1. Can you tell us a little about your background and career to date?
After 17 years of working for some of the City's leading PR agencies where I specialised in advising clients in the leisure and consumer sectors, I was presented with the opportunity to join the group reputation and communications team at FTSE-100 global brewer SABMiller in 2015. Since then it has been an extraordinary journey as SABMiller received a £79bn takeover approach from AB InBev, the world's largest brewer, at the end of 2015. This was a very high profile deal, generating intense media, investor and regulatory scrutiny. Being inside the tent as opposed to being an external adviser during this critical time was fascinating. Post-closing of the transaction, which was the largest acquisition of a UK-listed company and the third largest M&A deal of all time, I have been working in an interim business continuity role at AB InBev responsible for integrating SABMiller's best practice communications approach and processes into AB InBev's framework.
2. What would you say are your three key attributes that contributed to your career success?
There is no substitute to rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck in, especially in the early stages of one's communications career. If you are agency-side, clients expect you to have a broader skill set than simply financial or corporate comms, they will want to know your view on the digital, public affairs, brand and internal communications piece as well. Being able to juggle all of these will stand you in good stead. Relationship building is vital to success be it with internal stakeholders or with external advisers, corporates and PR practitioners - and not just journalists. The financial PR world in the City is very small - so be careful not to burn bridges.
3. What is the most important lesson you have learned in life so far?
That you never know what's around the corner and that you should seize any interesting opportunity, even if it is outside your comfort zone.
4. You started your career with some great PR agencies and then moved in-house. What skills have you built on?
The fast moving and demanding nature of agency life, juggling multiple client needs at the same time as drumming up new business has meant that I am used to working in high intensity, stressful environments where one needs to have a thick skin. Understanding the interplay between internal and external communications and how nuance matters in the written and spoken word is another key transferrable skill that I have developed in-house. In addition, having deep sector knowledge and relevant-experience always makes one more credible and compelling.
5. The AB InBev and SABMiller merger must have been fascinating to be part of – what’s your take-away from this experience?
There are three key take-aways from the deal: first, that management, as well as comms teams, should always invest time in building up a bank of goodwill with key journalists and stakeholders so it can be called upon in times of strife; second, that you should never forget your internal constituency be it employees or the leadership - ensure all communications are timely, are sympathetic and recognise the multiple uncertainties that arise during a take-over approach; third, expect the unexpected, especially in the early stages of the process when external parties can easily put a cat among the pigeons e.g. shareholder advisory groups, disgruntled investors, former employees, regulators etc.
6. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given along the way and by whom?
On the agency-side, John Antcliffe, the co-founder and former CEO of Smithfield Consultants, once said it usually takes at least three years to convert a prospect into a new client and to do so you should treat them as if they were a client along the way - which will equip you with good inside knowledge and solid relationships so that you will have won the pitch before stepping into the room.
Thank you George for taking part in our interview.
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