Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top- DS Smith CFO

I went to work at aluminium group British Alcan as a trainee accountant after gaining a management degree at Cardiff University. I was there for the best part of three years and left just before qualifying to go and work in the City.

Finance was a long-term interest of mine, developed around corporate finance, treasury and financing. I worked for a bank for a brief period of time, but decided that actually I wanted to be more in corporate finance in a company.

I ended up at hospitality giant Grand Metropolitan in the Treasury department as a treasury accountant. There was a lot going on, particularly from a Treasury perspective, the financing of the debt from the acquisition of fast food group Pillsbury that included Burger King, and the carve-out of the group’s pubs business.

From there I went to conglomerate Inchcape to work in Treasury again, before moving on to PwC’s consultancy group around Treasury and corporate finance, promoted quite quickly to senior manager there. I then re-joined Inchcape as group treasurer at 29, so it was fairly rapid rise to a first senior leadership position.

Then the Asian crisis hit, starting with the devaluation of the Thai baht, and Inchcape- which was a big colonial trading company with businesses in Asia, the Middle East, and South America, and so was heavily impacted. The result was the whole break-up of the company, including the divesting of various businesses.

I decided at that point to take another role, at glass products maker Pilkington in St Helens as group treasurer. It was a very impressive business. My task there was to re-engineer the treasury function, refinance the business.

There was a pretty big change programme going on, my role was to provide the liquidity and the financing for that. That was when I started having other roles outside mainstream finance. From there I also took over group controller and then became divisional finance director for building products.

Few finance directors have a broad experience in corporate finance, quite a lot of people have been divisional FDs, quite a lot of people have also been finance managers within a business, but very few have dealt with debt capital markets, foreign exchange, funding liquidity, risk management.

I was hired by pharma giant AstraZeneca (AZ), not long post the merger of the group’s two constituent parts to re-engineer the treasury and corporate finance functions post-merger. From there I became FD of the European business, and had three years in charge of corporate finance in AZ and then to Europe where I was the FD based in Brussels.

The biggest challenge in pharma finance is about how you are going to add value in what is a very intellectual organisation. In my current job I can send an email out asking somebody to do something, they’ll reply saying it will be done by the end of the day. But if you send an email out in a pharma company saying why you want something done, you’ll get 15 emails back, explaining why that’s not the right idea and why there’s a better way to do it.

Change is very slow in pharma. The transformation process is quite difficult, so the challenge was trying to transform the pace of change, overhauling the ways we were working differently. That was where the satisfaction came from.

We ended up restructuring quite significantly. We halved the number of people in the organisation. It was becoming less an arms race of field forces, to field force effectiveness and how you managed the cost base better. There was also a different compliance regime coming in as well, in terms of anti-bribery, anti-corruption.

I then took on role encompassing tax, treasury and corporate finance at Tesco. There was a huge need to regularise the corporate finance of the business, the funding, the liquidity, the risk management, and growth in emerging markets. The roll out in Asia came with a lot of risk, so it was an interesting time.

Tesco CEO Terry Leahy was such a great strategist, in terms of his vision, his views, his assessment, his ability to analyse, process data, to pick on the relevant issues all the time. Tesco as far as I am aware, is still the largest home delivery operator in the UK, it was ahead of the game, the first doing that in a very effective way.

I joined DS Smith as CFO as I wanted to be part of the strategic debate, at the table, supporting an ambitious and committed CEO, someone that you could not only learn from, but had a plan that I believed in. It was also a company I was interested in, where I could add value.