Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top- BAE Systems CFO

I left school at 16 and joined banknote printer De La Rue that was based in Portsmouth where I’m from. I just wanted to get into a role and start working. I went in straight from school as a trainee accountant, and worked up through a number of roles.

My first mentor saw something in me and decided I should go and study for national certificate business studies, when I was at De La Rue. I did self-study which was a little challenging.

I worked in Spain for two years. After travelling with the group to undertake work in Lisbon, Frankfurt, Paris, Madrid I was asked to go to the Spanish capital as De La Rue was producing processing equipment for the country’s national lottery.  I was accountant for the Spanish operation, which was very small- there were no English speakers apart from me.

Small company experience was what I sought out next. I joined a life jacket maker in nearby Gosport. If they didn’t get the cash in within 30 days they couldn’t afford to pay the wages, so the importance of credit control was instilled in me at an early age. As the accountant I did everything from book-keeping to wages.

I then joined GEC Marconi, for big company experience. It was the defence arm of conglomerate GEC that was run by Lord Weinstock. There was a very large operation in Hilsea, just north of Portsmouth,where I started as financial accountant of the manufacturing side.

I joined the electronic warfare division of GEC Marconi at its development site in Stanmore, becoming the financial lead. The business had 3,000 employees and turnover of £200m.

Having a strong work ethic was important. I was always prepared to move around. I think mobility is an important thing, as you’ve got to take the opportunities when they come.

I’ve always had the belief that the defence industry is an important sector maybe it comes from my father who was in the Navy. In some parts of the industry we say: ‘we protect those who protect us,’ and I actually believe that is our mission- so I always have a passion for the defence business.

The job of assistant finance director of GEC Marconi was offered to me by the then FD of Marconi Ian King, BAE’s previous chief executive, before he went into general management.

I got sent to a very troubled programme which was probably the making of my career. This was the in-flight entertainments system for the Boeing 777 aircraft with contracts with British Airways, Japan Airlines, Emirates and United Airlines.

It was a real problem programme. It was GEC’s largest loss-making programme and so I got sent down to see what we were going to do with it. It took two years getting out of the programme, being sued in various courts in America for breach of contract.

We would have members of the main GEC board doing the quarterly contract reviews with us. By putting myself in harm’s way, in a project that was really bad, got me a lot of visibility. In terms of development and personal career opportunity, it is much better to take a bad business and turn it around than it is to take a well performing business where everybody expects the business to carry on as is.

There was a change of management within GEC. The group wanted to turn into a telecoms company, after exiting the white goods and the defence businesses. GEC Marconi was sold to what was British Aerospace- and BAE Systems was formed in 1999.

I was then made finance director of GEC Marconi working for Peter Gershon within GEC Marconi, in the 15-18 months leading up to the disposal by GEC of the defence business. He had a direct but very interesting style. He’s a tough guy but always fair. I worked for him for 18 months and learnt a lot.

Always learn from good people. Equally you can learn from bad people, about what not to do. But being with good people is better.

My route into BAE Systems was with the acquisition of Marconi. Previously British Aerospace had been a UK business and aerospace only business. GEC had quite cleverly been buying second tier defence companies in the US, bulking GEC Marconi up.

An integrated top to bottom UK supplier with a big international footprint had been created, with a number of European joint ventures. It was transformational for British Aerospace.

There was so much integration to be done the cultures were a world apart, and it took a good two years really to get the company operating as a single entity.

It was a difficult time for me. You’re in a new world- you’ve created a reputation, mutual respect in the organisation in GEC, and then suddenly you come into British Aerospace where nobody knows you. You know you’ve been bought, people always talk about a merger, and that personally was quite a challenging time,

Then my big break came as CFO of BAE Systems. My predecessor  George Rose made a decision that his internal candidate for successor was not going to be the guy who came from British Aerospace, it was going to be me. So that locked me into the business.