The Contemporary FD Symposium – September 14th 2022.
An enormous amount of planning and preparation goes in to an event such as The Contemporary FD symposium. Yet no amount of effort can prevent the effect of the unexpected. Six days before it was scheduled to occur, the death of Her Majesty The Queen became public knowledge. The intensity of the distress that would be felt individually and collectively soon became apparent. Both Equity FD and Evelyn Partners thought long and hard about whether to abandon the whole idea as a mark of respect to the woman who for seventy years had often held British society together. In the end, though, both agreed that the appropriate tribute to the work ethos that Elizabeth II had shown in life was to continue as scheduled but drop the notion of alcoholic drinks at the end of proceedings.
As Sarah Hunt observed in her opening welcome, it had been a very, very long time since this unique conference for FDs had occurred in person. The previous outing had been on May 2nd 2019, a mere 1,192 days beforehand. So much had changed in that period. We have had the pandemic and its continuing aftershocks (not least for the way we work), an all-out war on the continent of Europe and now an extraordinary surge in inflation driven by energy prices that have escalated insanely. This had been compounded by surreal political instability symbolised by the fact that since May 2019 there had been three Prime Ministers, four Chancellors and five Business Secretaries. And now the Queen was so sadly no longer with us. It was a recipe for misery. Yet, as Sarah concluded, we had to resist that temptation. It would hardly be the right response to the monarch who had told us at the onset of the first COVID-19 national lockdown to take some cheer because “we will meet again”.
And meet again The Contemporary FD audience certainly did. The background might have been black but the content was an astonishing outburst of colour. The tone was set by the first one-on-one conversation between Tim Hames, the EquityFD “writer in residence” (far cheaper and less irritating than Jeffrey Archer), and Saasha Celestial-One, the founder of Olio. The discussion ranged from the origins of her unusual surname (she was raised in rural Iowa by hippy semi-entrepreneurs), Olio itself (a company dedicated to minimising household food and other waste) and what she was looking for in an FD .
That was followed by a riveting panel entitled “Raising the Roof” which focused on fundraising. The case studies outlined by Natalie Burkitt, Mark Smith, Anthony Berg and Mike Malaure were the sort of material which business schools would charge you a small fortune to hear (this meeting was free). Fundraising is not an easy exercise right now so the advice being dispensed was especially valuable.
After a coffee break, Patrick Dunne oversaw, as he has done at previous versions of this symposium, a session entitled “Directors Dilemmas”. The moderator had argued in advance that this would be a combination of the cathartic, the sadistic and the masochistic as Patrick and his panel comprised of Roger Parry, Martina King, Tim Ampstead and Alistair Eadie set out the most difficult situations that they had encountered in corporate dealings and responded to those which had been submitted in advance by members of the audience. That they had all survived intact seemed close to a miracle.
This was followed by an innovation, namely US Expansion and Fundraising. An enthralling panel consisting of Diane Young, Kirthi Mani and Dan Glazer took an at times stunned audience through all the challenges, the costs and the rewards which come from either seeking to find a new market or to acquiring financial backing from the other side of the pond. The core conclusions were that it was very different to the UK, even on elementary matters like banking and hiring, it could be rather expensive but that if it worked then it would involve a massive revenue transformation for a UK business. An astonishing level of expertise was imparted in a comparatively short period of time.
After lunch, the pace and punch did not slacken. If anything, it became even more powerful. Many were particularly impressed by the one-on-one conversation with Kitty Ussher, a former MP, ex-Treasury Minister and now the Chief Economist at the Institute of Directors. Normally, economists appear to exist in order to make weather forecasters look informed and accurate. Not so with Kitty. She was remarkably eloquent and convincing as she made the case that inflation would remain in the system for about 18 months and probably subside after that, but that the tight labour markets which are such a crucial factor for many FDs today will be with us for considerably longer. It was, on the whole, more of a ray of sunshine than a dark cloud (and we have had far too many of those).
The final panel consisted of a fascinating discussion about the “dos and don’ts” of exiting a business. The experiences of Bernard Yeboah, Paul Bosson, Chris Filer and James Bodha were priceless. There was a detailed exploration of the differences between exiting to private equity or to a trade sale. IPOs were mentioned including a recommendation never to do one!
The final one-on-one talk was with Vineta Bajaj, the Group FD of Ocado. Despite having arrived after a flight from Los Angeles that had landed about three hours earlier, Vineta spoke with such energy that if all else fails this Winter we could do worse than wire her to the National Grid to assist it. It was a storming end to a sensational day which made it so obvious how we have missed in person assemblies, human contact and networking. Roll on the next incarnation of The Contemporary FD in 2023. With a bit of luck we might even be offered some serious cocktails at the end of that one.