25/03/2024

An Interview with Oliver Laird, NED

An Interview with Oliver Laird, NED

For our latest instalment of “An Interview with…”, we dive into the impressive and diverse career of Oliver Laird, previous CFO of Lookers Plc and experienced Non-Executive Director.

Oliver is clearly someone who continuously pursues learning and professional development. From choosing to take on Interim financial roles to the many NED roles he has held, Oliver has been able to build a truly diverse portfolio of experience in a wide range of organisations.

As Oliver says though, his career is far from over and he is open to new NED positions where he can bring the full wealth of his experience to support the organisation’s success.

 

Please give us an overview of your career in finance leadership and NED experience. What have been the major milestones and achievements for you?

It been a long career so far and I hope I’m not done yet, but I secured my first FD role when I was 29 in a SME food manufacturer. It was a startup and owner-managed. It taught me that the old adage of ‘cash is king’ is absolutely right and that things are an awful lot more challenging for a business if you don’t have it. The role also taught me how important it is to always realise that businesses are about people, and those people rely on management teams not only for leadership but, more importantly, for their livelihoods.

I set up my own company to work as an interim next. I took this step as it had become clear to me that I enjoyed variety and working to specific objectives in the work that I was doing, and the interim space was the ideal place to do this. I had clients in manufacturing, chemicals, the public sector, law, and in financial services.

It was my time as an interim in financial services that sparked my interest in the sector, and led to the majority of my career then being spent in financial services with companies such as Lloyds Banking Group, The Co-Operative, etc. Financial services is a broad church, which makes it an excellent place for anyone seeking to move between organisations whilst building on a consistent core of knowledge.

 

I’m most proud of the work I did as an NED at The British Council in helping that organisation set a new strategic direction to become a more commercial organisation and be self-funding in the face of reduced funding from central government.

 

I’ve worked in general insurance and retail banking, but also in investment accounting and life insurance and held a variety of senior roles in these companies. Each role was very different in terms of the responsibilities, the challenges I faced, and the culture. However, the common theme in these roles (and what I think I’m very good at), was the requirement to fix problems, reinvigorate teams and grow businesses. Each role was great experience, but I think I’m most proud of the rebuilding of the investment accounting function at HBOS and the turn around of CPP plc which saw the reintroduction of dividend payments to shareholders.

After nearly 20 years in FS, I felt it was time for a change, so off to Lookers it was!

 

Can you elaborate on your role as CFO of Lookers Plc and how you contributed to the sale of the company last year? Were there any challenges you faced during the process and how did you overcome them?

Lookers is one of the UK’s leading integrated car retailers, providing customers with a range of services from over 150 sites in the UK. The company had been through a tough time having had its shares suspended and being investigated by the FCA. Together with the executive, I drove the turnaround of the business. During my time as CFO, the business generated profits of over £82m, returned to paying a dividend, and moved from being in debt to having net cash of over £70m.

The business then drew the attention of AAG who subsequently bought the business for £504m. I worked with the CEO to steer the sale process through the Board, shareholders, regulator approval, and negotiations with the buyer. The sale was not an easy one, with the majority shareholder removing its previous approval for the sale part way through the process. In addition, the terms continually switched between an offer and a bid.

 

I’ve worked in general insurance, retail banking, and investment accounting and held a variety of senior roles in these companies. Each role was very different in terms of the responsibilities, the challenges I faced and the culture. However, the common theme was the requirement to fix problems, reinvigorate teams and grow businesses.

 

It was a continual process of discussions with the buyer, advisors, regulators, and the Board to deliver a sale that met the timeliness and legal requirements of the various stakeholders. In the end, we agreed an increased price that met the valuation expectations of shareholders, the Board, and the buyer.

 

You’ve worked across a range of industries, from insurance and retail banking to the automotive sector. How do you apply your financial expertise to assess and advise companies in these different sectors?

I have always worked hard to build strong relationships with colleagues at all levels in the businesses I have worked in. This has enable me to develop a bank of experience that could be applied in several cases. The most important thing is to understand the sources of financial information available within each organisation and how the business units within the organisation utilise them.

I would then work closely with the management team to understand their medium and long term strategic aims. Using these pieces of information, I can asses where those businesses were in their strategic journeys and the key activities needed to progress. Combining this with best practice I’ve seen in other companies has always helped make the progress quicker and more efficient.

 

You’ve also worked for companies of ranging sizes. Are there any similarities between the challenges that face a startup like rradar legal and the challenges faced by major corporations like HSBC?

There are definitely things that you see in all organisations, its just that they are more or less pronounced depending on the stage of maturity of each. All of them understand the importance of MI, but deciding which the key ones are and how to source them is a constant issue. On top on that, the other big challenge is sourcing and retaining quality individuals.

 

The key to leadership in the boardroom is for all participants to respect the views of others, maintain professionalism at all times, and allow for an element of fun in the work we do.

Outside of finance, what drew you to becoming an NED? And has your financial expertise helped in these roles?

I wanted to become an NED to utilise my experience to support management teams in other organisations. I was especially keen to work in ‘not for profit’ entities and companies focussed on serving specific groups or communities. As you might expect, my financial background has seen me serve on a number of audit committee as a NED and help strengthen financial control and reporting.

 

Can you share a specific instance where your input as an NED has a significant impact on the strategic direction or performance of an organisation?

It’s difficult for an individual to say when and how they’ve had a significant impact on something. That’s something I think others should decide in the main. However, I can say that I’m most proud of the work I did as an NED at The British Council in helping that organisation set a new strategic direction to become a more commercial organisation and to be self-funding in the face of reduced funding from central government.

 

What criteria do you consider when evaluating potential NED roles, and how do you determine if an organisation is a good fit for your skills and expertise?

When it comes to NED roles, I tend to be sector agnostic. Working in the diverse sectors that I have has been a great learning experience and helped my continued professional development. However, organisation-wise, I look for: a strong people culture, decisive and clear decision making, and clarity of purpose for its customers/communities.

 

I wanted to become an NED to utilise my experience to support management teams in other organisations. I was especially keen to work in ‘not for profit’ entities and companies focussed on serving specific groups or communities.

How do you approach leadership in the boardroom, especially when dealing with diverse opinions and interests among board members?

The key to leadership in the boardroom in my view is for all participants to respect the views of others, maintain professionalism at all times, and allow for an element of fun in the work we do. Those things form the foundation of a healthy Board and allow for focussed discussions on the wide variety of topics that Boards will deal with. It’s important to allow for disagreements (as long as professionalism is maintained) and avoid group think. This will lead to more effective, cohesive decision-making.

 

If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy others from our “An Interview With…” series:

Contact our

South Yorkshire Office

01709 303 330

  • The Heriot Building
  • Dodds Cl
  • Rotherham
  • South Yorkshire
  • S60 1BX

London Office

0203 488 3570

  • 1st Floor
  • 99 Bishopsgate
  • London
  • EC2M 3XD