Lessons in Leadership: Alastair Marsh Interview Part 1

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Alastair Marsh is CEO of Lloyd’s Register – a world leader in professional services for clients in technology and energy.

Lloyd’s Register, also known as LR, started out in 1760 as a marine classification society. Today, they are one of the world’s leading providers of professional services for engineering and technology – improving safety and increasing the performance of critical infrastructures for clients in over 75 countries worldwide.

With over 8,000 employees across the globe, the profits generated by LR fund the Lloyd’s Register Foundation; a charity which supports engineering-related research, education and public engagement around everything they do as a company.

Alastair shared his story and thoughts on leadership with Mark Craddock, Head of CFO and Finance at Eton Bridge Partners. In the first of two instalments, he discusses his formative years and early influences on his career.

You started off in finance; how did that come about?

When I was making my university choice, I was going to do Chemistry. I was very good at it and really enjoyed it. I had an unconditional offer from Edinburgh University, and another to do a Business Studies and Accounting degree.

I ticked the box for Chemistry and then my dad very cleverly set out to influence me to change my mind. He asked me what was putting me off accounting and said it would open a lot more doors for me. He was in financial services and was very numerate, very analytical – like me. I listened to him and I’m so pleased I did.

I had a great time at university and the part of the course I enjoyed most was Economics and Accounting. I moved on to do my CA training at a medium sized audit firm in Edinburgh.

When you started auditing, what companies did you work with?

It was a mixture of some reasonably sized retail and manufacturing businesses and lots of small and medium sized enterprises. I started with all the basics, like book-keeping and tax returns, and it was a brilliant way of understanding what makes a business successful.

If your first job sees you going in at a big 4 accountancy firm, you may well be auditing a very small part of a global organisation. I learned that you see difficulties in a business by looking at the books and getting a feel for the overall state of the business, the big picture, and that was very influential for me.

In fact, I would say to anyone who’s serious about being an accountant, don’t discount joining a small to medium sized audit firm. If you really want to get under the skin of a business, that is a great way to learn.

Where did you go next?

I had a desire to travel – I had my heart set on going to Australia. But I knew I had to leave the firm I’d trained with in Edinburgh and go to a bigger firm to have a chance of going.

I went for an interview at Price Waterhouse, now PwC, and was offered a job on the spot. The staff partner who conducted the interview seemed to really understand me as a person and I warmed to him. When he said: “What would you say if I offered you a job now?” I said: “I’d ask how much you are offering.” He told me and I asked for a bit more – he quite liked that, raised the offer and I said: “Done.”

I joined as an assistant manager and at the time you had to gain a promotion to manager level to get on the exchange programme. The Price Waterhouse culture was challenging; it was up or out. Every year you were promoted or you left. It was the most meritocratic organisation of its kind I had heard of and it was very rewarding.

The professional development and training at PW was excellent and thankfully I continued to be promoted. A lot of the stuff I learned there, especially people management and leadership skills has stayed with me.

So, you made it to Australia?

I was accepted on to the exchange programme and they sent me to Brisbane. I didn’t know anybody there and I was only twenty-six but determined to enjoy it and make it a success.

Australia really opened my eyes and gave me a really good understanding of why they are successful in sport. The culture and attitude was so different to ours; I learned about their intolerance to excuses.

I used to play a bit of inter-office cricket, the most competitive cricket I’d ever experienced. They didn’t take any prisoners and didn’t tolerate excuses. One guy tried and was told: “Yeah, yeah, shoulda, coulda, didn’t.” That’s a great attitude. It really stuck with me.

You have to get on with things and be resilient. A leader has to be seen to be strong, decisive and unafraid. We’ve had a tough time at Lloyd’s Register over the last four years, but I almost take a bit of pleasure in the latest issue I have to deal with. The three years I spent in Australia were quite life-forming for me in that respect.

You came back from London and corporate finance, and in 2003 became CFO of Superscape. Did you feel ready?

Very much so. My training had been fantastic, I’d managed my career pretty well, but I wanted to be the CFO of a listed company; in hindsight, that was my career goal. I jumped in and thought what a competitive, exciting business, at the very leading edge of mobile phones.

It was one of the most challenging jobs I’ve done, and I admit, I underestimated how hard it would be.

The CEO was based in the States and I wouldn’t ordinarily advocate the CFO and CEO being so far apart, though we found a way for the most part to make it work.

I found that we didn’t have sufficient funding to get the business to profitability. I should have pressed them more strongly on that before joining. We had to go back to the market twice to raise more funding and just when we were getting towards having to do that again, our major competitor in the States made an offer to buy us, which ultimately, we accepted.

Do you learn more from a tough time like that?

It’s one of the few times in my career when I lost sleep. People often ask me how I sleep and the answer is: “Quite easily, actually.” I mentally put all the issues I take to bed with me on a shelf. I compartmentalise, it’ll be there in the morning.

My biggest learning from that situation was that I didn’t do enough due diligence upfront. I should have spent so much more time looking into the risks of the business I was about to join.

In the second instalment, Alastair discusses his time at Lloyd’s Register, and shares some of the secrets of leading a 260-year-old company.


Read Part 2 of Alastair Marsh’s interview here…