Advice from the Top: FMCG vs Retail – a Financial Director's Perspective on the Best Sector for Your Career

Holly Bacon 17.12.2014

Retail businesses are among the most sought after employers for finance professionals. Despite the challenges caused by online shopping and the decline of traditional high street stores, 85% of candidates surveyed by Morgan McKinley still chose retail in their top three sectors of choice.

What is it about roles in the retail sector that captures our attention? Why do careers in retail appeal to so many people?
 
I was lucky enough to meet with Ben Ramsay, Head of Strategy and Commercial Finance at Musgrave Retail, one of the UK’s largest independent retailers. Here Ben explains some of the attractions of the retail sector, as well as tips on how to progress a retail finance career. Ramsay recently made that elusive leap from FMCG to Retail.
 
Both sectors offer excellent career opportunities and I often hear that working for a recognisable brand is exactly where talented finance professionals want to be.
 
I caught up with Ramsay this week to understand how and why he jumped over the fence from FMCG to Retail.

Why did you decide to choose finance as a career?

My father had his own insurance company and my grandfather was an accountant, so I guess numbers are very much in the blood. When I left school, a small local business in Harpenden named Superframe were looking for an accounts assistant and also offered a study package. After getting a background in finance, I then progressed into Douwe Egberts, where I completed my AAT and then subsequently CIMA.

Why did you choose CIMA over ACCA?

I still maintain that CIMA provides that all-round qualification from the technical side of accounting to the strategic and commercial forward looking perspective.

How did you move from FMCG to retail?

When you get to a certain level and have gained all your experience in a specific sector, it becomes quite difficult to change sectors. For example, I have spent most of my career with Douwe Egberts, Kerry Foodservice and Premier Foods all of which are FMCG. There have been some senior and interesting roles in the retail sector that I would like to have put myself forward for, but retail experience has been a prerequisite.

Why do you think sector experience is so important especially within FMCG and Retail?

Personally, I don’t think there should be. There are many similarities between the two sectors and often having a fresh pair of eyes can be equally, if not more, beneficial.

Why did you want to move from FMCG to Retail?

Retail has always been of interest to me and I feel I have not had the opportunities due to the lack of retail experience. When the role came up at Musgrave and they were keen to talk to me, I saw this as a golden opportunity. Since being here for close to a year, this has been a great career move for me.

How did you find the change?

I found the move relatively straight forward. I feel this is because there are many similarities in the business and the finance principles. The main differences between FMCG & retail in the businesses I have worked in are; FMCG are the manufacturer of the products to the retailer and retail are the sellers to the end consumers, thus both businesses are part of the end to end chain. Interestingly, Musgrave were our customer when I was at DE, Premier & Burtons and now they are our suppliers.

What is your role?

My role is split into two: head of strategy and Londis finance. The head of strategy part involves working alongside the director/executive team to define the strategy for the business against each of the brands and to ensure that we have robust plans to support the delivery and the right levels of measurement. This element of the role also includes leading and improving the forecasting, budgeting and reporting processes within the business.

As part of the Londis finance aspect, to ensure we are on track to deliver the results set out in our strategy, we provide information to the business to aid decision-making and look for value-added and profit maximising initiatives to drive the bottom line. A critical element of the role is also to ensure we have the right controls and processes in place and that our people are being developed.

Why did you choose Musgrave?

Firstly, this was a golden opportunity for me to get into retail with a business that has a strong reputation and presence in the market. I was particularly excited to be part of a team in turning the business around following a tough year in 2013 and the challenges and change this was going to bring about.

What are the pros and cons of working for a retail business?

I have a few, some may appear as pros for some people and cons for others. Whether it’s FMCG or retail, it’s about having a connection and affiliation with the products, retailers and consumers versus say the financial services market where there is no tangible product. The retail business works at pace, on weekends, bank holidays and must be quick to adapt to change. One thing I have found with Musgrave is that they are quick and dynamic thinkers who are quick to implement change. Whether you are in FMCG or Retail, you need to be on the front foot, always looking at what is going on around you, how to outperform your competition and be clear about your point of difference and what the consumer is looking for.

If you could change anything about your career what would you have changed?

Firstly, I do enjoy finance, especially the strategic commercial side, so I am glad I chose finance as a career. If I could change anything, I would have spent more time focusing on and gaining the right experience to progress into a general management role or set up my own business.
 
If I could change my career completely, I would probably be a professional golfer!

How did you progress into a senior commercial role within a well known brand?

Progressing into a senior finance role is about possessing a broad range of skills and the ability to lead. Progressing into a senior commercial finance role is all about the ability to be constantly looking around at ways to improve things and most importantly lead and deliver value added initiatives that result in tangible returns. I always ask interviewees for a couple of examples of value-added initiatives they have led that have resulted in quantifiable returns; in most cases, they are unable to provide examples. The examples tend to be about how they implemented process improvements. Whilst these are important, I believe this is the key difference that separates those who go on to be in senior commercial roles.

And what is your advice to others who want to pursue a senior commercial role within a retail business?

Firstly, gain the retail sector experience at an early stage. Secondly, gain as much experience as possible at an early stage in as many areas of finance as possible from financial accounting, FP&A, financial control, supply chain, etc. The ability to lead and communicate is critical in achieving a senior role, as is the ability to flex your style for every individual you work with, whether that be an MD or one of your direct reports. What accountants are very good at is presenting data and information, however, drawing out the insights and making conclusions from that information is what makes someone a stronger candidate. Finally, and most importantly, the prerequisite of landing a senior commercial role is the ability to lead and implement those value-added initiatives that make a difference to the bottom line.

When you recruit, what do you personally look for from a candidate?

There are 3 things I look for. Firstly, it’s if I feel the individual is the right fit for the business and the team; so the persona of the individual is important. Secondly, are they able to answer questions succinctly but in enough detail so I can understand their thought process? Thirdly, are they able to demonstrate commercial awareness and business acumen and achievements they have personally delivered with a tangible return?

What makes a good Musgrave employer?

There's a number of things. This is definitely the best company I have ever worked for. They are fair and they are an ethical employer that lives and breathes very good company values. There is a good structure that now has dedicated brand support and focus and enables everyone to get exposure to senior management without a hierarchical feel about the business. Musgrave is a fast moving business with great people who offer individuals the opportunity to develop. I have personally never felt more part of a business with a real sense of ownership where I have the ability create and develop my own role, put my thoughts forward and implement them.

What do you think are the challenges Musgrave are going to face in 2015?

The retail market is generally a tough place to be and exceptionally competitive. I believe the biggest challenge Musgrave will face will be the level of new local convenience and express stores popping up given that the consumers move to convenience. Having a clear point of difference will be the key to success.

Holly Bacon's picture
Head of Thames Valley and Middlesex Office
hbacon@morganmckinley.com