Born in London and brought up in Oxfordshire, Andy decided to study geography at university – not the first subject that springs to mind for a future business leader. “I think it’s important you study something you enjoy, not just what you think will make you employable,” he says. “But it did mean that after I graduated, I didn’t have an obvious path. So I did the milk round – and Arthur Andersen was offering more than PriceWaterhouse for graduates!”
This was in 1980, when a £4,700 salary looked extremely enticing straight out of university. But Andy was more engaged by the quality of the training – a by-product, he reckons, of the fact the firm was looking to grow. His initial posting was the commercial group of the audit division – “so not poring over accounts for months at a single client I got to spend a couple of weeks each at a variety of businesses,” he says – but after three years he could see already that the partner route wasn’t for him.
Nor the grey suits of the pure accountancy world, it turned out. Because his next home was Celador, the media production company co-owned by Jasper Carrott – which would later become famous for hits such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire. “It was an incredibly steep learning curve,” says Andy. “Suddenly I was working with all these creative types who loved to spend money but really didn’t know how to manage it. And in my first month, there was a snap VAT inspection – so it was fairly intense.”
Four years later, he was headhunted for a finance role at USM-listed media business Aspen Communications – a business with an aggressive acquisition strategy – eventually rising to group CFO. Dealing with a robust and sometimes partisan chair was an interesting challenge. “When you’re acquiring businesses, you have to deal with a lot of earn-out related issues,” Andy explains. “He would ask me to sort out all such disputes – which was a real education in the people side of the role. I ended up relishing solving conflicts between them.”
That also made him realise a simple fact that would propel him out of pure finance roles: the technical financial stuff was fine, but it was the broad sweep of leadership that really interested him.
So when Lord Mark Birdwood – a seasoned business leader as well as active peer – finally pinned Andy down in 1995 for a chat about a potential CEO role suited to an accountant with M&A experience (tick and tick), he headed down to the House of Lords tea rooms. The upshot was a new role in Coutts Consulting Group, Europe’s largest outplacement company – as CFO and CEO designate.
The stint was a great success, showcasing much of what Andy had picked up earlier in his career, including acquisitions and listed-company management. It also broadened his horizons, operating in 11 European countries as well as Canada and Japan. Then in 1999, Andy led a successful MBO, backed by 3i, further developing his experience of different business structures. The company was eventually sold to Right Management Consultants in 2002.
“In that time, we went from a £40m valuation to £80m, so everyone did well,” Andy says. “But I’d also taken the decision by then that I would never stop work. I was in my mid-40s, and sketched out a plan: retire from operational management by my mid-60s but with a portfolio of non-executive roles.”
In fact Andy had secured his first NED role in 1996, chairing a friend’s small publishing company through to its acquisition in 1999. “By the early 2000s I’d sat on several boards and I’d seen both the good and the bad in non-executives,” he says. “The good ones managed their life transitions well – not retiring and expecting a few board seats, but consciously gaining experience and having at least one NED role before they left executive management.”
Senior leadership roles at Right Management (which had bought Coutts), Hays and HCL (including its Australian subsidiary) took Andy through that last period of operational roles. And by the time he left that last role in Sydney in 2013, he’d done just as he planned and taken on a non-exec role at eg solutions.
Since 2013, he’s been as good as his word, taking Non-Executive Chair roles at companies such as Phaidon International and SR Group (both in the recruitment space), Aura (workspace technology), M&A advisory group Results International and digital health business Channel 3 Consulting – among others. So having moved from a successful exec career to a portfolio of non-exec roles, what’s he learned about making it work?
Andy McRae’s Non-Exec lessons
Get diverse experiences along the way. “I was in the right place at the right time to make a switch from finance to general management. And I’ve been involved in lots of different situations, including plenty of crises! That all means I have real credibility with management teams – and I can challenge the CFO or the CEO with them knowing I’m not biased or inexperienced in their dilemmas. It’s great to draw on your own experience, especially across sectors, to bring in fresh ideas to your boards.”
Don’t leave it too late. “I know lots of people who are in their fifties and asking ‘what next?’ But it’s crucial you don’t leave building up a non-exec portfolio until you’ve retired. It takes time to build a reputation – and the right roles don’t pop up all the time.”
Remember: great executives don’t always make great NEDs. “Being chair means you have less direct responsibility and you’re not being tested on the details of execution. That means you have to be able to let other people get on with it. But you do get to ask all the difficult questions that as an exec you were never able to answer.”
Develop your elevator pitch. “You never know when you’re going to be sitting opposite someone looking for a non-exec. That’s especially true if you’re mixing with private equity people. Knowing exactly what you offer and presenting yourself without any BS is key.”
Don’t be afraid to express an opinion or provoke a debate. “You’ve been appointed to inject new perspectives. And the only stupid question is the one that’s never asked. I know we’re doing well on a board when people are comfortable with being candid and open – where they can make relevant points freely, and we can call out any political posturing. If I’m in the chair, the discussions will be open and frank.”
Get to know the board members. “My own preference is to spend time one-to-one with each member of the board, getting to know them as individuals. You get to see what they’re really like before they’re in a group setting.”
Don’t take just any NED position. “When people approach me for a role, I have three filters. Do I like the sector and what the company does? Do I like the people with whom I am going to work – the key shareholders and management? Do I think I can make a difference? I like having a small portfolio of roles, but I know how much time I need to devote to each one to ensure it’s done right – for both formal and informal interactions. You can’t skimp on the time, so you need to know it’s the right business.”
Think and act like a coach. “In my first directorship at a private equity backed business, the chair was a coach who advised me to train in that discipline. It’s been really helpful to me in asking the right questions – and ensuring I can guide people constructively to find their own solutions.