Google is reorganising its European operations — previously split into two groups: One for Northern and Central Europe, and another for Southern and Eastern Europe, plus the Middle East and Africa — into one single division, placing the boss of the former group Matt Brittin at the helm.
Brittin told The Financial Times that the new structure will allow the company to respond better to local conditions and opportunities, and a response to competitive pressures from Silicon Valley rivals which are forcing it to adapt more swiftly to local trends. Having one unit led from London also appears to be a response to the rising regulatory pressures thrust upon Google in the region, over issues such as tax, anti-trust, and May’s “right to be forgotten” ruling.
None of these issues are new to Brittin, who joined Google as managing director of its UK and Ireland operations in 2007, and has been working with key advertising partners and policy makers in the region ever since. Here’s everything we know about him.
The first thing you usually notice about Brittin is his friendly demeanor (in spite of his seniority) and his height. He describes himself on his Google+ page as “inconveniently tall” and at 6ft 3, he towers above most of his colleagues.
Born in 1968 in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, England, he was educated at Hampton School and Robinson College before leaving home to study at Cambridge University, where he earned a Master of Arts in Land Economy and Geography.
Not only was Cambridge the bedrock for his professional career, but it was also where he earned several notable sporting accolades. Brittin rowed in annual Boat Race between Cambridge and Oxford University on the Thames river three times, coming second in each race. In 1985 to 1989 he also rowed for Great Britain, winning a bronze medal at the World Rowing Championships in 1988. That was the same year he also rowed in the Seoul Olympics for Team GB.
But Brittin had a professional calling and after graduating from Cambridge he landed a job at Connell Wilson, a chartered surveyors where he worked for six years, eventually becoming associate director.
Having taken time out to study for an MBA in Business at London Business School, he became a consultant at consultancy firm McKinsey & Co., working for clients in the marketing, technology, retail, and media industries.
It was there he caught the media bug, and after six years he left to become commercial director at newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror, which owns The Daily Mirror, The People, and dozens of regional titles. After two years he was promoted to become the company’s director of strategy and digital.
He held that role for ten months before being snapped up by Google, to become the company’s head of direct sales in the UK. In 2009 he was promoted to become managing director of UK and Ireland, replacing Dennis Woodside who relocated to the US business and later became CEO of Motorola Mobility while it was a Google company (Woodside is now COO of Dropbox.)
The UK may only be a small region in terms of population, but it was not without its challenges. During his four-year tenure as managing director Brittin was accountable for defending some of Google’s more controversial moves in the region, such as its launch of Street View, which was met with complaints over privacy. On the commercial side, Brittin helped maintain the UK’s position as Google’s second largest operation outside the US. He also led Google’s involvement in Getting British Business Online, an initiative focused on helping small businesses use digital, and got the company behind the Tech City initiative in East London.
Outside of the day job, he also chose to sit on three boards: The Climate Group (2009-present), Media Trust (2010-present), and UK supermarket Sainsbury’s (2011-present.)
Such was his success in the UK, that Brittin was promoted in 2011 to become vice president of Google’s North and Central European division. In that role he has faced some of his biggest career challenges to date.
Brittin has repeatedly been forced to defend the company’s European tax practices, insisting that Google “plays by the rules set by the politicians.” In the UK he has appeared in front of parliamentary select committee hearings, denying that the company tries to disguise the way in which its business operates in order to lower its tax bill in the region. However, his defence — that Google did not make any sales in the UK, and instead these took place in Ireland (where tax rates are lower) — was met with incredulity by some MPs.
Characteristically, Brittin is quick on his feet, a key attribute for an executive that will continue to need to answer to formidable European policy makers. Memorably, while on stage during the IAB’s annual Engage Conference in 2013 to demo Google products like Google Now and Chromecast technology failed him. “OK Google, show me the cycling route to St. Paul’s Cathedral” was met with a map to the Eiffel Tower, for example, and he had to drop the live feed of his devices for an overhead projector. But like a pro, he carried on and turned his session into more of a slapstick comedy routine. Afterwards he tweeted:
It’s a mantra Brittin will hold close in his new, wider European leadership role. With innovation in mind, Brittin will announce later on Thursday the launch of a commitment to train 1 million European businesses to learn crucial digital skills by 2016.
And on the failure front? Brittin will be bracing himself for several more grillings from European politicians and policy makers, and decisions — over data privacy laws, the ongoing antitrust investigation that could lead to multi-billion dollar fines for Google, and setbacks surrounding the “right to be forgotten” ruling — may not always go Google’s way. But it appears that in Brittin, Google has chosen the ideal candidate to overcome these choppy waters. He’s a rower after all.
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