Geoff Bicknell, group finance director of systems integrator Northgate Information Solutions plc (and FD interviewee last October), spent January to April last year working in St Louis, Missouri, as an interim executive for British chemical company Elementis plc. The experience has given him a taste for the challenges and rewards of interim management.
A high-flying ACA, Bicknell’s career has taken him to Canada, the US and the Continent. He has worked for a number of blue chips, finally becoming president of a North American division of TI Group. But after early retirement and a move back to the UK in 1999, Bicknell heard about interim management and met up with Martin Wood and Julia Candish of Board-level Interim Executive (BIE).
Then the call came about working in St Louis. The interim position on offer was as VP finance for an expanding division of Elementis that has operations in China and the UK as well as in the US and Canada.
“The division had suddenly gone global,” says Bicknell. “It had outgrown the capability of the VP finance and they wanted someone to come in quickly as they were halfway through restructuring the business.
“I had done that type of thing several times before working for either Rockwell International or TI Group. So I went in and immediately hired a few people and got a strong team together. I also hired in a VP finance to take over from me. As an interim you are not there for ever and you have to think about your exit.”
One of the potential challenges for interim managers can be getting people to take them seriously, even though they won’t be staying long. “The announcement about my appointment made it clear that I was part of the line management and not a consultant,” says Bicknell. “I told people I would make decisions that would have a long-term impact.”
Another challenge is to act fast. “There has to be a sense of urgency,” Bicknell says. “You can’t afford a long learning curve. You have to listen hard for the first few days and quickly assess the situation. It helps if you have lots of experience and have been through similar situations.
But there is no such thing as a standard solution. Every business and each management team is different.”
Although his role at Northgate is a permanent one, involving seductive golden handcuffs in the form of stock options that activate from 2002, 58-year-old Bicknell could be tempted back to interim work in future.
“As an interim you feel you are putting something back into industry,” he says. “It’s nice to teach people, train people and give them the benefit of your experience. You are not there to beat up on the chief executive and get him out of his seat so you can have it. When you are younger you want his head and his job. I’ve been there, done it. I don’t have to do it again. This time around I want to make the chief executive successful.”
Martin Wood, founder and director of BIE, has supplied a variety of interim executives to business, writes Tom Berry.
“Sudden departure is the biggest driver of implementing interim management,” says Wood. “You have to be a special kind of person to impose yourself on a board at such short notice. An interim FD has to deliver within a month to justify the large invoice that will arrive on the CEO’s desk.” As well as having thick skin and a wealth of experience, Wood says that interim FDs must be prepared to live out of a suitcase. “Out of every position I fill there are six possible interim managers. Of the three that are suitable one will not want to do it,” he says.
Wood prides himself on providing a bespoke, quality service. “There are only a few hundred executives in the UK that have undertaken more than three interim assignments,” he says. “Nevertheless, we had to interview 15,000 people over ten years to get to this figure.
“There are only 150 or so interim FDs in employment in the Britain currently. We are a niche service, we are not in the business of recruitment.”
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