TO celebrate 30 years of Financial Director, we have dusted off our tomes to choose the top ten most influential finance chiefs since we began publishing in October 1984
Michael Julien, Midland Bank
First FD of a British bank; became CEO of Storehouse, an attempt to create a retail conglomerate
Back in the early 1980s, a niche bank called Johnson Matthey spectacularly failed. It was a small collapse, but it upset the City establishment – and the Bank of England – big time. The Bank realised during its investigation that “banks have been relatively slow to follow the example of commercial companies and appoint finance directors to their boards”.
Remarkably, Midland Bank – which has long since been subsumed into HSBC – became the first major UK clearing bank to appoint a finance director and (more importantly) elevate that person to the board when Michael Julien took up the role in 1983. As we wrote back in 1985, this ex-industry FD impressed the City with “an open and scientific approach to financial management”.
He told us in 2009 that, when he started at Midland Bank, the first set of board papers he saw had “no financial information at all, just a collection of loan applications”. There were no monthly accounts, no annual budget and the group balance sheet was only prepared twice a year.
Julien was a trailblazer for the whole of the UK banking industry. Between 1988 and 1992, he was chief executive of the pioneering retail conglomerate Storehouse plc, which in its day owned BhS, Mothercare, Habitat and the Conran Design Group.
Richard Pennycook, RAC/Morrisons/Co-operative
Financial turnaround specialist who has taken on the big job at the Co-op; first Business Finance Awards Lifetime Achievement Award winner
The proverbial safe pair of hands, Richard Pennycook has long been held in high esteem after he delivered the seemingly impossible by restoring the City’s faith in Morrisons after its disastrous Safeway acquisition. After returning the supermarket to the top table alongside Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in Financial Director’s inaugural Business Finance Awards last year.
He was made chief financial officer at the Co-op and tasked with helping to reconcile a boardroom riven with factions after a £1.5bn black hole was found in the accounts of the mutual’s banking division. But he soon found himself interim chief executive after short-lived incumbent Euan Sutherland declared it “ungovernable” when details of his £3.7m pay packet were revealed.
Pennycook also counts turnarounds at RAC and JD Wetherspoon among his most significant wins.
Speaking to Financial Director in 2004 after recently rescuing HP Bulmer, Pennycook noted “with a turnaround, you have to assume it will last at least six months. It might even last six years – you just don’t know.”
David Nish, Scottish Power/Standard Life
Finance chief through two major change management programmes
Nish’s experience as deputy FD and then group FD at Scottish Power – as it went through its post-privatisation cultural change – came to the fore when he was recruited to take the finance role at the troubled Edinburgh life insurer Standard Life when it was heading for demutualisation in 2006.
“There are similarities with the 1990s energy sector, where public sector utilities were being privatised and there was a need to introduce different methods of improving growth and developing business,” he told us in 2007. “You may be discussing a decision about customer options and products, but what you must also be asking is: what is the value in this decision? We went through a similar phase at Scottish Power.”
Ascending to Standard Life’s chief executive seat within three years, he became one of the most influential businesspeople in Scotland and in the UK financial services industry. He holds a range of non-executive positions at organisations such as the Association of British Insurers and the Scottish Government’s Financial Services Advisory Board.
Last spring he made clear that the 189-year-old life insurer had contingency plans to relocate south of the border if the Scottish independence referendum produces a yes vote. Currency, tax, regulation and membership of the EU were all unresolved issues, he cautioned at the time.
Stacey Cartwright, Egg/Burberry
Respected in the City for steering Burberry’s turnaround from ‘chav’ brand back to its high-end roots
There’s a reason Stacey Cartwright has the respect and adoration of the City.
Now chief executive officer of high-end department store Harvey Nichols, where she is working to reinvigorate the one-time darling of the UK high street, she is credited with helping to transform Burberry back into a world-leading luxury brand and increasing turnover from £676m when she joined in 2004 to more than £2bn in 2013.
This was no mean feat, especially given the fact that Burberry’s brand appeared to be irreparably damaged in the early 2000s when its trademark check design had become synonymous with the lazy ‘chav’ stereotype.
Alongside that, she was also responsible for overseeing Burberry’s successful entry into new markets including China and the Middle East.
And so, as if to emphasise how well-thought-of Cartwright is after her work at the fashion house, its shares fell 6% upon the announcement of her departure.
Cartwright joined Burberry from Prudential’s then internet bank Egg. A big part of her earlier role at Burberry was to help consolidate the business systems following its growth and IPO.
“Life’s complicated enough in that outside world,” Cartwright she told Financial Director in 2007. “Eliminate the complexity internally and you can focus all your attentions on how to deal with the outside world.”
Douglas Flint, HSBC
Finance head-turned-chairman led bank through banking crisis and was “humbled” by money-laundering issues
Douglas Flint took a typical Scottish accountant’s approach to financial management when we asked him if he had to ignore the last six zeroes to get his head around what was then a $700bn balance sheet.
“Oh, no. Absolutely not,” he told Financial Director in 2002. “You ignore the first six zeroes: you just look after the pounds and then the hundreds and the thousands take care of themselves.”
He was awarded his CBE in 2006 and four years later ascended to the giddy heights of the chairmanship of the only major British bank to be largely untouched by the financial crisis. A believer in transparency and clear communication, he told us, “There is no excuse for lawyerly obfuscation that meets the letter without embracing the spirit of disclosure.”
He applied that principle when he was asked in 1999 to review the Turnbull Report. He produced an 11-page document that was a breath of fresh air compared with the paper tonnage of the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Flint admitted to being “humbled and horrified” at the money-laundering discoveries flagged up by US regulators through 2012 and 2013.
He has used his position to caution against the unintended consequences of incoming bank regulation – the impact on lending to corporates and an excessively risk-averse, zero-tolerance approach to banking – and has also been vocal (in a private capacity) about the dangers of Scottish independence.
Jon Symonds, AstraZeneca
Vanguard of IFRS corporate reporting
Symonds recognised the value of IFRS and so the Anglo-Swedish group AstraZeneca was a keen and early adopter of the global accounting standards. But he also recognised that there were serious difficulties with what was then the cumbersome derivatives standard, IAS 39.
Just before taking over as chairman of the influential Hundred Group of Finance Directors in 2003, Symonds spoke about the need for European companies to speak with one voice on this issue: “I’ve had calls from the CFOs of Nestlé and Philips saying, ‘How can we better coordinate our concerns about specific issues in international accounting standards?’ and I think we are going to have to find ways of linking up. Fragmentation is a big issue now.”
With an enthusiastic and eclectic approach to financial management, he greatly favoured trying out new metrics in order to make sure finance kept up with the business.
“Every time you come up with new measures, the finance function likes to hardwire them. But I like to chuck them away after a few months because the world has moved on,” he told Financial Director in 2003.
He left AstraZeneca in 2007 to join Goldman Sachs, then took up the CFO role at Novartis from 2009 to 2013. He was made a CBE in 2007 for services to industry and is now on the board at HSBC.
Eric Anstee, Eastern Group/Old Mutual/ICAEW
Straight-talking finance director who understood the importance of strategy to the CFO role; first chief executive of the ICAEW
If any finance chief represented the changing role of the CFO, then it is Anstee. The term ‘changing role’ is now hackneyed, but when Financial Director interviewed him in March 2000, Anstee was a vanguard for a new breed. As Old Mutual FD, Anstee spoke of how his role could be described as that of a “commercial director”, where putting the numbers and the annual report together represented just 10% of his job.
He had previously steered the privatised regional electricity company Eastern Group into a pioneering model of good corporate values, through clever funding and prioritising shareholder value.
At Old Mutual he saw that FDs must hold a “wider platform”, “to impact the business as well as help run strategy”.
“Driving businesses forward does depend a lot on financial capacity and that means it inevitably comes back to the questions of capabilities there are in the business, and what values there are in the business,” he said in our interview at the time.
Anstee is also a robust and straight talker and not scared of being in the public eye, qualities demanded more than ever of CFOs by investors, stakeholders and the media.
Not one to shy away from a task, he set about bringing the ICAEW into the 21st century as its first CEO. This was a qualified success, as Anstee and the institute narrowly failed in its attempt to merge with CIPFA and CIMA. But he fights on, serving in a number of roles looking to find funding for small businesses.
David Keens, Next
Long-serving and rarely quoted Next FD has taken the retailer from strength to strength
In contrast to the more outgoing Eric Anstee, David Keens has rarely been interviewed or stepped into the public eye. But what Keens represents is a consistency, borne of serving at Next from 1986 as group treasurer and then appointed to the board as group FD in 1991.
His formative years at the business saw it grow rapidly, through acquisition. As he took on the FD role, it was in navel-gazing mode at the time of recession. In a way, this forced the business’ hand, and saw strong finance pushed to the fore: cash management and a focus on a return on capital employed became key.
The “formula”, as Keens told Financial Director in 2012, has not changed. A store must make a 15% profit [contribution to group overheads] on sales. It must pay back the capital invested in the outfitting of that store in 24 months.
“For 20 years that formula has not changed. We would rather miss a profitable opportunity than take on an unprofitable opportunity,” he explained.
And Next, which itself only existed as a brand from 1981, is not only a stalwart of the high street, but a leading light at a time when others have dimmed and gone out. Good governance and financial probity have kept it at the fore of British retail fashion – you just won’t hear Keens going on about it.
Andrew Higginson, Tesco
Key part of the management team as Tesco became the UK’s biggest grocer; now non-exec in key businesses
Higginson is a man steeped in British supermarket tradition. Set to assume the chairmanship of Morrisons on 1 October, the former Tesco CFO spent 15 years on its board during a time of huge growth, initially as finance director and later as chief executive of the grocer’s online and bank divisions.
Ultimately, he was overlooked for the top job at the company he helped turn into the world’s third-largest retailer, but he has since made the most of that setback and has instead chosen to build one of the most impressive non-executive careers around.
Since departing Tesco, his portfolio has taken on roles at the Rugby Football Union, BSkyB and McCurrach as well as non-executive chairmanships and N Brown – the fashion business behind Jacamo – and latterly Poundland.
The full weight of his experience in financial and strategic retail management will be called upon in his upcoming role at Morrisons, as it plans to “rebase” its profits. He will oversee a planned investment of £1bn over the next three years as it seeks to cut prices and improve its own-brand food range.
“Finance directors make quite good chairmen, better than chief executives,” he told Financial Director in 2012. “The alternative was to get a chief executive job elsewhere, but it would be hard to get the same buzz.”
Jon Thompson, Ofsted/Government Finance Profession/MoD
Driven better financial management and reporting in central government
If one person encapsulates the efforts to bring professionalism into central government, it must be Jon Thompson.
Thompson is not so much a man for all seasons as he is an FD for all departments.
For three years, Thompson headed the Government Finance Profession, as the civil service dragged itself into a 21st century way of accounting, budgeting and financial reporting.
During his tenure, the new government Corporate Governance Code was launched, a review of financial systems risk was run, IFRS was implemented for government, and the first Whole of Government Accounts were published in 2011.
Just for good measure, CIPFA-qualified Thompson was also the MoD’s director general, finance, and is now head of the civil service for the department.
He also held senior finance roles at the Department of Children, Schools and Families, the North Somerset Council and as Ofsted’s first FD.
Described by Civil Service World as “a cheerleader for the professionalisation of the civil service”, he told them in 2012: “…The capacity and capability of the finance function across Whitehall has improved because you’ve changed the leadership, and the leadership changes the way the system works.”
Gordon Brown, chancellor of the Exchequer
Controversial reforms and growth saw Brown as ‘Britain’s finance director’
What better person to have as our number 11 than Gordon Brown? While Jon Thompson spearheaded central government financial professionalism, Brown served effectively as Britain’s finance director for ten years. And what a ten years.
There were notable – infamous – low points. The sell-off of Britain’s’ gold reserves, after he had told the market that he would do so, for what would prove to be a song.
Pensions were hit hard, as tax credits on share dividends were removed in one of Brown’s first acts as chancellor. Recent calculations suggest this has deprived Treasury coffers of nearly £120bn since 1997. And let’s not talk about the introduction of a zero-rate of tax on the first £10,000 of corporation tax, which saw people leap into incorporation and lower their tax bills.
But the independence afforded the Bank of England, the creation of the Financial Services Authority, the more competitive corporation tax rate, and the higher spending on education and health – all of these things happened during a time of prosperity.
Did he help create the banking crisis through a lack of regulation? And did he and then chancellor Darling save the system in 2008 through the £500bn loans and guarantees?
Whatever your thoughts, Brown is recognised as a huge figure in the management of British finances in modern times. ?
Additional research by Calum Fuller and Andrew Sawers