Alastair Dryburgh – Chief Executive
I started my career in the world of interesting numbers with a degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge. I don't remember much of what I studied there, but my three years in Cambridge left me with two important beliefs which have guided everything I have done since.
The first is always look for the elegant solution. The best mathematical proofs surprise you with their simplicity and brevity and, once you arrive at them, seem effortless.
I try to apply the same principle to my work now, believing that exactly the right intervention at exactly the right point in the organisation will produce results out of all proportion to the effort expended.
The second mathematical habit of thought which survives is; if you can just frame the problem in the right way, the solution becomes almost obvious. Careful problem definition saves much time in implementation.
After Cambridge, I joined Ernst & Young (Ernst and Whinney as they then were) to train as a Chartered Accountant. It was the usual deal; three years working long hours at often menial tasks for half the money my contemporaries were getting, in return for one of the best all-round introductions to business available.
At the end of the three years I was a qualified accountant, and bored. In a casual conversation with the partner's secretary I discovered that the firm sent round a monthly bulletin of vacancies in other parts of the world.
It usually just passed briefly over the partner's desk on its way to the bin, but the secretary let me have a look at it.
There was a vacancy in Verona, in Italy. I'd always quite liked the idea of Italy, and reckoned I could learn Italian once I got there.
Italy is a strange place – on the surface it looks pretty much many other European countries, but the more you get to know it the more different it is.
I learned to take nothing for granted, to assume that all plans would change, that things are not usually as they seem.
After two fascinating years in Italy I returned to the UK and took a job with the Pearson group as an internal consultant.
Pearson in those days (1990) was a sprawling group with interests in book publishing, newspapers, theme parks, oil services and fine china.
I spent three years helping different group companies solve problems, evaluate new opportunities and, in one or two cases, recover from disasters. As "the man from head office" I learned how consultants can be perceived as threatening, and how to get past that to establish positive working relationships and trust.
The Pearson culture didn't allow people from head office much scope to tell the subsidiaries what to do, so I learned the skills of influence and persuasion.
After three years at the centre of Pearson I was offered the chance to become Commercial Director of one of its subsidiaries. This was a new venture, Churchill Communications Europe, and was where I started to develop the toolbox of concepts and techniques which I now apply as a consultant.
Churchill was mixture of medical publisher and pharmaceutical marketing consultancy, right on the edge of Pearson's traditional markets.
Churchill's biggest problem was actually its parent company: corporate objectives dictated that it, a startup, have margins 50% greater than those of its established competitors.
Simply working harder wasn't going to do this, but I found the way. I discovered and exploited all sorts of interesting things:
- You can raise profitability much faster and much more easily by looking at pricing than at costs;
- Different people selling into apparently the same market can produce radically different profitability
- Organizations have a tendency to accumulate unnecessary activities and unnecessary costs, but this can be overcome
- You don't need investors or bankers – get your customers to fund your growth
- Some prospects you really do not want as clients; when they call, just don't answer the phone!
After four years Churchill was sold out of the group. We had grown from nothing while delivering profitability 50% above the industry average.
We had used almost no investment to do this, and generated a rate of return of around 100% annually for Pearson.
I left the company a year after the sale.
After the amazing ride with Churchill other CFO jobs looked pretty mundane, so I started an independent career. I have researched, further developed and applied the insights from Churchill for a range of companies in different sectors.
For a year or two I was quite famous as a commentator on the future of online publishing with five or six articles published, invitations to speak in London, Paris, Mumbai and Washington DC and requests for comment from the BBC and The Economist.
I have also worked with two venture capital backed software houses as interim CFO, helping one on its way to a successful sale and the other out of serious trouble.