My background is quite unusual in that I spent the first half of my career in various FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) companies, either working as CEO or CFO in companies such as United Biscuits (UB), Grand Metropolitan and Guinness.
If there was something that needed to be done, I found myself attracted to it, was the common theme to many of the roles I took on. At UB my job was to integrate the KP and the Mcvities sales forces, which consisted of 400 people each, and crunch them together to make sure we had a better, more coherent sales strategy for the convenience and impulse markets.
Richard Branson asked me to join Virgin as a CEO to run Virgin drinks, which was a business established about four years prior to my arrival. The business, which included Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka, Virgin spirits, and Virgin energy drinks had done quite well before I joined but had found itself on the rocks, and they wanted someone to go in and sort it out.
I launched 13 new products, to broaden the breadth, to make it more relevant, because I’d worked on the premise that if you’re going to go into a retailer with a can of Virgin Cola, you’ll get one or two meetings, but if you have a variety of products you will end up with more appointments. I used my contacts and networking in convenience and impulse to take the offer into Bookers, Palmer & Harvey and the Co-Op.
There were no group management accounts in that part of the Virgin group, which from a finance perspective was quite amazing. Richard Branson’s PA would phone every day and ask for two stats- what proportion of your overdraft have you used and how much cash have you got in the bank?
If you were using too much of the cash, Richard Branson would be on the phone asking ‘why are you using my money to run your business?’ We started to build some financial disciplines, moving towards customer account profitability, to get an understanding by customer how much profit we were generating as a business.
I joined the healthcare sector, becoming FD of FTSE 250-listed Biocompatibles in my first main board role, where I launched two major transactions and delivered two returns of capital to shareholders, as well as sorting out quite a few banking issues. The CEO and chairman took a risk with me because I hadn’t had any main board plc experience, but they saw my commercial background might help.
I then went to work in private equity. It’s an area that is often looked down on, wrongly in my opinion, because PE operators are often sharper and more astute than public company peers, working in an environment where decision-making is much more immediate.
Your shareholders are sat with you on the board whereas in a public company you may have 6 or 7 key shareholders you consult during the year. You can approach shareholders on the board of a PE owned company, explain the options available, and say what shall we do?
I got a call from a friend of friend who was the HR director at publisher Centaur Media when I was wondering what to do next after working on projects with three different private equity firms: Barclays Private Equity, the PE arm of Dutch bank ABN Bank, and US firm Warburg Pincus. She said there was an issue with cash management at the group that needed addressing, would you like to meet the CEO? I agreed to meet and eventually became the CFO of the group.