Simon Russell, the CEO of travel firm Scott Dunn, tells Rachel Bridge at Drax what it is really like running a private equity-backed business
For some people becoming the CEO of a private equity-backed business can be a bit a shock to the system, what with the early starts, the long days and the sheer intensity of it all. But for Simon Russell the 4am commute and round-the-world trip every six weeks compare almost favourably to his previous role.
Before joining luxury holiday firm Scott Dunn he worked for &Beyond, a high end travel company based in South Africa and worked in Johannesburg every alternate week, taking the 12-hour flight there or back every weekend.
He says: “I have always been one of those lucky people who can have four or five hours sleep a night. I realised early on that I should probably take advantage of that.”
Simon has spent most of his working life working for holiday companies but says his choice of industry was completely by chance.
He says: “I never went on a traditional package holiday as a child. Our family holidays were mainly spent driving down to the south of France or Spain in the car with a caravan. I’d be in the back seat with my younger brother saying are ‘we there yet, are we there yet’, for days on end.”
His father was in the air force and when Simon was 11 he was given an overseas posting in Cyprus so the family moved out there for two years, with Simon going to a forces school. It was a great age to be there – school finished at 1pm and so he could spent every afternoon doing watersports and surfing at the beach.
After taking a degree in accountancy Simon joined the finance department of Thomson Holidays. But he soon realised that he didn’t really want to be an accountant so when he moved to BA Holidays he switched to the commercial side of the business and never went back.
Nevertheless having that financial background has proved to be a real advantage in the private equity world. He says: “I don’t know if I would want to be a non-financial background CEO in a private equity business. Having a decent grasp of the numbers is definitely an advantage.”
He then worked as an independent consultant for four years, but realised he missed being part of the action.
He says: “I was getting frustrated at helping companies work out what the answer was and not then being able to implement it - and then going back six months later to find that the very expensive piece of work I had done for them had just sat on someone’s desk.”
So he joined &Beyond, a high end operator which was looking to expand. In the event expansion plans were put on hold due to the financial crisis, but it was experience that proved invaluable when Simon joined Scott Dunn.
By the time he arrived, the entrepreneurial founder Andrew Dunn had been running the business for 25 years, having started it up from scratch. Simon spent the first four years working with Andrew driving the growth of the business before Inflexion invested in a majority stake in late 2014.
When Inflexion came on board Simon faced the opposite problem that other PE-backed firms face. Rather than having to tell his investors about the business, he discovered that they already knew all about it.
He says: “We entered the process understanding that the classic private equity model is that the PE firm advise and support but they don’t really get into the detail. But in our case most of Inflexion’s senior team were already going on holiday with us.”
Now in the fourth year of the investment cycle, Simon says the experience has taught him a great deal about both managing stakeholders and managing numbers.
He says: “It is vitally important to spend time building and managing the relationship with your stakeholders and ensuring that by the time something is put to the board meeting everyone is familiar with it and has had an opportunity to give their input. I probably spend as much of my time managing the six people above me as I do the 310 people below me.”
As for the numbers, he says: “PE investors don’t like nasty surprises and they don’t like red ink. So it is always better to set slightly lower expectations and then blow the doors off as opposed to the other way round.”
He is a firm believer in the power of private equity: “Whenever anyone new joins our team, no matter what level they are at or what role they are in, I sit down with them on a one-to-one basis and explain why we have got a private equity investor. Private equity investors know all the mistakes that are easy to make when you are growing a business quickly and enable really good businesses to tap into expertise and experience that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.”
Drax sector lead: Ruby Sheera
Director, Technology and Tech-enabled businesses
Tel: 0203 178 3668