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Karen Bell: Creating exchange links in US oil capital

Shell relocates Houston staff
Houston, Texas

Texas. It is the biggest state in the US – other than Alaska – and now home to Karen Bell, the British consul general there since June.

Actually her domain also sprawls over Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico. Her role, which takes in developing US/UK trade relations, makes her the de facto oil and gas diplomat for the UK.

This is mainly why she is in Aberdeen almost as much as she is in London when she comes back to the UK for visits.

Ms Bell told an audience at the Macdonald Norwood Hall Hotel yesterday she has been to the Granite City three times since she was made designate in the consular role.

And what a time to take such a pivotal role in the industry, which links both Houston and the north-east, and which has been facing the challenges of surviving a collapse in oil prices.

“It has been a busy one,” she says, as you might expect, diplomatically.

“UK Trade and Investment is target-driven. As consul general I share responsibility for delivering their targets. There is no getting away from the fact this has been a tough year delivering new investment within the energy sector – or meeting targets for our export drive in the energy sector.

“But like the industry we are representing, we have had to think creatively about ways in which you do that and where are the opportunities. The downstream sector is performing very well at the moment. The other thing is looking at the opportunities outside the energy sector.”

Like many in the industry, she is looking at diversification. While Houston is the energy capital of the US, it also boast a significant healthcare sector as well as the Johnson Space Centre, Nasa’s £1billion research and design facility.

Ms Bell says: “There is a huge amount going on at the Texas Medical Centre – I don’t know if you have been there, it is the largest in the world. It is an astonishing centre of research excellence. There is a lot of interest in what Scotland and the UK combined can offer.”

The UK is the largest foreign investor in America’s Lone Star State.

“It has always been the case,” says Ms Bell.

“Oil and gas is a big part of it, but it is not just that. The range of interests goes across the tech sector, telecoms. It is way broader than just the oil and gas sector.”

So what are the targets she has to reach as the top diplomat in such a broad geographical region?

“Like every other diplomatic mission around the world we are working to deliver the government’s overall target of 100,000 new exporters by 2020, and securing export values of up to a trillion pounds,” she says. “These are huge stretching targets, but that is what our resource is being aligned behind and it is priority for all of us.”

Her father was in the air force, which means that this career diplomat is accustomed to moving around.

“As a child we packed up and moved every three or four years. I suppose it is baked in,” she says.

A married mother, her career has taken her to postings in Canada, Nigeria and most recently, Hong Kong where she was number two at the consulate there. But she has embraced her newest home town – admitting to wearing cowboy hat and boots – and has even joined in the 34,000-strong phalanx of volunteers who help run the “world’s largest livestock show and rodeo” in the city.

So which has been her favourite posting? “It is like being asked to pick your favourite child,” she says.

“I find being in Houston just an enormous joy and privilege. I can honestly say I have never been happier in my life. There’s just something about the optimism and open-heartedness. There is a special connection to the UK which makes my job easy.”

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