Jim Campbell, CFO and COO of travel media company Ink, tells Rachel Bridge at Drax about the importance of really understanding how a business works
When Jim Campbell turned up for work on his first day as a trainee accountant at drinks company Grand Met (now Diageo) he was in for a surprise. He was immediately asked to change out of his suit and tie into overalls and spend the first months of the job working on the production line, followed by several months on other key areas to find out how the business worked.
It was an early experience that has informed and underpinned his subsequent approach to his entire working life – in essence, that you really need to understand the business you are working for.
Jim says: “It was drummed into me that being a good accountant is not just about sitting looking at numbers and spreadsheets all day; it can only be meaningful if you fully understand how the business works. You can then start to add value.”
After 12 years rising through the ranks at Grand Met, he joined United Business Media (UBM) as a divisional CFO and then Cable & Wireless as Vice President of Finance. Despite being immersed in the corporate world, however, Jim often found himself dealing with newly acquired start-up businesses within the corporate group. This also needed a more flexible and less traditional approach.
He says: “If you went into that kind of start-up business and tried to dictate the policy, then the business may never have got off the ground. So once again, understanding and flexibility was key. I have always been very operational focused and commercially minded so for me it’s always about understanding what a company wants and why, then working out how close I could get to that.”
He adds: “A lot of CFOs almost take pleasure in telling somebody what they can’t do, but nobody wants to hear that. That doesn’t mean that you can’t say no, and I have said no plenty of times, but you have to try and help people get to what they want to achieve.”
This flexible can-do approach stood Jim in good stead when he decided to swap the corporate world for something a little edgier. A former colleague suggested that he come and work for Satellite Information Services (SIS), a business which supplied pictures and data to betting companies and was backed by two investment firms and industry corporates.
For Jim it was the perfect halfway house between the corporate and private equity worlds, and he spent eight years there successfully operating the business without having access to the resources of a corporate.
Jim says: “If we were doing a big acquisition at UBM, the M&A team from the eighth floor would effectively come in and do the deal. But at SIS there was only me and my team, so if we were doing an acquisition (and we did a few) it was down to me and my team to get it done. I loved the pressure and that feeling when the deal crossed the line. It was a big learning curve and great hands on experience. The results speak for themselves; profits grew from £20 million to £64 million during the period and there was never a dull moment.”
Then in 2014 Jim was asked to become the CFO of Ink, a travel media group which produces in-flight magazines and video for the world’s largest airlines. A few months into the business, it was backed by Endless private equity and Jim and Ink’s joint CEOs, Michael Keating and Simon Leslie, embarked on a root and branch transformational plan. Just three and a half years later in September 2018, Endless sold their stake to US private equity firm Stagwell Group for a 7.7x return on their investment.
It was an incredible achievement. Jim, who has stayed on with the business, says: “We had gone from being a break-even business to a $100 million turnover business with an EBITDA in excess of $10 million.”
He says the secret to successfully making the switch from corporate to private equity CFO is to be flexible, and to be able to go beyond the numbers: “You have to be like a chameleon. You have to know what is important to your investor, to be able to feel the numbers of the business and to have a commercial flair. And you have got to know your ‘stuff’. You have to know which levers you can pull, and which you can’t do anything about. People can sometimes hide in the corporate world if they have a great team, but there is no room to hide in the PE world, because on the other side of the table you have some very smart cookies – you just need to be smarter!”
He adds: “It’s been a very enjoyable, rewarding and varied career so far. I do sometimes question whether I should have made the move to PE sooner, but there’s no doubt in my mind that my years in the corporate world have been fundamental to the substantial achievements in PE.”
Drax sector lead: Mark Tomley
Head of CFO and Finance Practice
Tel: 0203 949 9557