STV is integral to Scotland, says Lindsay Dixon, who has been CFO of the television group for a matter of months “In times of national import, in England everybody flocks to the BBC, in Scotland people flock to STV,” she says.
Since she joined the FTSE-250 constituent in May, Dixon, who hails from West Lothian, has busied herself helping put together a strategic plan to ensure the group capitalises on its unique position in the hearts and minds of Scots.
As the go to broadcaster north of the border, STV will play a key role covering the impact of the Brexit fall-out, that may result in a second independence referendum for Scotland. “Our STV News at Six programme is doing incredibly well, as people are joining in every night at 6 o’clock to understand what’s going on,” says Dixon.
The danger for STV, like any organisation heavily dependent on advertising revenue is whether Brexit’s impact on the economy heavily impacts the group’s turnover. “General uncertainty isn’t good for business or individuals alike,” acknowledges Dixon. “But the nature of our relationship with ITV is that if national airtime declines, so does our cost base. So, we’ve actually got some protection in there,” she says.
Dixon started out in the corporate world at Johnston press, the Scottish publishing group that owns newspapers The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post. Having studied maths at Heriot-Watt University, before gravitating to Big Six accountancy firm Arthur Andersen.
When Andersens collapsed as a result of its relationship with US energy giant Enron, Dixon moved on to the Edinburgh office of Deloitte. “It was quite a tumultuous period, it happened and I got on with it,” she says. “But it didn’t change my clients- I had to go through a tender for my biggest client Johnston Press – which we won,” she reveals.
Dixon was on maternity leave when she was approached by the publisher’s financial controller to join as group financial accountant, “with the view he would be retiring and I was the succession plan for him, “I had decided I wanted to get under the bonnet more and get involved in making something as opposed to talking to the people that are doing it,” says the member of Scottish accountancy body ICAS.
In the years before the internet disrupted publishers, Johnston Press was riding high. Dixon says gross margins were “phenomenal”, and brand equity benefited from the fact that “local communities really centred around some of the titles. “Although there was a recognition things were changing and we needed to be looking at cost base and what the future might hold, but by large when I joined there was a real momentum, it was a great environment to work in.”
Belt-tightening resulted in a move to the iconic Scotsman Building in central Edinburgh, during which time Dixon was promoted to group head of finance, a role that as well as internal and external reporting also encompassed tax and treasury, as well as chairing the internal financial control committee. “I started to go to the executive board meetings, talking about the big picture, about more operational issues as well.”
At heavy engineering firm Weir Group, another iconic Scottish name, Dixon moved into a similar role, but the global scale meant supporting but not leading in the areas outside core finance. She says much of the work of the finance function was driven by the macro impacts on its international structure that focused on oil and gas, mining and industrials, resulting in it being demoted from the FTSE 100 during her tenure.
But the tough environment required the skills Dixon had learned at her previous employer. “A lot of the time latterly at Johnston press it was very much a focus on efficiency, complete and utter control and management of the cost base, similar to what I was doing at Weir Group, ”“More important was tracking through the operational triggers that were driving those and what the knock-on impacts were.”
Becoming financial controller at whisky maker William Grant & Sons, provided a new experience- working in a private, family-owned concern where the focus was on long term brand equity. “In publicly owned corporate life investments are looking at 2-3 years ahead, if you’re lucky, whereas at Grant’s we were going to be around for another 140 years so we were building inheritances and legacies for the future, and that was quite a mind shift.”
There are extra dimensions to leaderships roles in family-owned entities, informs Dixon. “In some respects, its more challenging because you’ve got people that own the business turning up at your desk, whereas that has not happened in public life yet, so yes it’s a different dynamic. Although you’ve got a board of family shareholders and family directors who are very comfortable with that longer-term view, you also have an executive which naturally tends to have a shorter-term horizon,” she adds.
Now at STV, Dixon says her aim is to be a strong partner to CEO Simon Pitts, who joined in January 2018 from ITV, where he was director of transformation and strategy, to “actually be working with somebody on building something, and being able to form a view, take opinions from others, work as a unit to actively grow a business. I saw a big opportunity for that at STV,” she says.
Uttermost in their priorities is to leverage the value of STV’s brand, which Dixon suggests is “possibly disproportionate to the numbers, because it is quite a small group.” She argues being of modest proportions, the group has around 450 permanent staff across offices in Glasgow, London , Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness, meant a chance to” get my arms around it and get out and meet people. I don’t like just to sit in the finance function, working with finance team, I don’t think that’s the best way of doing things,” adds Dixon, who frequently visits each site.
Dixon runs a smaller finance function at STV than those she operated in at her previous companies, but one where she felt she could make her mark following the retirement of George Watt. One similarity is that finance people are embedded across divisions, in business partnering roles.
Data insights teams operate across broadcast and digital divisions, assessing the demographics of viewers, what time of day they engage on which platforms, and then flow this information to finance. “We consider what that means in terms of trends and planning for the future, where the opportunities are and what capital allocation is required.”
In terms of finessing finance, Dixon says she is still forming a view “on what is important in all the areas I should be contributing in. So whether that’s the day to day running of the finance operation or its working with Simon on delivering strategy or working with each of the MDs in their areas, or more broadly supporting the board in governance or other corporate type issues we have got on our agenda,” she says.
Could finance be more deeply involved with the business? “There is definitely more work we can do, I am absolutely very passionate that finance shouldn’t only talk to finance, because you don’t get under the skin of things, it all works much better together if there’s a genuine interest and drive to engage with people,” she adds.
Within finance, Dixon is keen to develop staff to ‘being the best you can be’, within an “incredibly open culture” at STV. She says: “Great success in a team is when you can understand what makes each other tick. I’ve spent quite a lot of time so far in every role I’ve had on one on ones with people in the team and having team sessions, to build that sense of togetherness.”
Ultimately the plan is to develop stickiness for the STV brand across the group’s channels that include social media, formal news, productions, the player while “making sure we are being the quality public service broadcaster the Scottish population want,” informs Dixon.
“One of the strengths of STV is that we have got production bases in London and in Glasgow, and with all of the move and the focus now pushing for what’s called nations and regions spend, investment in production and creative talent outside of the M25, that combination is exactly what you would want. We’re operating from a small base so one or two commissions for a series really make a difference,” she adds.
The digital channel, which she says offers the chance of very high margins, is under-leveraged. “Of the 18bn ad impressions that we deliver annually, only 2.5% are digital at the minute, so we could double the size of that business and it would still only be 5% of the total, which demonstrates the size of the opportunity”, says Dixon.