We were delighted to help Mark secure his role as CFO of John Cotton Group in Mirfield at the end of 2021. Two years into a role is a good time to catch up with a CFO. It is no surprise to us to see how much he has already achieved.

Mark was originally introduced to us by one of our mutual contacts within the advisor community. We have since spoken with a number of people who have worked with him – former colleagues and other advisors. He has built up a very strong and supportive following.

The roles that Mark has held prior to John Cotton Group include:

  • Various positions including Commercial Finance Director at Morrisons Plc between 2011 and 2021.
  • Business Planning Controller at Home Retail Group (Argos and Homebase)
  • Various positions at BBC
  • Finance Associate at Goldman Sachs
  • Graduate Training Programme at Glaxo Wellcome plc (now GlaxoSmithKline)
Tell us about being the CFO at John Cotton Group

I am delighted to be the CFO of John Cotton Group – it’s a fantastic business and one that is typically Yorkshire – no airs or graces. We have a very pragmatic culture, typified by our people – we get on and do our jobs and if you do it well, then you do well.

We are a very well-run business. Costs are always run tightly and every penny counts. This creates a culture where there is strong efficiency and very little wastage across the whole business.

The business is very similar in many respects to Morrisons – another “very Yorkshire” company. Ken Morrison built their success on quality and being very thrifty.

For the success that John Cotton Group has enjoyed over the past 100 years, you might think it would be better known. However, we are a company that does not crave a position in the limelight. The Cotton family have a very humble nature and that radiates throughout the whole business. It is one of the features that appealed to me greatly when I was in the recruitment process – I like to do well, and I set myself very high standards…. but I don’t need to tell anybody about it. I prefer to just get on and do it. The results are what give me enjoyment rather than the accolades.

The culture and the values in the business are pragmatic, authentic, and based on teamwork – central to everything that we have achieved.

Yours is the classic CFO CV – filling your early years in large, international businesses across different disciplines and sectors, then moving into a number one role in a medium-sized business. Was this a conscious career plan to follow?

It is really funny to hear this question and to look back at my career! It makes it look like everything has been perfectly planned and managed from the second that I left university. The actual answer is that there was only a plan in part. I will try to explain – I believe that you must always make decisions on what you do based on what you think you will enjoy. This sounds like the sort of advice that you would give to your children and not in career planning, but I find it hard to believe that anyone will succeed and put the dedication into something that they will not enjoy. That is the most important consideration at every decision point.

As I reflect on my career, “enjoyment” has featured in every key decision. It would be crazy to think that this is not supported by some sort of structured plan though!

I knew that I wanted to work in finance from my school days (even if I did not know what it meant then!) I enjoyed Maths. I enjoyed Economics. I enjoyed Business. I knew that finance would be a logical choice, and I studied Economics at University (first class – added comment by Nik!).

My plan at the early stage of my career was around “breadth.” I still use this analogy with my team now – it is like building a wall – you need a lot of bricks to build the bottom layer. If you are going to build a pyramid, the best advice is to grow wide foundations. If you choose not to, the 20th level will start to feel very shaky. If you start with 12 at the bottom, 10 on the next level, then 8 and so on, you will build something that is rock solid.

It helped to start my career in a great (and huge) company like Glaxo. Their CIMA training programme gave me an opportunity to work in procurement, research, and manufacturing, before a move to head office reporting. I was then given the opportunity to work in internal audit, which was an amazing experience, enabling me to travel the world with the business – I would encourage every young accountant to take this opportunity. This was all within my three-year training programme.

When you are in the early years of your career, you can absorb so much experience and learning. You can work out what you like and what you don’t like. It is a time to build the broadest and strongest foundations possible for your career.

Internal Audit was so good that I extended my stay there to two years. It gives you the chance to work in and experience the business. Don’t get me wrong, I love numbers and I love spreadsheets, but if you want to make the most impact in your career in finance, you need to understand the full business process.

It was a big decision to leave Glaxo and not one to be taken lightly. I had my degree and was very much interested in financial markets. I wanted to use the benefits of that knowledge. Joining Goldman Sachs was an opportunity to “scratch an itch” that was important to me.

There are so many benefits and lessons to working at Goldmans. Above everything, it pays to work hard!

This may sound like a basic or unpopular message – particularly in the current age, but the message is undeniable – to get anywhere in your career, you must be prepared to work really, really hard. This will drive you to raise your standards and to ensure that you find real satisfaction when you get results. Achieving that in a team like Goldmans is really special.

After three years in industry and three years in financial services, I was at my next crossroads. I loved financial markets, but I loved industry more, so I made the decision to go back in that direction.

My next role was at the BBC and that gave me a valuable lesson and an insight into what was important to me – the pace in the organisation was not quick enough for me. I preferred the rapid pace of Goldmans but wanted to stay in industry. Retail seemed like an obvious choice, and this influenced my move to Argos and Homebase.

Each stage of my career has been an evolution in my skills but also in my self-awareness. I now knew that retail suited me, and I spent the next four years in the sector with Argos & Homebase and then ten years at Morrisons.

Morrisons was a fantastic place to work during my time there. It gave me the opportunity to work in change programmes, run finance operations teams of over 100 people, and then to be fortunate enough to secure the Commercial Finance Director role that gave me even more breadth and leadership on a large scale.

My next crossroads point was at the juncture of moving into my first number-one role. I was realistic enough to understand that the CFO role at Morrisons was out of reach, so looked at something different. The CFO opportunity at John Cotton Group ticked all the boxes – I knew the customers, it is related to retail, is manufacturing, and needed a commercial focus.

Career management is about building a pyramid with the right blocks and on strong foundations. You can be opportunistic, but you need a plan, and you need to make each level robust.

Ten years at Morrisons through different leadership, Covid, and so much change. Four promotions highlight how well you flourished in that environment and how successful you were at building relationships.
What advice would you give to young accountants who are working in large corporates, or considering a career there?

It is no coincidence that so many of the alumni of the Morrisons finance department go on to do well – the business operates at a relentless pace, and you must learn how to cope and then succeed. You thrive in the environment, or you do not succeed.

Logically, opportunities come along more quickly in businesses that operate at pace. Morrisons is no different. There are opportunities to move up and around the business all the time. This is where my grounding in internal audit helped me out – it encouraged me to work with the business and the people in it.

I can honestly say that most of my progression originated from a stakeholder in the business approaching the CFO and complimenting me for work I had done.  Of course, my line manager and CFO valued me and championed my career, but I am also proud that my promotions and role changes were initiated from the stakeholders elsewhere in the business. It showed me that I was making the right impact for myself and for the finance department.

Every accountant should get out from behind their desk and find out what the issues are in the business – spend time in the shops, depots, factories, and travel the country to find out more. Achieving this in Morrisons was a privilege – entirely because of the excellent calibre of their people. Great people who are motivated and supported will enable you to deliver your objectives and progress.

My next piece of advice is to tell people to never take a role because you think you need to do so to get promoted. My experience says that things do not work that way. I have never asked for a pay rise or a promotion in my career – I have focussed on the challenge, delivery, and then everything has panned out well. I believe that opportunities open up naturally and I see the risk that those forcing the issue of promotion face – being disliked and coming across as arrogant. This can be destructive for a team and for the prospects of that individual. I find that these people reach a certain level, but they cannot break through it – all because they fail to be able to take people with them. Very few people, if any, will reach the top if they cannot take people with them.

Our CFO Network Report that shows 45% of CFOs have the ACA qualification, 28% CIMA, and 15% ACCA. What benefits has CIMA given you in your career and what views do you have on the differences between the qualifications?

“Business focus” has come through in a lot of what I have said already – CIMA is a very business-focused qualification. Doing a real job whilst studying at the same time is a challenge, but if you find an organisation that supports it well, it is very powerful. It encourages the employer to give you the experience to support your studies. Every CIMA student needs to get their practical experience signed off.

CIMA set me up well to work in commercial and operational roles. The practical experience and theoretical knowledge welded together to great effect.

I have worked with some people who are what you would call “classic ACA accountants.” I think they are brilliant and add huge value. We need people who understand the reporting standards, good governance, and risks. You want these people in your team. This is the key to every team building strategy – building a diversity of backgrounds and skill sets.

What is your advice to anyone at school or university considering a career in finance?

I would recommend a career in finance – I definitely would!

  • The UK is good at finance! As a nation, we have a strong financial acumen
  • It can lead to so many different career routes with many opportunities and a lot of variety.
  • Accountants do specialise in certain industries, but they can also look at such a wide range of roles within that industry with a career in finance to underpin it.
  • If you can understand finance, you can talk business. You could be in Goldman Sachs’ office, in a film studio, or in a supermarket, and you will be able to understand how the business process works and how it makes money.
  • Let's not forget the not-for-profit and charity sector too – they need accountants just as much as the private sector does. Many people will have a calling to work in an organisation that is aligned to their values or their purpose at some point. A career in finance gives you a platform to move into this sector when that time may arise.
People Strategies have changed significantly over the past few years. What are the key components of building a productive finance team?

This is so true and there are several factors that are continuing to evolve:

Technology – Evolution and development over the past few years has been huge. AI has been a catalyst for everyone to digitalise their thinking more and there is so much technology around – a lot of which can be used to speed up processes and allow us to focus on adding more value.

Flexibility – Technology and Covid-19 created the debate of “working from home” – it has become a fairly divisive debate, with positive and challenging aspects for employer and employee. My personal view on working from home is very positive. I think it is a good thing and promotes more tailored management and the importance of trust. The one major concern is for people at the start of their careers – spending time with store managers, TV production studies, agencies, customers, and suppliers have all grown my skillset. Basic maths shows that working from home will dilute these experiences and that has to come with a downside – so get out there!

Personalised management - Everything in life has become more personal these days. Whether you look at the way that people consume media, the way that people communicate or attitudes to work – most areas of life have a wider range of choices available to the individual. Putting this into a work environment, the onus is on managers and leaders to understand what makes the individuals tick. Great teams are made when everyone delivers the best version of themselves.

Purpose – Great companies stand for something – a purpose that is clear and engages their people. There is an increased onus on companies to crystalise their purpose and then on leaders to communicate that and tailor it to their teams to get the best out of them.

You took a year travelling around South America in 2003. Tell us about that.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel with Glaxo. I went out on audit in Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador. I fell in love with the countries and with South America. “Travelling with work” is very different to just “travelling” – you do not really get to see the place. Going to the odd restaurant and meeting some of the locals is great, but it was not enough. I promised to go back if I had the chance. The chance came after I left Goldman Sachs.

I needed to try something new and there was no point moving to another financial institution. It would be better to stay at Goldmans. I was not sure what to do next and was concerned that I may make a short-term move that could look a bit messy on my CV, so I took some time out to go travelling.

I started in Boliva, then Chile, and ended up in Argentina. A fantastic experience! I saw the glaciers in Patagonia, went to watch Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires and so much more.

Life is about working hard and doing some good things for fun too. I am pleased that I started to do this before I reach retirement. It is important for people to see different places and sample new cultures – you can even do that if you stay in the UK – working in the South is quite different from the North, London is an even more distinct experience.

We know that volunteering, community work, and your local football is important to you. Tell us some more details about that.

It is very easy to over-focus on work and your career. Family provides a great perspective, but there is still room (and enormous benefit) to be taken from volunteering.

I have three different roles at a local junior football club in Guiseley:

- Club Treasurer (for the past nine years)

- Coach of the Boys U16s

- Coach the Girls U13s

The club gives me a broader perspective, a sense of purpose and some great experience.

- “How do we not make excess cash but not waste any either?” The answer is not as easy as it may sound!

- The differences in motivating the two teams are considerable. Understanding the differences reinforces some of the best practice in work and helps me manage my team better.

- The whole club and the team have a clear shared purpose – it binds everyone together, drives results, and creates another valuable lesson for business.

- Creating a legacy as well as short-term performance is more motivational, creates more job satisfaction, and creates so much more value.

Volunteering does not need to be a selfless act – I am delighted to shout that I take so many benefits from my role. I hope that encourages more people to take up some volunteering alongside their “main career.”

If you'd like to be involved in our CFO interviews please don't hesitate to get in touch. Our CFO Network brings a wealth of information and guidance to Executive Finance Leaders -click here to take a look at what we do.

Nik Pratap
Lorraine Pratap
Elise Walsh
Gillian McBride
Nicola Worrow
Amanda O’Neill
Karen Caswell
Dale Spink
Charlotte Morgan-Smith
Gemma Hutchinson
Jess Lister
Alex Mostyn-Jones
Alex Mostyn-Jones
Claire Screeton
Claire Screeton
Euan Begbie
Euan Begbie
Marie Carroll
Marie Carroll
Lucy Miles
Nicola Beach
Leighton Thomas

Other articles