the charity’s 30th anniversary.
He said: “The night was arranged to celebrate and recognise the achievements of the young people. There was more than 500 dignitaries and business people sitting next to St Basils residents, cheering and clapping like mad.
“I was sitting in the gallery directing the cameras when I had to just sit back and take it in – it was so overwhelming. Certainly a turning point for us all.”
Looking back on his chequered career in the Midlands, Blair believes that it is the people that he has met on the way that have given him his best moments.
“Thanks to the various jobs I have done, I have had the privilege of meeting so many different people from various walks of life. Each of those people, especially while I have been working at St Basils, have had an impact on my life.
“The fact that people come together is amazing – in fact, one thing that never stops amazing me is the generosity of people in the Midlands.
“The whole region backs St Basils and there is nothing more humbling than seeing more than 500 people bed down for a December night in the wind and rain with just cardboard and a plastic sheet. Those are the sights which never cease to inspire me and are the ones I will never forget.”