Simon Atkinson’s career story shows just how much variety and positive challenge a career in accountancy can provide.

  • Trained with PwC in Leeds, Manchester, and with a secondment to the Toronto office
  • A move into the banking sector with Yorkshire Bank, Handelsbanken and Lloyds over a ten-year period
  • A move back into finance at Lookers PLC – in Operational Finance, FPA and Corporate roles
  • Now at Routes Healthcare – a Palatine-backed healthcare provider based in Rochdale

There are so many questions that we could ask Simon about his background. We have been asking him for several months to spend some time with us to share his perspectives and are really pleased that he has made some time in his very busy schedule to do so now.

“Only FDs with private equity experience can move into PE FD roles” – A phrase that we have heard quite a lot! You have well and truly shattered this myth – moving into your first PE FD role with 27 years’ experience in practice, banking and a PLC – with no previous PE on your CV. Tell us how this happened and how the transition has been.

When I decided that I wanted to move on from Lookers, I started with a blank piece of paper “What do I like doing, what am I good at, where would I like to work, what kind of organisation would I like to work for, who would I like to work with”. More importantly I drew a list of all the opposites to these considerations that I didn’t want to do. Armed with this I spoke with a good friend and mentor and quickly narrowed down to PE.

A lot of networking followed, speaking to former banking colleagues and clients, recruitment professionals, local professional advisors and attending targeted networking events. Doors opened, but as you point out I was knocked back at the early stages for a number of roles, because I didn’t have the magic PE on my CV. I also turned down several opportunities because they didn’t meet my goals.

I don’t like being told I can’t do something – that only makes me more determined to succeed and my CV was varied and interesting. Along came an opportunity working with Palatine Private Equity at Routes Healthcare – which just felt like a perfect fit to my goals and to join a great team.

Each of my previous roles have played a key part in the transition from understanding how a finance function operates, managing multiple internal and external stakeholders and leading a strong team. There was always going to be a lot to do, but my career has been spent learning new clients, sectors, skills. Nearly one year in there is no looking back.

It is rare to see a banking career sandwiched in the middle of a strong finance career. It has clearly benefitted you immensely – tell us about the logic of your decision-making and how it has helped your CFO skills.

My early career started in insolvency and restructuring, where after 12 years of turning businesses around, or sadly in cases closing them down, I decided I wanted to focus more on supporting businesses to grow and expand at an earlier stage in their life cycle. This was where I learnt early on to tap into my network. An opportunity came along to join a new and expanding team at Yorkshire Bank, supporting regional large private businesses and PLC’s.

Apart from the obvious insight of how to raise funds and banking facilities, I think the biggest thing I have taken from banking is the skills required to interact with a variety of internal and external stakeholders across several disciplines. Listening to and understanding what your audience needs is key. As a Relationship Director in Corporate Banking, you are often sat in the middle of multiple stakeholders with different objectives, and that is even more prominent in a PE-backed CFO role.

There are so many benefits to starting a career in one of the major accounting firms, including international travel. How were you selected for the secondment to PwC Toronto and how did it help you?

There is a theme to my answers. I create my own destiny and have been in control of all my career choices. I always wanted to work abroad, so I approached the senior partner in the office at the time who had also worked in Toronto. I explained what I wanted to achieve and after a few calls I landed in Toronto 6 weeks later. I went for 2 years and stayed for 3.

It’s a great experience. There was a brilliant community of expats and you are immersed in a different culture. It really takes you out of your comfort zone.

Our CFO Network Annual Report highlighted that over half of CFOs are potentially interested in a new job opportunity. Having been through the recruitment experience relatively recently, what insights and advice would you share?

Be clear on what you want and really try to stick to that with little compromise. It’s key that if the opportunity is not right you just move on quickly. “Always run to something, never run away from anything”. You will know when it feels right (like buying a new house). At this point, research is critical – find out as much as you can about the business, the senior management, the PE house, so use your network. This will give you the best chance of success and minimise surprises. Be prepared to have multiple interviews and maybe a psychometric test.

Our report also highlighted your current sector of healthcare as one of the Top 5 recruiting sectors across Yorkshire. How have you found your first year in the sector?

It’s a great sector! Everyone I have met is passionate about delivering quality healthcare. It’s a bit chaotic and more reactive than I expected, but then again, we have 1,300 carers providing support across the North of England to a huge range of clients with a wide variety of health needs – that combination means no two days are the same, which makes it really interesting.

The healthcare sector is under a lot of pressure and it’s great to be part of a business that is truly making a difference.

As we have discussed, the world is turning at an ever-increasing rate and it is hard to keep up all of the time. How do you make sure you keep a good balance in your life?

Not the easiest thing to do when you start a new role, in a new sector and having never worked in PE. So the first few months were a bit more work than balance, but I planned for that. I’m happy to say that I nearly burnt out a couple of years ago, so now I know when to rebalance. It’s important to recognise when you are overtrading yourself and need to compensate with time to recover.

I’m a keen cyclist (road and mountain) and make time to get out at least twice per week. I took up Pilates and yoga, two years ago, which is great for mindfulness and my aging body. I also make sure that I take my holidays.

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