A fan of video games since forever, Stéphane Kurgan is now on the board of King, the company behind the global hit « Candy Crush ». Though he’s never quite got to « game over », it hasn’t all been plain sailing for him either.
As any good gamer knows, you never move forward in a straight line in a video game! Quite the opposite: to reach the higher levels or to earn bonuses, you have to be ready to change course, take shortcuts, explore, go backwards and try new approaches. And if it doesn’t work out – so what! « Game over » never killed anyone and there’s always time to start another game.
And what works for video games is something that Stéphane Kurgan seems to have applied since the end of his teenage years. The son of a Polytechnique graduate father and a mother who taught at the ULB, and with a « Solvay boy » brother, Stéphane was a bit of a rebel as a youngster and didn’t like school: « At that time I didn’t get on with my parents. I used to skip class and didn’t finish secondary school! But I did want to study. One day, I talked with my mother about this. She was an historian but had also studied economics and as I liked this subject, I followed her advice – I took and passed the polytech entrance exam, which meant I could start studying without finishing secondary school! »
Hockey and video games
Students from Solvay and from the Economic Sciences department share half their classes and there are more Solvay students than Economics students. As a young man, Stéphane made friends in both groups. In fact, they formed a combined hockey team and he joined it at the end of his first year. He has some great memories of his time studying, even though, as in the past, he didn’t always attend class! « I relied a lot on the study syllabus because I had some student jobs. In fact, I only really studied in my downtime… between two gaming sessions! I used to play a lot of « Dark Castle » on Macintosh with a friend from Solvay. These long sessions nearly cost us a few exams, but in the end we always made it through! » Stéphane Kurgan could hardly have imagined that one day he « would have to » game during work meetings…
Mentors and back to school
After a year of further study in Italy at the John Hopkins University SAIS School, where he began to build up his network of international connections, the young economist was invited to join the Electronic Publishing arm of a business consultancy firm led by Bernard Van Ommeslaghe(1), its memory promoter: « Bureau van Dijk sold financial data from major companies in electronic form », he explains. « I started out as a sales rep for Scandinavia and the Americas. I travelled to thirty or so countries. When you leave uni, international sales is a very formative experience: you learn a lot about people and yourself because when you’re abroad you have to learn how to get by. Also, I was fortunate enough to have mentors and good bosses from the start of my career. I really liked Bureau van Dijk but the shareholders were locked in, the management quite young and well established and the future already decided. So, in 1994, I decided to open the door to a little career change… » With two friends from Solvay he studied for and passed the GMAT exam to get on to the MBA course at INSEAD. By 1995, as we’ve already seen, Stéphane Kurgan wasn’t the sort of person to follow a well-trodden path. He was quick to change direction when he felt that development opportunities and his working environment no longer met his aspirations and values – as the next stage of his career also shows…
Networks and contacts
With an MBA in his pocket, he was taken on by the Media Services division of Philips. But he didn’t stay there long: in 1997, the multinational sold off all its multimedia activities. No big deal! In Fontainebleau, Stéphane Kurgan received an offer from McKinsey. He got back in touch with Pierre Gurdjian(2), who took him on. This « really great experience » in consultancy lasted only two years but the connections he made there would prove decisive later on. « Networks are very important, whether it’s those you form during your studies or the people you meet in your working life. » In fact, almost all the changes of sector and company Stéphane Kurgan has made were made thanks to someone who had remembered him when a particular opportunity or a specific need came up. It was former work colleagues from McKinsey who founded enba plc, a digital bank in Dublin which hired Stéphane in 1999. It was also through the McKinsey network that, in 2005, he moved to Tideway Systems Ltd, a British firm selling business management software and IT systems, where he spent five years in charge of finance and contracts. And it was thanks to the Apax investment fund, a shareholder in enba plc and Tideway Systems Ltd, that he joined King in 2011.
Right place, right time
The 2008 financial crisis hit Tideway Systems hard. Stéphane left the company in 2010 when the company was sold. That year he worked as a freelance consultant while looking for a new challenge. « One day, a former shareholder called me and asked if I’d have a look at a company he had invested in a few years earlier. This was King.com, an internet game design company which was starting out on Facebook. I met with the five company founders, it all went well and, in March 2011, I joined them as Chief Operating Officer. » He didn’t know it at the time, but he had arrived at just the right moment! The following month, King launched « Bubble Saga », the first « Saga-type » game on Facebook and its success enabled the company to develop. But it was thanks to the now mega-famous « Candy Crush », launched in 2012, that King really took off! In 2013, Stéphane joined the board of directors and in 2014, the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange. The following year, it was bought for 5.9 billion dollars(!) by Activision Blizzard, developer of the famous « Warcraft » and « Call of Duty » video games. Today, King has a catalogue of around 200 games and 2000 employees. Nearly 50 billion games are played by 400 million gamers every month. The Belgian COO manages the company’s day-to-day activities: the twelve game design studios, the marketing, the technology platforms and relations with major external platforms like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc. « I’m lucky because I have a great affinity with our products. I try out nearly all the new games … sometimes at meetings! » Not bad for someone who used to skive off school and play video games instead of studying…!
Three keys to success
Not yet fifty, Stéphane Kurgan’s career is far from over. Where will he be in ten years’ time? « No idea. Not at home, anyway! For the moment I’m fine where I am. » And when you ask him what advice he’d give to fresh young graduates, he takes a few seconds to respond. « Obviously, you need to find something that you can feel passionate about in the medium and long term. But, at the start of your career, sales and consultancy work are very formative experiences. They will help you acquire the three key skills you need to have a successful career: problem analysis, communication and human resource management and interpersonal relationships. You don’t have to learn them the hard way; there are tools and places where you can learn these skills. And be sure to keep on training after your studies are over! » Then, you just need to have a bit of luck, keep a curious and open mind and dare to take a few risks. Of course, you don’t always win the game, but in video games as in real life, that’s usually how you move on to the « next level »!
(1) Former President of SBS-EM and member of the Banking and Financial Commission.
(2) See the « Success Story » article in issue 55 on Pierre Gurdjian, current President of SolvaySchoolsAlumni and of the ULB Administrative Board.
Text: Candice Leblanc