Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top- Dr Martens CFO

I was the first in my family to go to university. I went to UEA in Norwich where I did a degree in economics, after going to a comprehensive school in Chelmsford. In the final year of university, I became interested in marketing and strategy, PR, and how businesses work.

I didn’t set out to become an accountant-it just kind of happened. My first job was with Guinness. I  attended a milk round event and collected leaflets from companies. I saw one from Guinness, and it looked quite sexy. I applied and was offered an opportunity to start on the finance graduate recruitment scheme.

Guinness was two years into the acquisition of United Distillers at the time. My first year was in the accounts team, working on a purchase ledger, which was really boring, but I learned about how the books work. But after that I moved into central finance in United Distillers, which was my first insight into application of strategy and how finance can help drive strategy.

I was given the chance to move to America. I worked for two years in Stamford, Connecticut as a business partner in the domestic portfolio brands business of United Distillers. It meant interacting with people who aren’t necessarily accountants or don’t have a finance background, and it does mean you might have to change your style a bit as you can easily bamboozle people. I learnt that the hard way in the US because even though they speak English its different words, so I obviously had to think more about what I was saying.

I joined hotel group Forte, as it was coming out of the great recession of the early 1990s, after the first Gulf war. The business was a sprawl of hotels restaurants at the time. A friend in the City called up to say there were rumours Granada was trying to make a bid for Forte, which transpired was true.

On the bid defence team, I got two years’ worth of experience in two months. It was really hard work as we were involved right through Christmas. I worked with a lot of senior internal and external people. It was about having confidence and not being scared.

At retailer WHSmith I joined as assistant financial controller, before being offered the role of financial controller. Finance director Keith Hamill who had been FD at Forte, gave me a lot of time and help. I needed some guidance in the early part of that role just to make sure I knew what I was doing, then I grew into it.

My first FD role- at publishing arm Hodder Headline was a step up. It was a completely different culture again. The amount of time I had to spend with the senior managers of each division meant patience was a core skill. What I thought should have taken half an hour ended up taking an hour.

As FD of WH Smith’s UK retail business, my next role, I learned plenty. It was much more about communication, as well as basic finance stuff. I learned that if you can communicate what you want to do in a simple way, rather than make things too complex, you can get buy-in and traction.

Perception is important. Just because a report says things are fine, if the perception is that it’s not fine, you need to work on that perception. You need to ask: What do we need to do to convince people that I’m right and things have moved on, or am I not right, in which case what do we need to go back and do?

At Travelodge, which I joined as CFO, a new hotel strategy was being pursued. We wanted to drive internet bookings, following the budget airline model, and therefore controlling the direct customer relationship. Through variable pricing and yield management, you can fill up hotels, make more money, and then open more hotels. Finance played a key role in this approach.

The hardest I’ve worked in my life came at Travelodge in the run-up to it being sold. in 2012, we completed a full balance sheet restructuring and debt for equity swap, including CVA, and the junior debt holders took over the equity. For about 9-10 months it was work, work, work. It was the same as the Forte bid defence, but nine months instead of 60 days. And then after that balance sheet restructuring I was just exhausted, I needed a break.

An opportunity came long to do something completely different to what I’d done before, tidying up the balance sheet of housebuilder Avant Homes so it could be sold. It needed a fresh pair of eyes. It was interesting work but I realised what I missed was working in a mass market business.

I joined student accommodation group Liberty Living.  I was there for three months. It was a mistake. I left Avant because I missed high volume consumerism, and Liberty Living wasn’t high volume consumerism. I missed the mass market element of understanding your customer, understanding what drives them, understanding that things change, and evolving the business.

Deep down you know when something is not right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying I’ve made a mistake, move on. It helps if you’ve got a good CV, if you’ve been around a bit and you know you’ve made more positive decisions than negative decisions.

Then an opportunity to be the CFO of Dr Marten’s came up. I had a sense of the ethos that the private equity owners Permira were trying to do with the group. I knew the firm as they were the owners of Travelodge when I was there, and knew they were ambitious for the Dr Martens brand- something I could definitely relate to.