Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the Top: Andrew Lewis, Chemring CFO

A career in finance for specialist engineering companies set up the career path of Andrew Lewis, now CFO of Chemring – a provider of defence and security products and services.

I started in PwC on a contract I undertook for 3 years, before heading out to New Zealand where I did a 3-year stint in Auckland; a fairly well trodden route when you’re in your mid-twenties. I had no kids and no mortgage. I wanted to see the world, broaden my horizons and experience, and came back to Bristol in the late 1990s, working my way through the PwC ranks before leaving the firm in 2007 as a PwC director.

Being able to really help the client interested me, but having to go through hoops about independence, risk management, all that stuff just started to clog the wheels. I was keen to get stuck into working in a company. I’d always been interested in what I call manufacturing companies, engineering companies, what I call stock debtors/creditors type businesses as opposed to financial services.

An opportunity came up at Rotork, a high quality engineering businesses in the south of England. I went there as group financial controller, with a view that doing that role for about 3 years as a first job out of the accounting profession was the way forward. As a financial controller you have some familiarity with the reporting side, but you’re able to dip your toe into things you wouldn’t have seen before on the investor relations (IR) side, or the more commercial side of things.

I got a call from the previous FD of Avon Rubber after 8 months in the role, who had been made CEO. He said he was in market for an FD: “I’ve phoned around three or four people I trust and your name has come up more than once, so I should probably meet you.”

The hardest thing about stepping up to CFO was that it was definitely a baptism of fire. In the week before Lehman Brothers went bust, Avon had zero EBITDA and £25m debt, and had borrowed in dollars. When the exchange rate had fallen from $2 to about $1.40 it was overstretched on its facilities, and there was a massive turnaround job to do.

One of the joys of the step-up was that you were just able to make your decisions and get on with it, as opposed to having to go through partners of PwC or senior teams in corporates. One of the challenges was that that buck stops with you. Even just 1 week in people were looking at me because the bank facilities were a problem, and I’d only just inherited these figures.

Do the tough stuff early is one of the most important things to think about for a turnaround. Maybe you don’t realise it at the time because you’re in it, but when you step back afterwards, it’s a key take away.

We had to restructure the UK business. We had a UK operation that employed about 250 people, and we moved about one third of that offshore to Eastern Europe. There were 80 redundancies, so I had to deal with the Unions.

It’s about creating the vision, saying “OK we’ve got a burning platform, if we do nothing we could be in a position where none of your members have a job. If we do this and we do it right, in 5 years’ time we might have more people employed on this site than we do today”. This ended up being the case. That gives you an opportunity to change the culture of an organisation, the cultural change programmes, I think, are hugely important.