October 10th, 2018


Phil Symes talks to Rachel Bridge at Drax about the importance of looking beyond the UK

Over the past few years Phil Symes has developed a strong reputation for his ability to drive the international growth of the businesses he works for. As CFO of Visa Europe he integrated the operations of several countries as they joined the European Union and as the CFO of Cambridge Education Group, which provides courses to prepare students from around the world for university, he has just completed an acquisition in China.

But it is not just at work that Phil understands the value of looking beyond the UK. It is at home too. When his three children approached secondary school age he and his wife decided to send them to a state school in France, with his wife moving with them and Phil joining them at weekends.

He says: “We were very keen on the idea of them having a broad education and learning to speak several languages, which the French system offers. There are over 100 nationalities at their school so it is a completely different outlook.”

The plan was to only do it for two years, but his children loved the experience so much that they decided to stay on and complete their education there.

Phil studied Maths at university before joining Coopers and Lybrand, the accountancy firm. He then did an MBA at the London Business School before joining Willis, the insurance firm. He became CFO of Visa Europe in 2006 and while he was there he saw for himself how important it was to respect and understand that different countries often had different ways of working.

He says: “At Visa, we had a lot of regional boards and I used to sit on one in Switzerland and one in Greece. The content of the discussions was virtually the same and by and large, they ended up in the same place, but in Greece, the meetings were very fiery, whereas in Switzerland they were very calm and well-spoken.”

He adds: “You have got to be very sensitive as to how people work and how they behave in different countries. It is crucial that you don’t always try to do things in an English way. Italians work differently from the French, who work differently from the Spanish, and so on. There is a bit of control that you have to put to one side.”

Phil says that taking a sensitive approach can make a big difference: “Visa was very good at incorporating the local way of doing things and so we got good engagement and good execution when we wanted to do something in a different country because local offices had a sense of ownership and of being part of it.”

Acquisitions in particular need to be approached carefully, he says. He explains that while 70% of the acquisition process is the same wherever you do it, the remaining 30% varies according to the local market.

He says: “In China, for example, it is important to understand that the legal framework is going to be different and that the way people work is going to be different. You get to a point where you just have to say, well ‘This is China’, and just go with it because that’s the way people do business there. It is important that people are negotiating in good faith, wherever you are, but you do have to adapt to the local place.”

Phil thinks that British businesses which do not think internationally will ultimately get left behind: “I don’t think you can survive as a UK-only business these days. Certainly, it would be very difficult. It is a joined-up world and you need to be cognisant of what is going on elsewhere.”

Cambridge Education is his second foray into private equity, having been closely involved in the leveraged buyout and subsequent IPO at Willis.

He is clearly enjoying the challenge of his role there, saying: “I like businesses that are going through change. Willis went through a lot of change while I was there and so did Visa. At Cambridge Education, there is a real impetus to drive change and a real passion to get things done, which is great. One of the attractions of coming here was that the CEO clearly knew what he is doing. We are on a great flight path.”

Drax sector lead: Mark Tomley
Head of CFO and Finance Practice
Email: mt@draxexecutive.com 
Tel: 020 3949 9557

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