THE CATALYST CFO
We catch up with seasoned finance director Phil White and learn how a random accident led to an eventful career as a catalyst for improvement.
Tell us about your early career
“I graduated in English at Cambridge, but was thinking of a career in business. I’d arranged to meet the careers office manager in Cambridge University so was cycling from Bedford to Cambridge when I fell off my bike going round a corner. I made a right mess of myself and a kind lady in Bedford town centre took me to her nearby office to clean me up and it just happened to be the Bedford careers office and the manager was free so I had a chat with him.
He fixed me up to meet the top accountancy firms in the region. Spicer & Pegler came first and I met the senior partner. He said the course had already started, but someone had let him down and I was welcome to take on the role if I wanted to. It turned out that the person who had let him down was my former school buddy from Bury Grammar who also studied English at Cambridge and he’d decided at the last minute to go to London for more money and left this place vacant so I got his position.
So, I ended up in accountancy quite by accident. I found it quite a stuffy atmosphere, too hierarchical for me and it wasn’t really until I moved into industry that my career really took off.”
What was your next move?
“I joined CEI plc, a conglomerate which was known as an accident-prone bunch of companies. I came in as group management auditor and probably might have seen by then, looking back, that that was going to set my stall out as a trouble-shooter and improvement catalyst, little would I know of this at the time.
I got promoted to head up the finance at one of their subsidiaries, PED Ltd totalling four years in the group, spending time in both the USA and the UK. My brief was often as vague as “Just keep your eyes open and ears to the ground.” It invariably ended up with re-structures, CFOs changing and MDs going or acquisition and disposals. I learned a lot in a few years.
Then a head-hunter approached me about a job with Glaxo and I really never looked back because there I got 360-degree feedback and training. It was a very intense time there, I fast tracked my way up and got promoted to the London headquarters at Heathrow within two years and then got my first FD role at Wella in 1993 aged 34.”
What was your next step?
“After a couple of years at Wella my wife and I made the decision to move back up north for family reasons and I started looking for jobs in the FT. Within a few weeks a job came up in my home town of Bury, which I got so the whole family moved back up north.”
How do you think your career ended up going in the direction of troubleshooting and improvement catalyst roles, some of which were permanent, others interim?
“I hadn’t planned it to go in any particular direction. I think my course was set even with Wella. The brief, from head-hunters like yourself, was to move minor mountains without causing earthquakes. Sounds mysterious, but, the more you think about it the truer it was. I had to be a change catalyst at Wella. There were some quite `precious’ individuals on the executive board. It was quite a defensive organisation but aggressive at the same time. There was an under-performing finance function which had lost credibility and I had to restore that. It was the first of many challenging jobs.
I then moved to Tetrosyl in the North West which was in disarray in the finance area and where I had two years of accounts that needed filing. I brought that into good control and discipline.
I then moved to Unipart as FD of Railpart in Doncaster. There I faced many challenges. The train builders said that, having gone into a privatised business from British Rail, we would be dead and buried in a couple of years. Under my leadership as FD, we doubled our margin percentage and hit every cash and profit target for eight successive years. We went through major changes and proved all our competitors wrong. With new challenges every year, we re-financed part of the Unipart business off the back of Railpart for £50 million. We also worked on MBO and M&A projects. There were lots of changes over that time.
So whether I’m in a permanent or more interim role, it’s about the challenge. With Unipart, there was always the underlying philosophy of continuous improvement. If a business has a continuous improvement philosophy, there’s nearly always something for the business to morph into. Where that is less prevalent, the management board is usually looking for a solution to its current problems, so you have to see what happens then. The business may not need you after that. But if the business has more of a long term continuous improvement philosophy, then I’m very much the guy to be there because that is my bread and butter.
So, for me, the definition of interim or permanent really is academic. What counts is the challenge, meeting the stakeholders’ needs and, if there is a more long-term, continuous improvement philosophy, there will always be something to do for the person who catalyses change and delivers it.”
What are your particular highlights?
“So many really! Every single job I’ve done has had its own highlights. There are too many to mention really. I made achievements in just about every job, so there are lots of things to be proud of.”
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you, earlier in your career?
“I had two very good mentors which come to mind. One was my boss at CEI called Alan Norris. He was really of a “have-a-go” mentality. He would set a challenge and then leave me to work out how to do it. Often it would be to work out what was going on in a subsidiary whether it was commercially or financially. With very little guidance, I was really my own guide. I was let off the lead, as it were, to have a go and show what I could do. So, I learned a great deal from him. He let me see that the sky was the limit.
Also, at Glaxo, my boss there, Phil Parkes. He was a guy who was always turning things on their head. If someone said, “This can’t be done,” he’d say, “Well, why not?” We had very much the same philosophy so we broke a lot of barriers together with the “Why Not?” approach. If you are prepared to look at things in an open-ended manner and be creative, there’s lots you can do with businesses, especially in a finance position. I think that’s where my more artistic side, graduating in English, comes to the fore, a competency you are less likely to see in FDs and CFOs.”
How have your relationships differed with each of the chief executives you’ve worked alongside?
“Every single relationship is different but the bedrock of all of them is going to be trust and respect. Different CEOs will want different things from their CFOs. I think one of the most fascinating things about my career as it develops is every single situation you’re in, every single person you work with is different. You can get to know people pretty well but there are always surprises along the way and dealing with them, finding a way through and resolving what have often been extremely difficult and challenging situations that I’ve been in, is one of the most fascinating parts of the job.”
When you’ve been in challenging situations, has there been potential for relationships with your CEO to become strained?
“Yes, I’ve been in the most pressurised positions and in some cases it’s been like Blackadder and Baldrick – “Think of something!” “Do something!” Being calm under pressure is a trait which the CEO and the board particularly respect in the finance director because they’re often carrying the bad news in a challenging situation. They carry to some extent the responsibility to keep order, to keep things balanced, keep the ship steadily navigated and also be on top of the numbers. One of the things I often say is to “Steer the ship into the harbour” which is the target that the company’s working towards. One of the things which always fascinates me and challenges me every day is, “How am I going to get to that next financial target?” and often we’re in adverse circumstances so for me it’s like a never-ending crossword puzzle and one I take really seriously and take great satisfaction when we get there.”
What would you regard as being the biggest challenge over your career?
“Operating outside of my discipline area. When I was finance director in Unipart Rail, I was handed the additional responsibility of bringing a heavily unionised, 360,000 sq ft warehouse up to world class practice. The manager hardly dared come out of his office to face off over 100 operatives with views of their own. I was given the task of making the business work on lean processes with 25% less resource and with no compulsory redundancies. It had to be natural wastage, production efficiencies and introducing complete new practices which I delivered by getting down on the floor from day one. I bought my own uniform and started picking with the lads. They found this very amusing, seeing how bad I was at that. I got to learn who were the good and bad influences. I was working with them together to demonstrate actual, visual management.
Within three years, I’d got the business over the summit in terms of world class practice and operating culture. We were beginning to feature in the top half of businesses in the Unipart Group and this was an operation which everybody thought would never make it because it was just British Rail and `public sector land’ . It was outside of my core area, so I would say that was one of the things I felt proudest of, to deliver that. I did that role for 3-4 years before I handed it back over in a steady state to the Procurement Director. I then moved back into more mainstream finance.”
How would you describe your own leadership style and has it changed over the years?
“I think that it has changed over the years. I am very energetic but I try and temper that with standing back and trying to be a bit more indirect with people. Like my top mentors, I try to give people a bit of space to develop. Tell them what the target is, but give them the chance to work it through as to how they’re going to get there. Obviously, with many challenging situations, there comes a point where you have to step in; you can’t leave it too long. If you’re not getting to the targets you need to, that’s when I have to come in and be a bit more direct and move to task-mode to get the job done.
As far as the CEO and the board are concerned, it’s important always to be on top of the numbers and, one of the things I particularly enjoy doing is articulating where we are very clearly and very simply. Don’t make it complicated. What they want is to hear simple messages – are we on or off target? If we’re not, what are we going to do about it? What ideas have you got? Who needs to do what? Make things as simple as possible, because, in this day and age, we’re all short of time and we need to get to results more quickly.”
Is there a piece of advice you have carried through your career?
“I can’t think of one in particular. I can think of a few things that often amuse me and comfort me in times of stress. A good friend of mine once said in terms of what we do, “It’s only sums,” which I think is a very amusing and refreshing thing to say. Consistency’s important and Woody Allen probably put that better than most when he said, “Eighty per cent of success is turning up.” Keep going and don’t be daunted. Setbacks will always face you when you’re an FD or CFO and it’s how you deal with them and show a bit of Dunkirk spirit. Having a sense of humour and keeping going is one of the most important things that I can recommend to anybody.”
What attributes have you looked for in people you have recruited?
“I’ve supported pretty low-level teams like Bury FC for fifty years now and Halifax since I’ve moved into West Yorkshire twenty years ago and I guess, looking back, I’ve always fought for the underdog. I’ve tended to look for backbone in people and spirit, and people who’ve dealt with adversity in some shape or form. I’ve always got admiration for people who I’m face to face with in interviews or in business who’ve gone through adversity and come out the other end. It can be anything. It really doesn’t have to be connected with business because I know that person’s going to be stronger and that they’re going to fight and they’re capable of doing something. I value those attributes over academic achievement and attainment. Recruiting people with those attributes definitely has proven to work well for me over time.”
What is next for you, Phil?
“I’ve recently accepted a role as CFO for VTL Group in Huddersfield, a private equity backed International manufacturer and provider of complex precision components and assemblies for automotive powertrain applications. I’m very much looking forward to taking up that challenge.”