So, what happens in the first 90 days of a new role in the c-suite within a Private Equity backed business?
As an executive search partner in the PE space, I thought it would be interesting to profile someone who has made the switch from a big corporate to the world of private equity.
Here, I speak with Aimee Campbell who I recently placed as Chief People Officer at Medik8, a fast growth skinceuticals company. Aimee explored the benefits of making the move and provided an insight for people looking to make the leap from corporate to PE.
How Aimee’s journey started in the world of HR
Aimee joined Unilever’s graduate programme in the middle of her psychology masters at Oxford and went on to spend nine years at Unilever working through their graduate scheme and management structure. She left Unilever with experience of end-to-end HR, having looked after global marketing, and fulfilled several large-scale capability roles in people analytics, digital and transformation.
I wanted to make a shift into something completely different, not specifically PE backed but definitely high growth – ideally a consumer product with international expansion. I also wanted to work in a much smaller organisation where I could own the HR function. I wanted something faster and more dynamic where I could take the broad experience I gained at Unilever and take it to an HR ownership level.
Looking to take the next step in her career, Aimee had several other offers at the time, but felt that Medik8 most closely mirrored her experience at Unilever and represented an opportunity to really add value.
Medik8 is a fairly young skinceuticals brand, founded by a scientist and his best friend from university around 20 years ago. It is focused on product efficacy, concentrating on freeing consumers from the choice between efficacy and experience. Everything in the portfolio is science-led and designed to deliver on its promises. Beyond their beauty industry credentials though, the company is unique in terms of what you might usually expect from PE backed business, in that they grew the business themselves from scratch and only received their first investment 18 months ago.
The mid-premium brand had grown up organically through selling in salons and then building distributor relationships over time. Medik8 made the move into retail around seven years ago and only began selling on their website around five years ago; these are huge shifts in the business which only occurred very recently.
Living up to the hype – meeting expectations on both sides
Having had two experiences of entering roles in PE companies, Aimee was faced with taking on brand new roles which were newly created. In both cases they were separating HR as a function, and she would now be looking to elevate the people agenda in the business; giving it the time and focus it demands.
I was very conscious that I should get to know the board and the PE company that I would be involved with, and I really connected with their ethos. I was able to be very candid with my questions and felt comfortable with the CEOs and CFO right from the start.
In this case, Aimee found that there was a lot of initial resetting and stabilising the function due to the work done before her by a junior interim. “It was the classic, ‘every area of the function could be improved,’ so the focus was very much on judging what would have the most impact, most quickly, whilst not getting too excited and taking on too much. I felt that there were many opportunities already there in ways of working – I just had to help bed in earlier initiatives and unlock previous tensions in the organisation as a result of having grown so fast. And I don’t know if this is the case with every PE, but the team were really open to suggestions for change which was hugely encouraging for me.”
Juggling the numerous priorities of a brand-new role
Having walked into an environment where a remuneration committee had already decided to change the bonus and performance management structure, Aimee was required to action decisions that had been made before she arrived which was a large part of her initial role.
However, the biggest challenge for Aimee was lack of data. Having experienced a data-driven culture at Unilever, adjusting to an organisation that did not have that data backing was difficult. The knock-on effect is that the quality of the data was a bit hit or miss and completely unreliable as everything had been so manual. So initially, all the information she needed was based on conversations and anecdotes to get an understanding of the situation, rather than having historic engagement surveys to lean on for insight into what should be the priority.
“So that has given me my priorities for this quarter; around performance management and bonus; and then really simplifying and data gathering to build an informed plan for the next year. A real priority for me from a function perspective was to massively simplify the work. No one had asked ‘why are we doing this and how can we simplify it?’”
Having the right attitude to gaps in the organisation is crucial for success in Private Equity
“Anywhere you see a problem or gap you need to not have the attitude of “why is that not there?” and instead, see it as an opportunity which you can resolve, build, and fix. Without this outlook, you won’t survive. You have to be ready for there to be nothing there, or for there to be someone who doesn’t have the experience to fix it.”
A frequent criticism of those coming from a big corporate to a PE backed company is that they are not creative and agile enough to cope with such a fast-paced environment where there are business functions that have not yet been designed “But I would argue that often those making the switch have simply not had the opportunity to create something from scratch. I was lucky that in my previous role I was able to test myself in this way. If people can show that they are self-starters and can operate in high growth environment, even if their experience of that is not in a workplace setting, it demonstrates that they can be responsive and will thrive.”
From a due diligence perspective, it is important to look at leadership and see if you feel comfortable with the people there. If you don’t align with the CEO or CFO then don’t even go there, because it is tight knit and intense. I made that mistake previously, ignoring my gut instinct because the wider proposition felt good. But it’s all about that top team.
“Once you are in a role, don’t try to change too much at once, and if you can find something that will make the transition easier then take it.”
Building relationships with the board and leadership team
Working in a PE backed company, the board are much more involved in the business due to the investment and ownership model. This means that there is a requirement to build information packs and presentations depending on the current topics of interest.
This is where working with PE can be fantastic. Having Inflexion as a partner means that we have access to support resource capabilities that we can lean on, and that is really important to look for in a PE partner. Financial outcome is a crucial consideration of the board, and the people piece is an important part of that agenda. I inherited a very basic operational pack which I am building out, and I am working on building a scorecard that is more strategic, covering all key pillars of organisational effectiveness, employer brand, attrition, engagement and D&I.
An early focus for Aimee was to develop the leadership function. “Before me there was no one whose job was to focus on leadership and addressing the team dynamic. Having the right systems and processes in place, including a robust management system and strategic goal setting, brings together all the performance management stuff, so that we can step back and empower in parallel.”
What’s in store for the next 12 months?
Aimee’s focus in 2023 will be on function, technology, and data so that she can operate from an informed perspective. “Then it’s going to be about being much more proactive and strategic from a function perspective. We’re currently doing a big piece of work around channel and consumer profile. They have done fantastically but even if the market is struggling, we have got great focus and some great product innovation coming up.”
If you’re looking to move into the world of Private Equity, please do get in touch with Kat Stewart directly for a confidential discussion on +44 (0)7930 910 074.
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