A CUT ABOVE
We catch up with Sheffield businessman Neil MacDonald who played a key role in the global growth of city forgings specialist Firth Rixson and became one of the youngest Master Cutlers in recent years when he took over the role in 2012.
Tell us about your early career?
“After studying Economics & Accounting at Sheffield University, I ended up at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell in Sheffield, across the road from the Students Union.
I spent 10 years there including some time in London before returning to Sheffield for my next role.”
What was your next move?
“I then moved to a small plc called Woodhouse & Rixson as Finance Director, and I had the feeling something was going to happen there. It was only a £10 million business, old fashioned in a way but it was a listed company.
Within a few months we got working with Johnson & Firth Brown and put fledging plans together for the creation of Firth Rixson. The `merger’ happened in 1987 and Firth Rixson went through various iterations in the subsequent years.
We built Firth Rixson in America and the UK and I formally became FD of the listed group in 1994, when we sold off a rump of peripheral companies and focused on the core specialist aerospace engineering businesses. That was one seminal moment. Another was when we took over Aurora, another `historic’ Sheffield name in 1999.
The next was 2003, post 9/11 when we took the company private. That was the US private equity group Carlyle’s first deal in the UK. I led that deal as FD. Within a couple of years after some rapid expansion helped by the recovery in the aerospace market, Carlyle were looking to sell out.
I stepped down in 2006 having completed the sale.”
What was your next step?
“Well, that was the end of my full time executive career at the age of 50 and I felt it was time to do something else. I ended up, not particularly intentionally, with a portfolio of roles, with my finance background being a lead in to all of them.
In 2005 I took on my first non-executive role with Sheffield Theatres. I then joined the board of Rotherham Foundation Trust, which started 10 years with the NHS in a non-executive capacity, five at Rotherham and subsequently five at Sheffield Childrens’ Hospital. There has since been a steady stream of involvement with charities. I was a trustee at Whirlow Farm, I chaired the Cathedral Archer Project and am now Deputy Chair of St Luke’s Hospice. I’m on Museums Sheffield and the Yorkshire Artspace boards as well.
I am also on the Board of Governors of Sheffield Hallam University.”
What are your particular highlights?
“There are probably two which come to mind. Quite by accident I became involved with AES Seal, which had grown to a £60 million turnover business without ever having an FD. I ended up doing a part time FD role there from 2007-2012.
I have been a Freeman at the Cutlers Company since 2001, but in 2010 I was approached about being Master Cutler. I haven’t developed the art of saying no very well and I thought, “Why not?” I did it in 2012/13 and it was a huge honour and privilege, great fun, hard work and wonderful to be able to give something back to Sheffield.
So, I’ve got to where I’ve got to not necessarily in the most structured and conventional way.”
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you, earlier in your career?
“The partners at Peat Marwick influenced how my career developed, in that they shaped the first three years of my working life.”
How have relationships differed with each of the Chief Executives you’ve worked alongside?
“At Firth Rixson, the CEO, was an old fashioned Sheffield industrialist, but he was smart. He was canny and streetwise in the 80’s definition of streetwise.
As the business developed, he let me get on with it, particularly after the takeover of Aurora, when the dynamic changed due to the increased scale and complexity of the enlarged group.
After I completed the deal with Carlyle, I `acquired’ a new American CEO to work with, someone I’d not met before. I knew little about him and was worried that it may not have worked. But actually there was a mutual respect there, we were of a similar age and we got on. We were bringing together the UK (the heart and soul of the business) with a lot of new American people and getting that trans-Atlantic thing to work with Carlyle on both sides was quite complex. Our relationship had to work, otherwise the success of the buy-out hung in the balance. That was more of a partnership in terms of a common goal.
At AES, it was a slightly different dynamic in that the CEO was hugely intelligent, massively confident in his own abilities and skill set, but you present him with data, and solutions and yes, he’d listen. He knows what he needs and what it takes to be successful. The relationship worked because it was right for that period of time and he knew that I could add value to his business. Over that period, we grew the business significantly. It nearly doubled in size.”
How did you have to adapt your approach at AES working with an archetypal entrepreneur?
“I never thought of myself as a typical accountant which helped. I had to tone down my approach, pick my battles, focus on the things where I could make a real difference. I think part of the reason it worked well was because at that stage of my life my career didn’t depend on that job, so you view things differently.”
What would you regard as being the biggest challenge over your career?
“If there was one, it would be taking Firth Rixson private. That was something we didn’t quite know what we were embarking on. There were lots of different factors coming into play. That was the most challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done.”
How would you describe your own leadership style?
“Following the Carlyle takeover of Firth Rixson, I was an FD driving for a successful financial exit. Success was going to be measured by the multiple we were going to get on exit. That’s what you were aiming towards. It was number driven and it was about getting the team to buy into that. So the leadership style there was bringing your team towards that goal.
I’ve always been quite engaging, a reasonably good listener. I’ve always been pretty determined, conscientious and embraced things. I’ve liked being part of a team. What’s changed for me over the last 10 years, is I suppose I have become more socially aware. When you get involved with charities, it has a much more personal impact on you so your leadership style changes. Different things matter.“
Is there a piece of advice you have carried through your career?
“My career at Firth Rixson was all-consuming and until I joined Sheffield Theatres, I didn’t have as much awareness or even the desire to be involved with other things outside of that business and I regret that.
My belated involvement in the arts and cultural sector and various charities has been enjoyable. So my advice would be to encourage others to volunteer and get involved in the community earlier in one’s career. Boards need younger, more diverse trustees and non executive directors.”
What attributes have you looked for in those you have recruited?
“Assuming relevant qualifications, it comes down to personality, being able to work within the team. You often know within the first couple of minutes of an interview if it won’t work. You just do.
I look for a high level of engagement, being part of the team and sharing values.”
What is next for you?
“It’s been a very interesting last 10 years. I have found my involvement in charities very rewarding, but I’d happily take on some more challenges. I don’t want to retire, I don’t play golf. I would like to do something different. I like the mix of art, business and culture that I’ve been able to combine. Sheffield’s a great community in which I have been proud to make a difference.
I’d like another big challenge – I’ve certainly got that in me.”