An early career in clothing retail lead Tracy Lewis to her first board role at lingerie specialist Eveden Group, and on to the CEO role when the business took minority private equity investment. After overseeing its trade sale and running the business as it expanded internationally, she left in 2016. But her non-exec journey started a little earlier than that…
How did you get your first NXD role?
I did take on some non-exec roles at not-for-profit organisations while I was in the early stages of my CEO career. That helped me understand what a non-exec does. But I also learned these roles can be time-consuming.
Don’t assume it’s a cake-walk to take these things on alongside an exec role. To do it properly, you need to invest a great deal of time and effort.
A little later I was invited to become a non-exec by the PE house that was invested in the business where I was CEO. They had a company in a different sector – Original Additions, a beauty products business – which was facing some of the same issues we’d experienced in overseas expansion and brand growth.
At the start you think, ‘what can I add?’ because every sector has its own drivers and nuances. But a breakthrough for me was thinking about the non-execs on my own board. I looked at what they brought to Eveden and realised I could do something similar for Original Additions. Even just asking basic questions can help. Sometimes your lack of deep knowledge means you get to question things that are taken for granted by the executive team. And that also helps you up a steep learning curve.
What prompted you to explore a portfolio non-exec career?
When my CEO role came to a natural end I knew I didn’t want to jump into another CEO job. I’d got that out of my system. I’d enjoyed the Original Additions NXD role, but that also ended in 2016 after a disposal – and I
wanted a keep sharing what I’d learned.
EquityChair introduced me to Staffline, which was a very different kind of business – a plc, and mostly centred around people, not products. I met the board, I felt I had some insight into the CEO’s entrepreneurial minds
et and his vision for disrupting the sector. They also had a very experienced chair on board, which was reassuring.
And I knew I could contribute – they were clear they wanted to draw on my CEO experience. Almost everyone else on the board had some kind of financial background, so as an all-rounder with experience of big strategic decisions, I was confident I could help. It wasn’t about quoted company governance so much as specific insights to support the board.
How different is the job of chair?
The first business I chaired was ITG, a digital marketing business. I went in as a non-exec, working with the PE house and CEO on whether to find a strategic buyer or conduct a secondary buyout. When that deal happened and a new PE house came in, I moved up to chair the business.
It was a very different experience. Having a new backer was a factor – and it was a big help to be inside the business at the start of that relationship. But the role is more demanding – and at that time in ITG’s development, all the more so. We were planning acquisitions and digitising the business, so we split up key roles between the CFO, CEO and me as executive chair. Once we’d made the acquisitions, it evolved into a more traditional non-exec chair – but even then, it was a step up from a standard non-exec director job, with time spent on planning board meetings, liaising with the CEO and management team, and involvement in more specific initiatives.
In your non-exec roles, what’s been the most useful part of your management career?
Any non-exec should be able to apply their functional knowledge to a board. For example, I am on the advisory board for the trading group of the Help for Heroes charity, supporting them with product knowledge, supply perspectives and experience of brand-building.
Another good example is my latest non-exec role, Loop Cashmere. I’ve been working with my old chair from Eveden. His brother-in-law knows the cashmere business really well, and with our experience running an international clothing business, we saw an interesting opportunity. So we’ve invested together in a new business selling jumpers, essentially, that launched in November. The team are doing the executive side, while I’m chairing.
So your past experience can be hugely valuable to the role. Having chaired a digital marketing business, for example, I can bring a lot of insights into the marketing side to complement the team’s supply chain and product knowledge. And I can guide on issues such as sustainability and customer experience.
What makes a business attractive to you as an NXD?
Loop Cashmere obviously plays to my strengths from past roles. But I like taking non-exec roles in sectors where I don’t have a lot of experience, too. Getting to know a brand-new type of business means I’m expanding my knowledge, and that generally makes me more effective at supporting all the organisations I work with. There’s a huge value in cross-fertilisation when you’re a non-exec.
Having an enquiring mindset is getting more important all the time. Over the past few years, for example, we’ve started to understand just how important ESG and organisational culture are to the success of organisations. Non-execs have had to learn what that means and how to look beyond the financials or the main KPIs in order to hold the exec to account.
Give us a key lesson you’ve learned from being an NXD/Chair.
As a chair or non-exec, you’re not there to run the business. You have to hold back. There are going to be times when the executive comes to ask your advice. There might be situations where the board is making decisions and your input is expected as part of the debate. But you’re not there to make day-to-day calls.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive. One of the crucial roles for the chair is ensuring the executive is held accountable – and having non-execs with enough knowledge and awareness of the business to challenge them effectively is crucial. The best work I’ve done as a non-exec is where I’ve really got under the skin of a business.
What’s the biggest problem an NXD will face - and how do you resolve it?
The worst experience as a non-exec would be a breakdown in board relations. When people stop being open and honest – and you do see it from time to time – it gets very difficult. But there are also more personal problems, such as sexism. You have to rise above it in the moment and stay true to your own values – and continue to support the strategy of the business. But if things like that persist, walk away.
Interestingly, I’ve found you get a lot less of that kind of thing in PE backed businesses. Sure, they tend to be more demanding investors, but they have a low tolerance for that kind of nonsense. Let’s just say some organisations without that level of performance focus from their investors might benefit from an updating of attitudes…
What do you see as the biggest challenge boards will have to deal with over the medium term?
The biggest thing – especially in private equity backed businesses – is going to be how to emerge strongly from the pandemic. Companies that have done well through this period will attract investment, and there will be other opportunities created by changes to the way we live and work.
That’s going to create some interesting openings for non-execs able to show they can adapt, have learned lessons from the past year and have the drive to help businesses transform. Yes, there are the obvious short-term challenges to be addressed around Brexit, and Covid recovery – but the real value non-execs can add is making businesses more agile, sustainable and profitable for the long term.
What advice would you offer to those starting out on a portfolio career?
Do detailed research on the business first. It can be flattering to be asked to go onto a board – or even several! But take a step back and ask how interested you might be in the business, and what you can learn about the sector if it’s new to you. You must know going in that it’s going be stimulating enough to make the time commitment worthwhile; and that you have some idea of where you’ll be able to add something to the board.
You’ll meet the board before you sign on. But see if you can get into the business more deeply, talk to different levels of people. Get a flavour of the culture and what it’s like to work there. I’m actually going through that process right now with a fresh non-exec opportunity, and I won’t get involved until I get that sense of what it’s really like.
In other words, manage your own expectations about the business. That’s the best way to enjoy the experience – and enjoying it is fundamental. You’re there to add value with your skills and experience, but if you’re not enjoying it too – being stretched, and learning, and staying relevant – don’t be afraid to make a call. Being experienced and more mature in your career means you have the power to walk away.