Vineta was brought up in the relatively rural west of Ireland not far from Limerick. Her father was an Indian Hindu who studied a Masters in Engineering at Glasgow University while her mother was an Indian Catholic woman. Her father had been offered employment at Travenol Laboratories, part of the Baxter Group, in a remote part of Ireland. The two married and moved to Ireland, had two children and they still reside there to this day.
It cannot have been an easy time in many respects. Ireland in the early 1980s was in recession, it was some way distant from the “Celtic Tiger” that it would become as an economy. Vineta attended the University of Limerick and started to qualify as an accountant. She was recruited by KPMG at their Dublin office and specialised in Income Tax and Financial Services Audit. She soon appreciated that she wanted to work within a business rather than a Big 4 firm.
Her first port of call in that regard was with the Kerry Group. While outsiders might think of Kerry purely in terms of butter, it is in fact a massive conglomerate which had an assertive strategy of expansion through acquisitions. The understanding had been that recruits would operate from Kerry’s HQ and master their particular form of financial controls over a period of time and then have substantial opportunity for travel to introduce those controls into newly bought parts of the Kerry Empire. As Vineta was living in a town of not much more than 23,000 people (most of whom she sensed that she had met), the chance to escape was core to the Kerry appeal to her.
It became apparent that a small town was not the best environment for an ambitious young 20-something for both professional and personal reasons. If she wanted to move somewhere else physically for career and personal advancement, then she would have to move somewhere else in career terms too. She was offered an opening within banking in Dublin or a completely left-field alternative with what was basically not much more than a start-up called Ocado in England. Ever one for the counter-intuitive challenge, she took the second option.
It cannot be said that she had taken the more straightforward assignment. Ocado was considered a disruptive player in the market. It was based in Hatfield and Vineta thus sought to rent a house close by and had to navigate the classic dilemma for young people from beyond the shores of the UK that one has to have a bank account in order to rent a house and one needs to show an address before a bank account can be opened. With a little ingenuity she worked her way around that conundrum.
Ocado was operating as a start up. It had a main building and another one in which it occupied the first and third floors. There was no canteen of any kind. The best that could be offered was a coffee shop that did some pastries. A lunch company had to be paid to come on to the site to sell sandwiches. A team lunch was impossible bar a drive out to a pub. The internal organisation of the Finance Department was also in need of development. Vineta was the only person there who had any qualification in tax which meant she ended up doing more than what was on the job description!
The story of Ocado’s development and that of Vineta’s own rapid advance through the ranks at a young age is essentially that of progress, professionalism and paradox. The progress is there in the raw numbers. A £500 million business soon accelerated to a £2.5 billion plus business. A FTSE 250 company became a FTSE 50 one. Ocado once had two warehouses and now has 15 globally and more being built abroad.
The professionalism is represented by what Vineta herself has done to overhaul the finance structure and embed the sorts of controls, reporting and understanding of tax that was needed for a now growing global business. She has personified this in her own quest for self-improvement. Despite an incredibly intense post as the Group FD, she has kept taking various additional diplomas to ensure that she is at the leading edge of the accountancy profession. She has also become a Board Advisor to three companies (Hitmarker,Rebound Jobs and Aardvark) and an investor in many more across FinTech, Pet and Retail. By doing this, she has kept the ethos of an entrepreneur and resisted the lure to become too corporate.
The paradox of Ocado which she has contributed much to and experienced as it has evolved is this. Most people (at least in the UK) think of Ocado as a British food delivery company. The reality is that it is an international technology company. This is a huge transformation with massive implications for those like Vineta in the front-line of such an enterprise.
What have been the lessons learnt from the whole experience? One is that the toughest aspect of being at the helm is when the people who come directly under your management line increase, and really rather rapidly, from less than 5 in total, to 15 then 50 and on to 150 and still rising. Hiring the right people who will be consistent with the culture that you want to create and sustain becomes so much more difficult in circumstances where the direct supervision of those colleagues is impossible. Hiring is an art that is very hard to teach.
There have been other areas of discovery as well. The first is that an effective Finance Director or CFO is one who not only has a mastery of the numbers but can bring them to life for other people who are less enchanted by their spell. Numbers are a form of language and have to be approached as such if those in charge at Finance are to be influential beyond their narrow remit. This is a particularly hard trick to pull off when you are atypical in many respects as is Vineta and which means, as Vineta observes, you must work harder than others to secure the right level of respect. Above all else, it means having a robustly strong sense of what it means to be a team player, not only in the sense of how you handle your own team but the other teams inside a company. If another division is clearly being overwhelmed, then you should offer help not in a patronising or a territorial fashion but because the best interests of all are served by pulling together. It is a matter of pride to Vineta that she can “look past my own patch of land”. It is a fundamental explanation of why an improbable voyage from being the child of immigrant parents in Ireland to seniority at a company of the size of Ocado today in the UK has taken place as it has. As Rudyard Kipling (writing in India) put it: “the strength of the pack is the wolf, but the strength of the wolf is the pack.”