HOBNOBBING with Hollywood royalty such as the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman and silver fox George Clooney is a fairly normal and quite glamorous perk of the job for Alison Cornwell, CFO of Vue International, the world’s largest cinema group outside the US.
And it’s certainly a long way from Paisley, the somewhat gritty town on the outskirts of Glasgow, perhaps better known for producing actor Fulton Mackay, who so brilliantly portrayed the upright and uptight prison officer from BBC TV classic, Porridge.
It also helped shape and mould the formative years of Cornwell, who joined the £1.7bn company in October 2014.
It was a conversation with a family member while still a Paisley schoolgirl that led the former Walt Disney TV International CFO to become an accountant, a qualification that would translate into her passport to the world.
Yet it nearly didn’t happen.
“I couldn’t decide what I was going to do when I left school”, said Cornwell, who was torn between law, maths and music.
“And then my uncle, a partner in a local accountancy firm, said ‘why don’t you think about chartered accountancy, because the world is your oyster’.”
The concept struck home and the prospect of the flexibility of a CA qualification and its opportunities to work in practice, industry, and in almost any country, proved too seductive and she duly enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study for a Bachelor of Accountancy degree.
While at university – and ever the forward planner – Cornwell engineered herself a 10-week summer job at Coopers and Lybrand in the Scottish capital which then translated into a CA traineeship with them the following year – 1987.
Kicking off in “general practice – in other words audit” she managed to snaffle herself onto small corporate finance assignments that came along.
And as the Glasgow office didn’t have its own formal corporate finance practice “the only way for me to get involved in really big headline-grabbing transactions was to move to London”.
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Within a week she had bagged herself just such a London-based role, which kept her in corporate finance at Coopers and Lybrand for the next five years.
“I loved every minute of it, it was just fabulous,” enthused Cornwell. “I worked on a variety of transactions, from mergers and acquisitions through to flotations, some privatisations, and a lot of corporate recovery and turnaround work. That really teaches you the art of prioritisation and focusing on what’s important, and managing cash.”
During that period she “worked for two incredible partners” who taught her “to be curious about everything and don’t take anything for granted”, something that was “a really powerful message and lesson”.
Having been promoted “very quickly” to senior manager, and despite the next promotional tier being that of partner – a role defined as the Holy Grail for some – for Cornwell that position lacked appeal.
“I didn’t want to stay in the profession and be a partner because my frustration was you would work in a company on an assignment and you would develop a great understanding of how the company worked and what made it tick and then the assignment would be finished and you’d be on to the next company.
“I wanted to be able to go into a company and be there for a while and really be able to make a difference. So I decided partnership wasn’t for me, to look around but take my time because I was really enjoying what I was doing, and the role at Disney came along.”
That was 1995. Cornwell was head of finance for Disney’s International Television Distribution business – essentially everything from films, animated and live action series, as well as “in those days Pulp Fiction through to the Golden Girls, Lost and Desperate Housewives”.
There “we had a dual purpose of being the European HQ, and the international HQ as I had Asia, Latin America and Canada reporting into me as well”.
“So I had responsibility for finance, for distribution across Disney’s three key TV businesses, namely TV distribution, Disney Channel and TV equity investment portfolio for the world excluding the US. But her accounting team was “actually based in the US” meaning she was “going over to Burbank, (California) regularly, so it was really a truly global job”.
Within a few years she was promoted to head of finance for the entire division, which included the Disney Channel and a portfolio of investments that the corporation had in third party broadcasters, leading Cornwell to take on a number of NED roles including GMTV.
Her time at the creator of Mickey Mouse and the latest Star Wars offering was “fascinating” because Cornwell and her team were “responsible for everything from developing strategy to which territory holds the next best opportunity”.
Once the carriage deal had been negotiated “it was all about creating the channel, getting the technical infrastructure in place, hiring the team, developing the programming schedule, the launch marketing and getting the whole thing up and running before managing it and trying to expand its reach and profitability”.
By the time she left – almost a decade later in 2005 – Cornwell had dramatically ramped up the number of unique channels to around 40 peppered across Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia. And the revenue streams “grew very, very significantly”.
Despite her success at Disney, Cornwell wanted to do something even more entrepreneurial and more “end to end”, where she had responsibility for everything.
The answer to that wish soon emerged in the guise of an opportunity to buy the Hallmark Channel – an international broadcasting platform with offices in Sydney, Hong Kong, London, Denver and Buenos Aires.
She determined that “there was an opportunity to develop the value of the international Hallmark Channel” and “having secured funding through private equity”, Sparrowhawk Media Group was formed to deliver the vision.
With a small but perfectly formed management team of six, they turned it around by expanding distribution, re-configuring channel feeds and fine-tuning its programming by taking content such as the then virtually unknown House series with Hugh Laurie.
“We really grew the business from just one very popular, but under-developed entertainment channel to having a bouquet of entertainment, kids, movies and lifestyle TV channels” before a “very successful sale to NBC Universal” in late 2007.
While politely declining to join NBC post sale, Cornwell – now entirely smitten by the ultra-entrepreneurial bug – was duly headhunted to join Canada’s biggest film distributor: Alliance and its UK subsidiary, Momentum Pictures, responsible for the dissemination of flicks such as Lord of the Rings, Austin Powers, and Pulp Fiction.
Forging a new alliance
Alliance Films, acquired by Goldman Sachs that year, were on the look-out for a new CFO in Canada because that territory had been the largest part of the business, but because they couldn’t find what they were looking for in the New World, the search was moved to the UK.
Cornwell joined them in March 2008, spending “through my choice”, one week in every three in Canada, for the next six years, “moving the business away from simply pure film distribution into very careful film financing”.
“One of the first movies we co-financed was The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe – his first post-Potter movie, and that did really well for us”.
After Alliance, where the business was successfully sold to FTSE-250 outfit, Entertainment One, Cornwell then spent a year in various start-up ventures, film financing and special projects before landing her current role at Vue in October 2014.
“What attracted me about Vue was that Tim has done an incredible job in growing and developing the business”, recounts Cornwell.
Both she and Vue founder and CEO Tim Richards are on the board of governors of the British Film Institute (BFI), where Cornwell also chairs the audit, risk and governance committee.
Up until 2012, VUE was largely a UK business, and that year Richards bought Cinemax, which operates in Germany and Denmark.
Other cinema chains in Italy, Poland and the Baltics followed with the most recent – JT Bioscopen – Holland’s second-biggest cinema group being added to the brand in August 2015.
Cornwell describes the Italian deal as “fascinating” because it fused her love of M&A from her time in corporate finance and the business integration discipline at Disney, Sparrowhawk and Alliance Films.
So what’s the secret to a successful acquisition strategy?
“Have a plan, know exactly what you’re going to do, over communicate with everybody and deliver it quickly with focus”.
“When I joined, we were working on the Italian acquisition which closed in November 2014, and I ran the financing for that. We did what you call a bond tap. We have publicly traded bonds and we raised an additional €70m, to part finance the Italian acquisition.”
“I love the growth, but it’s not just about adding territories, it’s also about looking at what you already have and making it even better. We have developed an effficient communication structure within the business where the dialogue is not just territory up to group and back down to territory, we’ve got things happening across all the territories too.
“One of the things that was really important to me was to have all my FDs in each of the major markets talking to each other, sharing information and creating a good network. So I have quarterly meetings with all my direct reports together and that’s been incredibly productive.”
Three of the meetings are held at Vue’s Chiswick HQ and one “elsewhere”, either Rome, Hamburg, Warsaw or Amsterdam.
Since joining, Cornwell, an ICAS member, has wasted no time in “putting a lot of structure and governance into place across the group”, and recently hired a head of internal audit to roll that out still further.
Cornwell splits her 30-strong finance squad into territory teams and groups, with the latter split into financial planning and analysis.
Vue’s backers – OMERS Private Equity, part of the Canadian pension fund OMERS and Alberta Investment Management Corporation, are both “very supportive” and “let us run the business”.
“As you would expect we have a board meeting every couple of months and the interaction with them is very positive, very constructive. We have a really good interaction with them.”
When quizzed about next steps, Cornwell says there’s much to do with the existing businesses to “improve profitability”, and drive best practice initiatives across the network, ensure further growth and continue to be “very EBITDA-focused”.
“We don’t chase market share. It’s all about quality of earnings and driving a strong return on investment while delivering the best experience to our customers such as our high quality auditoria. It’s an exciting place to be.”
The mother of four has been ably assisted in her career by her house husband – also a trained accountant – who she met at Coopers and Lybrand – and who looks after the family.
A keen cyclist with a love of music – both choral and rock – Cornwell, who plays bass guitar, can even boast of meeting Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant at a ZZ Top party in Glasgow when they were touring the Eliminator album.
And having been involved in film and its financing for so long, it’s the Pixar classic The Incredibles and French thriller, Tell No-One, that top her favourites list.
Alison Cornwell CV
October 2014 – present CFO, Vue Entertainment International Limited
October 2013 – September 2014 CFO, Start up ventures, film financing and special projects
March 2008 – September 2013 CFO Alliance Films Inc
April 2005 – February 2008 CFO Sparrowhawk Media Group
December 1995 – April 2005, CFO Walt Disney TV International
July 1990 – November 1995 Senior manager, Coopers & Lybrand Corporate Finance
September 1987 – July 1990 Supervisor, Coopers & Lybrand