Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the Top: Damian Wisniewski, Derwent London CFO

I started as a musician, before studying to be an engineer, and then becoming an accountant. I studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music, which I’m now a governor of. As a pianist I did a lot of accompaniment, which makes you listen intently. These were great skills I learnt, but while I can’t say they were specific to my career now, they certainly helped me over the years.

I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer despite studying engineering at Imperial College London. It’s a tough degree, so really good training for the brain. The rigorous training you get in engineering gave me a very good approach to problem solving. I joined accountants Arthur Young before beginning at my first property business Stockley Park Consortium, where I was seconded to become financial controller and company secretary.

If you’re thrown into the deep end, you sink or swim. At 27, I was approached by the finance director of Stanhope Properties (one of the consortium members) to control and monitor financial elements of several major projects, such as Broadgate, Chiswick Park and the ITN building. I was appointed group financial controller at asset manager Chelsfield, spearheading the finance function from 1992 to 2005, securing the group FD role in 2003.

I had good mentors at Chelsfield, run by a very entrepreneurial man called Elliot Bernard, who is still revered in the property sector. His entrepreneurial skills brought a real flair to this business. It didn’t feel daunting at the time – I think I was ready for it. You learn very quickly what to focus on, so I think it was quite a worthwhile thing to do, and I was lucky to work with good people.

Developing technical knowledge was a big part of the Chelsfield role because I was running all the finances there from an early age. We then floated the company – grew it into a big company, took it private, lots of stuff in between.

I learnt to deal with the politics of business, which as an accountant you often don’t get, by working as Chief Operating Officer at Wood Wharf Limited Partnership, a joint venture with three partners – all with slightly different agendas. It was a role that required working with different kinds of people, in areas such as community liaison and public consultation– things that were out of my natural comfort zone – but then you suddenly realise you can speak to people outside of the technical world.

You learn a lot about managing in crisis. I spent 2 years running a business in crisis, set up by financial services group Dawnay Day, called Treveria Asset Management. I was brought in about 1 year after it was formed, when it was really tumbling down quite quickly. The debt was worth more than the assets, so it was a tricky time, but then you learn quite a lot about managing in crisis.

Sometimes it’s very easy to look back and criticise everybody, but one of the challenges of running a business like that is to try and get things as much sorted out internally as possible; do all the right things externally. I think that comes from professional judgement and working with good advisers. At the end of the day, a lot of people are trying to achieve the same thing – to keep things going to try and recover.

When facing difficult situations you really work out who’s on your side. I met some fantastic people who worked well together under pressure. The chairman Ian Henderson, who had previously run Land Securities, was as good a chairman as one could have had in that situation. He was certainly instrumental in me getting me the role at Derwent London.