Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top- Imperial Brands CFO

I decided to change tack in my career after 32 years at KPMG. I had done things there that I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to do when I first left university. My career at the Big Four firm had been very varied, mostly consisting of three to four-year stints of things that were remarkably different in nature.

In 2012 I got seduced into putting my name forward to be the senior partner of KPMG. I got involved in the process to win the top job, but ultimately came second to Simon Collins.

Simon gave me a number of things to do, but the challenges weren’t as substantial as they had been in the past. There aren’t too many jobs in the profession at that level of seniority, that still offered the opportunity to do exciting things.

I was incredibly lucky that a number of clients said: ‘would you like to do something totally different for us’. I was approached by insurer Legal & General to be their next CFO. As a ‘lifer’ in professional services, to become the finance head of a FTSE 50, to learn new things, maybe even do things that I had spent lots of time advising others to do, but never having had to make the decision myself, seemed a wonderful opportunity and I jumped at it.

But the opportunity was knocked back by the regulator. The official story was that I hadn’t got enough insurance experience, but I think it was a little more complicated than that. There was a fair degree of politics going on in the industry at the time, as the regulator the Financial Services Authority (FSA) was being split up into the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA).

I still had the appetite to take on a major CFO role. By the time I had engaged with L&G and had received approaches from others, there was no way I would end up going back to KPMG. I’d had a career that had featured the opportunity to do different things consistently and here was something far beyond what I might have expected in the profession, in the sense that it was so different.

The role of CFO of Imperial Brands offered plenty of challenges. There was a strong aspect of intellectual challenge about it, and the practical challenge of conveying the corporate message to different audiences. Previously, I’d not had to stand up in front of shareholders, I’d not had to go and negotiate with banks. It was a bit like I’d never appeared on stage, I’d always been a director behind the scenes.

I was fazed by very little when I started at Imperial Brands. I had been incredibly well prepared for the role through my time with KPMG. There I’d done vast numbers of M&A transactions, all sorts of performance improvement projects and systems enhancement projects.

As a professional adviser you don’t have any power in the game, you’re there to advise and therefore you have to learn the art of influence. It’s about the art of gaining acceptability as an outsider- all of which was relevant to onboarding to an organisation at such a senior level and being able to make a difference.

One or two of the people on the board knew me from when I advised their businesses elsewhere, so I was a known phenomenon to them. When I met the key people I liked them, and when I heard them tell the corporate story, I found it compelling.