I almost never came back from Auckland, New Zealand, where I worked in a bar on the waterfront, during a year travelling after school.
At university I wanted to do a course which offered some real work in the middle, so I ended up studying transport management at Aston University, which offered a sandwich year. It taught you how to do things like manage a freight company or an airline.
I approached every single airline for work in the mid-1990s, but none was hiring. I applied to FMCG group Unilever and ended up working in its Bristol-based international market development group, which had a mission to export to small markets and set up new country offices.
Unilever built the biggest tea factory in the world at the time, in Vietnam as part of that expansion programme. I then went to Singapore to become a commercial manager job in the middle of the Asian crisis, because Unilever’s Bristol office was being closed.
I then worked as a foreign exchange and derivatives trader in Rotterdam for two and a half years, seeking to reach a commercial target of £1m a year, as part of Unilever’s group Treasury. My experience in Holland was a really important time in my life.
Treasury is an interesting place to work as you get to see which parts of the business are making money and which aren’t. I moved over to drink giant Allied Domecq’s Treasury which had moved to Bristol, with other former Unilever people, as assistant treasury analyst and then deputy treasurer, before becoming group tax and treasury controller-my first big management job, with 75 people reporting to me.
I quickly learnt the only way you can do a job like that is to delegate. Everything will just sort of carry on going if you leave it alone, I came to realise. The fact that you’re not there for half an hour, doesn’t mean the world will end.
But you need to come up with a vision and a direction that you can point people toward, I also learnt. You get them on board for your vision, and once you’re doing that it’s about making strategic progress.
The importance of surrounding yourself with good people, is something I underestimated through the early part of my career. You build an organisation with people, you don’t build an organisation with structure and other stuff, so you need to find the right people.
Allied Domecq became the second biggest spirits and wine company in the world at this stage after numerous acquisitions, but we were then bought in a hostile takeover by Pernod-Ricard and Fortune brands, in a complicated merger due to the market domination of certain brands.
The deal went through over a weekend. On the Monday morning, we were directed to Allied Domecq’s cafeteria where three boards were placed. If your name was on the first board, you had to leave straight away, on the second you had to work your notice and on the third meant you were staying.
My name was on the third board, so I ended up staying for a year splitting up the group- it was fun but complicated. At one point a large group met at a hotel by Heathrow airport, where we were asked questions by Pernod-Ricard and Fortune Brands people about the running of the business. The first question from a Pernod-Ricard guy was: “Have you got any private jets?”
I struck up a conversation with a regional relationship manager from Michael Page who was helping some of my team find jobs. He said: “Why don’t you come and register with us?” As I was going to be in London, I met up with a member of the Page Executive business, who said: “We have something that might interest you- it’s a business services firm with a turnover of £500m”.
The role of group financial controller and company secretary being discussed was for Michael Page, as the group was then called. I had lunch with the recruitment group’s CEO Steve Ingham and CFO Stephen Puckett. They offered the position to me on the Thursday and I accepted on the Friday. I started a week later, 12 years ago, becoming acting CFO in 2013 and being made CFO the following year.