Fred Stratford, CEO of travel management specialists Reed & Mackay, talks to Rachel Bridge at Drax about challenges, decision-making and his cocker spaniel Harvey
If you want to know something about Henry VIII and the Tudors and Stuarts, it is probably best not to ask Fred Stratford. He wasn’t remotely interested in studying history at school and gave it up as soon as he could. Instead his real passion was for maths, which he went on to study at university.
He says: “I really enjoyed the mental challenge of approaching problems in different ways to get to the right answer at the end.”
It is an approach that has shaped Fred’s career. He says: “I like challenges. That is what drives me. In my roles there has always been a clear goal. There is not always a clear path of how you are going to get there but that is part of the enjoyment of it – we know where we are heading, so what is the optimum way of getting there?”
After university Fred joined a firm of Chartered accountants. But he had always been interested in business, partly because when he was a child his father had owned a clothing retail firm and Fred used to work for him in the school holidays. He says: “Seeing how all the pieces of the jigsaw came together was always quite fascinating for me.”
So after qualifying he took on financial roles in a range of businesses, eventually landing his first Finance Director role at Britannia Airways at the age of 36. This was followed by similar roles at travel operator Tui and Direct Wines.
Each time, Fred deliberately chose jobs in industries that he was interested in and knew he would enjoy being part of. He says: “When there is something I enjoy I tend to really put my heart and soul into it and excel at it. If you are really passionate about the space you are working in, it gives you another dimension to your work.”
No matter what kind of business it was, he always saw the finance role as being absolutely fundamental to its success. He says: “I always looked at finance as being a really key part of the business and not just a support function. The role of finance has changed immeasurably – it is much more about really understanding the value side of things. Those are the fundamentals in a business that really excited me.”
Fred was keen to move into private equity and got his opportunity at the age of 45 when Sovereign Capital placed him into one of their portfolio companies, LPM, a business services firm. He came in mid-cycle as CFO and then became CEO as part of a turnaround of the business.
He immediately knew that private equity was a world he wanted to be involved in. He says: “Once in, always in. Some of the early frustrations in my career with big corporates, such as the slowness of decision making, just don’t happen in the private equity world. If you are motivated and want to drive a business forward, then this is the environment to be in. It is a very tough and challenging environment, but it is rewarding, not just financially but also from a career point of view.”
Fred was then brought in to be CFO of Reed & Mackay, a high end corporate travel management company, after the business secured private equity-backing from ECI Partners and Livingbridge. Midway through the investment cycle he took over as CEO and just 15 months later he oversaw the exit from the private equity backers.
He says: “It was a tough challenge to do the exit as CEO but because I had been CFO I really understood the key drivers of the business in terms of the opportunity and the value which played to my strengths.”
In his new role he also led the selection of Inflexion as new private equity backers and the business is now in its third year of the investment cycle.
Fred clearly relishes running a business which is backed by private equity. He says: “It is great. I absolutely love it. It is really hard work but really fun too. If you choose the right PE house who back the vision and the strategy then there is a real alignment in terms of goals and objectives. Then there is the speed of decision and execution. In PE, decisions are taken very quickly – big investments can happen in a couple of weeks rather than in months. That is exciting because you can seize opportunities and do things that a lot of corporate businesses can’t do.”
He adds: “It is hugely important to have a great team, which we definitely have at Reed & Mackay.”
As for the challenge of working in a high pressure environment, he says: “I think there is a real difference between pressure and stress. Pressure is interesting and exciting and gets the adrenaline flowing, but as soon as you get to the stress level, you are a diminishing return. Managing how you deal with those things is really important. Private equity is a pressured environment, but it should never be stressful.”
Fred himself has discovered the perfect way of dealing with the pressure of running a private equity-backed business. Every weekend he goes for long walks with his wife and daughters and their cocker spaniel, Harvey.
He says: “He is my sanity check. My long walks on a Saturday and Sunday with him are priceless. I try to grab a couple of hours each day to myself to take him over the woods and chill out. That is my down time and my thinking time. It is great.”
Drax sector lead: Ruby Sheera
Director, Technology and Tech-enabled businesses
Tel: 0203 178 3668