Interview with Newly Appointed Trustee Colin Lewis

A newly appointed trustee explains how he got his current trustee role

Reprinted from the Non Executive Director Hub 3 December 2013


Colin-Lewis-200x300Tell us a bit about yourself and what role you currently hold?

I am 52 and married with 2 children. I qualified as an accountant in private practice then moved into industry and commerce working my way up the ranks until I became a statutory Finance Director.

I have served as a Pension Trustee and worked in B2C and B2B environments within services, manufacturing and the waste industry, the latter being related to my current role in the renewable energy / energy from waste sector.

As a consequence of moving jobs, sectors and facing different economic challenges I have built up a skill set outside finance including customer facing / commercial skills, supplier and contract negotiation, M&A including a management buy-in and disposal and start up.

By chance, in 1999, I joined a business that was already backed by private equity and we sold this business four years later. The PE investors appreciated the work I had done for them – cleaned up the balance sheet, made a successful disposal and generated a lot of cash through working capital management, but, since I held no equity, I did not participate in their capital gain. It was at this time in my career that I realised how the PE market operated and made a conscious decision to become an FD / shareholder. I got lucky and after 2 interim roles I landed an executive FD role with equity. I remained with this business for just over 7 years achieving an exit for the PE backers before moving into another PE backed start-up renewable energy business. People either love or hate PE backed businesses and thrive or not as the case maybe. They tend to be fast paced, pressurised and never satisfied with the status quo so there are usually deals to be done – be that sale and leaseback, acquisitions or re-financing. I happen to really enjoy these challenges and the last 10 years of my career have been in PE backed businesses.

Why did you decide to become a Trustee?

The PE and tough business environments I have worked in helped me realise that the day you stop learning is the day the competition comes running past you and takes your place. I began studying for an MBA at Warwick University aged 49 and, all being well, I graduate in March 2014. Having the opportunity to mix with people younger than myself, learn from them and feel their energy and enthusiasm has been a real buzz. Interacting with these people helped me formulate my idea to divide my life into 3 when financially able to do so – 1/3 leisure / family, 1/3 charity work, ideally for children or young adults and 1/3 fee earning / keeping the network alive / keeping the brain active either through consultancy or through NED activities.

This is your first time as a Trustee, how did this opportunity come about for you?

It is not quite my first Trustee position – I have served as a Pension Trustee in a final salary pension scheme with a significant deficit and I am treasurer of our local village hall. That said the role with NYWO is a step change and will I am sure open further doors in the future.

trusteeIn September 2013 Bryan Foss introduced me to a Chairman who was in need of financial skills and was looking for the final piece of a new management board for the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Great Britain (NYWO) and on 1st November I took up the role of Honouree Treasurer. This role ticks both the charity and the NED boxes for me – I can help this organisation restructure, I can save them money and I can bring in my executive experience and contacts to assist if relevant.

Do you feel your ‘personal brand/reputation’ played an important part in hearing about this role?

Not really; to be fair I have only met Bryan once when he lectured at an FT NED event and was kind enough to give me 1:1 advice at the end about NED roles; since then we have kept in touch via LinkedIn. Bryan probably took a view when he met me and / or studied my LinkedIn profile and network and may have referenced me (I am not sure). I got this role because I networked into meeting Bryan and he was prepared to put me forward – I think being in the right place at the right time was the key factor and being willing to help a contact of his.

Knowing the importance of personal branding we asked Bryan Foss what made him recommend Colin.   Bryan replied…

 “When the chair shared his problem at short notice to me, about 4 people came to mind that I could recommend. I connected them directly to the chair, told each of them that he was someone I trusted and described each of them to him in a sentence from my own perspective. I have only met Colin once and Colin stayed in touch via a few emails over a period of months. But during that time Colin made a good impression on me and I got a good sense of who he is. You could say I ‘got’ his personal brand, values and expertise.

 The chair worked through these candidates and some dropped out (mutual decision) for timing or geographic reasons. Colin connected directly, met and hit it off immediately”

What ‘networks’ have you joined in order to help you learn more about the NED/Trustee world?

Becoming a NED will require me to learn new skills and make different contacts so in early 2013 I joined the FT Non Executive Club and began my quest to find out ‘how you become an NED’ by attending meetings. It was here that I learned that landing your first NED role was harder than landing your first executive role and that you would kiss a lot of frogs on your journey but if you persevere, are determined and fortunate you will find roles that match your skills and interests and you will make a valuable contribution to other businesses.

I am open to joining others in time and thank you for the opportunity to join The Non Exec Hub.

How long has it taken you to find your first role? Share with us a bit about your journey to get to this stage?

I made my mind up at the start of 2013 to find out more about becoming an NED – I then met Bryan who told me that the sooner I started out on that path the better since retiring from an executive role one day and starting an NED role the next is almost impossible and unlikely to be successful.  So it has taken about 6-8 months.

What skills or attributes do you believe you bring to the board over and above what the Executive/Board bring?

Financial, tax, dealing with banks, auditors, insurance brokers, investors, shareholders, working capital management, cost reduction, M&A, general management, commercial / negotiation skills, Board experience, raising finance, governance

To become a Trustee, did you do any extra training or find a mentor to help you? How were they helpful?

Whilst studying at Warwick I have received career advice and the opportunity to have two years free mentoring from an alumni of the university. Meeting these people and being given the opportunity to discussing future plans helped enormously.

What part has you networks / connections played in helping you find this role?

Very significant, I have learned over the years that you must begin planning for your next role the day you start your current role. It is in your current role that you will meet new people who want to do business with you – if you impress them and work professionally with these people they will help you in the future. People still do business with people.

You cannot know too may good people.

What tips would you pass on to someone looking for their first NED / Trustee / Chair role?

I am somewhat of a novice in this respect and perhaps not qualified to answer but if pushed it’s the usual qualities – determination, drive, ambition, do not take setbacks personally. There are roles out there you just need to network into them

Looking back on your journey, is there anything you would do differently to speed up the process of finding a role as a NED/Trustee?

Start sooner, forward-thinking employers should be open to their executives taking on NED roles as long as they are not in competing businesses. It is an opportunity to share ideas, learn best practise.

I could have started in my mid 40s and by now I may have built up a portfolio. That said I am where I am and if you read the above the words lucky or fortunate appear more than once – I feel I have been lucky but I am a follower of the South African golfer Gary Player who was quoted as saying the harder I practise the luckier I get”. In other words you get out of life and business what you are prepared to put in.