Management » Route to the top: National Express CFO

I spent 10 years at drinks giant Diageo, following periods in management at Andersen Consulting, Boots the chemists and strategy consulting firm Marakon, on the back of a degree in Management Sciences at University of Warwick.

Finance wasn’t in the game plan when I started at Diageo. I began in strategy, with the intention of moving from there to general management. After about three years in the group I got a fantastic break after the guy who was running Diageo in Nigeria was let go and opportunity became available to run the business on an interim basis for about three months.

Nigeria is the world’s biggest Guinness market. On the back of having done a half decent job in that vast market, I was approached about a general management role. I had looked at running Diageo’s Ghana and South Africa businesses, but at that point my family resisted as they didn’t want to move. I didn’t know what I was going to do back in the UK, so I thought I should dust down some recruitment contacts and go find a job in a UK-centric business.

Diageo’s group CFO Nick Rose approached me about working in finance. The company had plenty of accountants in finance but not so many people with a bit more of a strategic or commercial skill set that could lead things. He said he wanted me as finance director for the UK, a role I accepted.

I was a non-qualified accountant in my very first finance role. Nick Rose had the view that you didn’t have to be a qualified accountant to run a finance function, as he wasn’t a qualified accountant himself. I think the thought was that if they could drop me into the UK FD role, I could learn the function from my direct reports. Almost by osmosis I leant from my team members things like what FP&A does and how you close the books at month end.

Diageo’s North American business is huge– delivering £1bn of profit a year. I became CFO of North America, having run the group’s shared service centre- a role that really taught me a lot about financial processes I never even knew existed.

My lack of formal accountancy training suddenly hit me. Something was discovered in the audit that couldn’t be reconciled. Although it proved to be insignificant I realised I hadn’t really pressure-tested enough the team’s answers to really prove it to myself in bog standard English. It was a wake-up call that I needed. I then took the opportunity to throw myself at CIMA and worked on turning the group’s procurement function  around.

I sought a role for a technical shot in the arm in accounting. Car dealership group Inchcape offered what I’d never heard of as a combination before- Group Financial Controller and Treasurer in one. They took a risk on me, knowing I was at the point of qualifying, and I took a bit of a gamble on them, dropping down the FTSE- but it proved to be a fabulous experience.

There’s nowhere to hide in a finance role 100 places down the FTSE. The team are much leaner- everybody’s got their sleeves rolled up. My entire team there: Treasury, FP&A, and group financial reporting was 14 people, whereas my North American finance team at Diageo was 280 people.

It took three years at Inchcape to round off my CFO skill set. I’d never before prepared an audit committee, had to address going concern, worked on the impairment reviews of businesses and undertaken financing rounds. The role really set me up for my current position as CFO of coach and bus operator National Express.

I recognised the importance of being honest with everyone. I would say I’m not a dyed in the wool technical accountant, but as Financial Controller I am going to have to sign off on any of the accounting you are doing. I’d explain what we are going to do is take it down to a level where I can understand it, and come back up again- because if you can’t break it down to a level where I can understand it, it’s probably wrong anyway.

I became Inchcape’s interim CFO for about six months. Arrival of a new CEO, in his first such role, meant they needed an experienced CFO working with him. Before I left, I managed to get a year end and a set of investor roadshows under my belt. It was a great set of learnings that set me on the path to where I am now.

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