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Interview: Albion FD Craig Wildman

COMING TO, after a horrific high-speed motorbike crash on a foreign motorway and being told by medical experts that you’ll lose a leg, is the stuff of nightmares.

Having this happen when you’re a fit, rugby-playing 19-year-old with your whole life ahead of you, is even worse.

But that’s exactly what happened to Craig Wildman, FD of Albion, a London-based branding and communications agency.

His leg was ultimately saved, and he spent the next two years in and out of a wheelchair. After a bone marrow transplant it took another six months to be able to walk without crutches. During that time he also had to cope with the psychological traumas unleashed by such a seismic event. Among them was dealing with the four-stone in rapid weight gain and the associated issues that that can engender.

“I went through something really bad and it changed my life. It changed how I viewed things. It altered how I react to situations and it made me focus down on something. It made me driven to be a success at something. It made me become an accountant.”

For several years afterwards he had horrific nightmares related to the two-wheeled smash.

Retracing the route

Four years after that fateful summer day where he watched the Dutch Grand Prix with four friends, Wildman got back on a motorbike and retraced the exact route along the same bit of Dutch motorway.

That night the nightmares stopped. And he never rode a bike again. The demons had been slain.

Fast forward to late 2014 and the wintry depths of a rain-lashed Shoreditch in East London and Wildman is manoeuvring his 6ft 1″ frame (or 6ft 0″ depending on which leg he stands on, as he points out) lithely around his company’s offices in a converted tea warehouse. Despite the traumas he is just like any mid-30’s FD would be, buoyed by successfully negotiating and selling a majority stake in the business to US-based, agency Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners, owned by MDC Partners.

The deal – reportedly in cash – secured Wildman and 14 other Albion shareholders a slice of the estimated £20-£30m deal and 25% retention of the agency.

The Anglo-American union has been described as a “perfect cultural fit” for both parties and the father of two is now poised at the helm of a business whose ambitions are now bathed in a distinctly international hue. At a stroke, it solved their respective global footprint challenges. “KBS do in New York what we do in London, but on a much bigger scale.”

Post-deal, life for Wildman is about to get “way more interesting” for a number of reasons.

Travel and strategy role

Core among them are international travel, overseas expansion, and a move into a more strategic side of the finance role.

That means making decisions on when to expand into new markets like Germany, and with which element? And how will Shanghai now report into the business and its global budget? How does the agency cross-charge for its services?

“It’ll involve proper business planning, reward and risk decisions to working with a counterpart in New York on international expansion and global budgets. From the ‘I’ point of view, my role doesn’t look from one market and one set of clients, it suddenly look out across all Europe and more, and with an increased set of business units.”

As much as Wildman now has a bigger role, he is reflective about the changing role of the FD, since qualifying 14 years ago.

“We’re not backward-looking people anymore. We used to be the guys who told people a month after how we’d done. Now we’re partners to the client teams in the agency. I think finance plays a much more prominent role in this sector than others – I think it has to because when you’re in the service world, what you’re selling is people and time and IP.”

Clients have got “smart”, he suggests, particularly in the agency world. 

“You go and negotiate that deal, sell in the work and before you’ve signed the contract a legal procurement guy walks through the door and gets really formal on negotiation.”

Sealing the deal

As such Wildman must be vigilant in understanding what his business offers potential clients. By doing so the company can ensure it strikes appropriate deals – or even walk away from negotiations, if that is the best option.

While month-ends, reporting, tax planning, reporting and forecasting requirements all play their part in his remit, a big part of his role is future planning, working closely with the chief strategy officer on what the one-, two- and three-year plans look like. This will include where the proposition needs to move forward, what resources are needed to put behind that goal, and looking at where to invest – these are some of the more exciting parts of a CFO’s life, Wildman believes.

“That’s when you’re really adding value helping make the right choices: looking at what’s happened in past, identifying what’s happening in the market and where we can see future income coming and helping make the right decisions.”

A great inspiration on Wildman’s fledgling career path was a pre-Dragons Den Peter Jones, under whose tutelage he basked as employee number two in one of his Phones International companies.

“He was a big influence on me at the time. He challenged absolutely everything that he came into contact. The biggest thing I learnt from him is never stand still, never get bored, never get comfortable – or your performance level drops”.

Since Wildman joined Albion the business has grown from a 50-man agency turning over £6m to one with almost 100 employees and £8.5m in sales.

He now leads a finance team of five people and looks after the operational side of the business: HR, IT and office management.

“Title aside, the word I use to most to describe my role is partner in the business. It’s not that I don’t see myself as or CFO or COO – but I have to partner with people within the business – as a shareholding partner and a partner to others in the senior management.”

And what of the future? “I’m beyond excited about what my role could and will be in six months,” enthused Wildman.

That means potentially launching four new businesses in the UK alone and rapidly expanding into Germany and Shanghai.

It would appear that he has successfully swapped the adrenalin-fuelled, two-wheeled need for speed with the undoubted thrills of international business.

 

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