Jeremy Lewis

22nd Jul 21

Jeremy Lewis

Peo­ple don’t talk about luck near­ly enough in busi­ness pro­files. But for many busi­ness lead­ers – and espe­cial­ly non-execs – the path to glo­ry is a wind­ing road of hap­pen­stance. For Jere­my Lewis, non-exec, tech investor and men­tor to star­tups, that’s always been evident.

“I wasn’t sure what to do after I left school,” he says. “I surprised myself by getting into Imperial College to study engineering, but as the years went by, I began to feel that the engineering career paths it might lead to weren’t for me. After graduating, the accountancy people came along and opened their door so I entered a traineeship with KPMG.”

He enjoyed the work and learning the language of finance becoming a Chartered Accountant. But after three years of “checking on other people’s workings” and qualifying, it was time for another change. “It was more fun to be a ski guide in the Alps for a bit,” Jeremy says, “but eventually my father gently suggested I return to the UK and get a proper job.”

Happenstance: the Big Bang had just revolutionised regulation in the City, and investment banking looked exciting – with lots of new openings. “It wasn’t just a whim,” Jeremy insists. “I’d learned from my time at KPMG that I’d rather be in an advisory role and investment banking meant getting a seat at the top table advising Chairs and CEOs at quite a young age. And the work was project-driven, with smart, motivated colleagues and clear goals with moments of success and failure. All that appealed a lot.”

Bank to the future

The result was a 12-year career in banking. Jeremy rose to be a Director in the M&A and IPO teams at Flemings, the international investment bank subsequently bought by JP Morgan. “At that level, you change roles as you become a hunter not a skinner,” he says. The bank then asked him to take a position in Frankfurt to help build the local M&A team, commuting there for several years. “I was starting to realise there were limits to the sense of achievement I could get in banking, much as I was enjoying it. There’s no day-to-day responsibilities for running an actual business.”

Happenstance: Eidos approached him to join their board. “They were loss-making and just starting the Tomb Raider franchise, and needed a global CFO with M&A experience,” Jeremy explains. “I resisted for a while. But offers to step into a business at board level just don’t come around that often. So I joined in 1997.”

Eidos then grew its profits strongly to 2000. It was a prominent name in video games (“my daughters call it my rock-and-roll years"), it was active in acquisitions and NASDAQ quoted with joint headquarters in the US and UK and operations globally. By the early 2000s the tech bubble was starting to burst. “I think Eidos’s market cap got close to $1bn at one point, but, along with everyone else’s, it came back down,” Jeremy recalls. “That said, during my time there the valuation of the group trebled and I learnt a great deal about scaling up businesses internationally".

Private (equity) lives

Happenstance: around that time, a headhunter called asking if he was interested in working with VC backed businesses. “That sounded more risky but also more exciting,” Jeremy says. “So after a spell as a board adviser, I became the CEO of a start-up mobile network optimisation company, Terraplay Systems, in Stockholm, in 2000. We built a great team, got the revenues going and brought in new VC investors.”

He came back to the UK in 2006, and decided to do some early stage tech investing – drawing on experiences with private equity. But in 2009, an opportunity came up to run a digital media services group in the Netherlands called Catalis.

“It was loss-making, so it was something of a company doctor role which was appealing and it was in movies. Although software quality assurance is pretty low down the pecking order in the film business, studios like Disney and Paramount would always make time for us so it was a real pleasure visiting clients in Pinewood and Burbank”.

Jeremy closed some of the operations in Asia, invested in advanced digital solutions in the US and UK and strengthened the near-shore businesses in Poland and the Czech Republic. This brought the group back to profitability.

Don’t think all this happenstance is entirely un-engineered. “I make it a point to periodically keep in touch with headhunters I trust as both a candidate and a hiring client,” Jeremy admits. “About eight years ago out of the blue one called up about a CEO role in the retail management and payment software sector.”

With that call he became the CEO of Universe Group. “I really enjoyed my time there and we doubled turnover and profit,” he says. “We also did some strategic acquisitions even though being an ex-banker I’m pretty risk-averse on deals.”

Me-mentor mori

By February 2020, Universe had an updated and coherent technology stack, a new management team and it was time to plan a handover. “Then the COVID lockdown hit and we had to look after the safety of our 250 employees and many customers and protect the business,” says Jeremy. “Despite the challenges of the COVID period we signed up our two largest clients to new multi-year, multi-million pound deals and eventually in April 2021 I was able to hand over to the CEO designate.”

And it’s not all happenstance. About eight years ago, Jeremy had been approached by Oxford Sciences Innovation – an accelerator that works with the university – to offer advice to some start-ups from their research teams.

“The contact with OSI spurred me to get back in touch with Imperial which I did some years ago and I was connected with the department of computing. Since then, they have been kind enough to invite me in periodically to help students pull together business plans for spin-outs. Working internationally in a broad variety of software businesses at board level and having also been a banker, gave me some insights into product value propositions, go-to-market strategies and fundraising. I’ve advised and occasionally invested in several of these spin-outs, one of which is Deep Render, a very exciting AI-based video compression business.”

Imperial’s work in AI, quantum computing, cybersecurity and blockchain – as well as their large engineering, medical and business schools– encouraged Jeremy to join up with their wider official mentoring service (IVMS) where he is now one of 75 Mentors looking after the 24,000 academics and students across Imperial.

“There are plenty of excellent early stage VCs, especially in the UK, where innovative tech businesses will get a good hearing from potential investors,” he says. “As a mentor, you can help those startups pitch effectively by not just saying how advanced their tech is, but explaining how they are solving a real world problem as a basis for building a great company.”

The NED effect

In these fast-moving environments, it’s interesting to think about what a non-exec director actually does. “I’ve worked with some brilliant ones,” Jeremy says. “But it’s just not going to work if you’re some silver-haired non-exec lecturing a 26 year-old hard-working entrepreneur who is passionate about upending an industry. You have to have a genuine affinity for their mission and focus on achieving their glory, not yours.”

Jeremy is nothing if not self-critical – and he’s identified four crucial elements in his own NED make-up:

Broad relevant experience. “I have spent several decades now with a wide variety of global businesses from pre-revenue start-ups to Nasdaq-quoted companies. As a result, I have experienced a range of challenges such as scaling businesses, launching new products and entering new territories. Discipline is required because sometimes things go wrong and we make mistakes. However, there is no need to get bent out of shape, we must just learn from them quickly and move forward.”

True passion for the business. “Passion is the one thing that cannot be taught. I’m eager to see how something new might shake up the market. I always want to know why the founders are excited and work out how we transmit that excitement to investors. Mentoring the boards of other businesses helps me see collaboration opportunities and spread best practise too.”

Wide financial skill-set. “The banking and capital markets, compliance and working with VC and private equity funds, are not the main focus for most founders and rightly so. But they need finance, so if you can also get non-exec assistance in fundraising, corporate governance as well as with the ins and outs of M&A, it really helps.”

Right chemistry around the board table. “Trust, honesty and mutual respect are critical as you can’t walk in and talk down to entrepreneurs or investors. And knowing your stuff is where you earn that trust. Tech moves fast, the competition is brutal and as a non-exec your single focus is to help the management be successful by making the business generate great returns for the investors. When the chemistry between management, non-execs and shareholders is just right, you can often achieve anything. Sadly though, the converse is also true."

Presuming NED

That’s not to say a good mentor or NED is a blind cheerleader. “Founders are usually absolutely sure they’ll succeed and that’s great,” says Jeremy. “They should be very optimistic; they should have highly ambitious ideas about valuations. They know the global tech currents are swirling, deep and strong and they can’t wait to get their boat out there. But investors won’t pour money in endlessly as they know that out of 50 investments, only one or two are going to be brilliant, five to ten OK and the rest could under shoot.”

Sometimes, then, you need to stop people if their idea is poorly thought through and help adjust it. “Mentoring gives you an opportunity to advise people before it’s too late, if it’s been done before, or the competition is too entrenched, or if the offer is too thin. The most worrying thing I can hear is a founder telling me there is no competition, that is very rarely if ever true.”

I wish I could say that my career arc, from engineering into accountancy, then banking followed by software CEO roles and venture mentoring, was all planned… But quite a lot was simply being in the right place at the right time for just the right challenge.

But no-one, least of all Jeremy, would deny the power of happenstance. “I’d say I’ve been pretty lucky,” he says. “I wish I could say that my career arc, from engineering into accountancy, then banking followed by software CEO roles and venture mentoring, was all planned to create what I do now as a non-exec. But quite a lot was simply being in the right place at the right time for just the right challenge.”

And there are crucial riders to the luck thing – at least when it comes to being a NED. “First, be approachable, honest and constructive” Jeremy concludes. “Then don’t be a non-exec who only brings a commodity skill although you don’t always need some deep esoteric domain knowledge. If your board has bags of technical expertise, the ideal non-exec might have valuable experience with business development and commercial issues without knowing much about, say python code. Finally, as a non-exec or a mentor, remember it is never about you, it's all about the business.”

If you keep an open mind, be positive, draw on your experience and ask the right questions – there’s always space for someone who can help turn bright ideas into brilliant businesses.

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