“I hope I can give people the challenges and reassurance that allow them to be their best”

26th Apr 21

Seema Patterson

Seema Pater­son stud­ied French lit­er­a­ture and eco­nom­ics at uni­ver­si­ty – not the most obvi­ous joint hon­ours for a bud­ding CFO. But, she says, I just loved French and I was good with num­bers.” And her pro­fes­sion­al tra­jec­to­ry did become appar­ent before she had even grad­u­at­ed. Her year abroad wasn’t spent as a lan­guage teacher – it was in a French busi­ness school.

So it’s not surprising to learn that when she was looking for a post-graduate qualification to differentiate herself from the pack, she alighted on accountancy.

“The Big Six, as they were, would come to Leeds for recruitment fairs, so I applied,” she recalls. “Arthur Andersen in London just looked the most fun and the least ‘accountanty’. And it was – surrounded by the other graduate intake, it felt a bit like a continuation of university.”

Seema says she found the work engaging. “And being an auditor is a great training,” she says. Was there a downside? “Well, you do start to feel like the traffic warden of the business world,” she admits. “Simply checking for people’s mistakes was never going to be my long-term goal.”

Bright lights, big City

She wanted was more forward-looking activities. So when in 1999 merchant bank Hambros showed a keenness to recruit newly qualified accountants, she jumped at the chance. “It was a tough organisation to get into,” she says. “There were lots of interviews and tests. But they’d just been bought by Société Générale which added a little of the French influence that I understood. And once you were in, the training was brilliant.”

Seema worked in the bank’s M&A advisory practice, and while the French parent company left Hambros alone initially, as the integration progressed there was more exposure to cross-border deals and financing structures – playing to her language skills.

“I was lucky if I got to work on two completed deals a year,” she says. “There was a lot of pitching, and as a junior you spend most of your time deep in the numbers for presentation decks. We were doing sales of French companies’ divisions to private equity houses, for example, and that’s a lot of detail. You’re working pitchbooks until midnight most nights, or risk analysis – hard work, but with a great team and, honestly, having a laugh.”

When the market slumped in 2003 after the dot-com bust, deals dried up. And when her MD moved to Collins Stewart – where legendary investor Terry Smith, author of Accounting for Growth was looking to build up the firms deal-doing capacity – Seema went with him.

“Collins Stewart was more fast-paced,” she says. “I worked on everything – learning about IPOs, dealing with a high-performance sales team, working alongside analysts. It was an amazing can-do culture – Terry created this buzz and a sense that whatever the opportunity, ‘we can figure it out’.”

Seema says she was exposed to the legal side of the markets, sales, communications – she even worked on the first SPAC in the UK, an AIM listing in 2004. The job was teaching her so many lessons, she says. And she worked for smart people who knew exactly how to deploy her talents and stretch her – such as Martin Wright, who’d been her boss in corporate finance at Hambros; and John Cameron, the bank’s lawyer-turned-M&A whizz who taught her how to read a contract. (Her tip? Read it like a story and get a sense of the narrative.)

That’s not to say the City was a bed of roses. As well as the high-intensity work-life, even in the early noughties it was a tough place for women.

That’s not to say the City was a bed of roses. As well as the high-intensity work-life, even in the early noughties it was a tough place for women. “It was certainly harder to get the job as a woman,” Seema says. “Interviews could be challenging. I was asked at one, ‘won’t you regret missing your own dinner parties?’ But once you’re in, it quickly comes down to performance. I felt part of the team – and as long as you deliver, your sex is less relevant.” Fast promotions at both firms testify that in those corners of the City, anyway, leaders cared more about results than gender.

Book a rest? No chance...

But in 2008, she left that behind as the family moved to Romania. In a sense the timing was great: the global financial crisis was about to bite the City hard. Working on deals at Collins Stewart meant Seema had an inkling relatively early that something was happening – with nerves around IPOs and credit suddenly less easy. She continued to work with her team through her move abroad, until early 2009 – so she saw the whole thing unfold.

“At that point, being out of the City didn’t feel so much of a big deal,” she recalls. “Nothing much was going on! But I stayed busy – with family commitments and working on Hospices of Hope, where we built Bucharest’s first ever hospice. The CEO of GSK at the time had got a bunch of people together for that big project – the kind of thing you’d never get off the ground with bake-sales, anyway!

“It was the best thing for me at that time. When you work in the City, it’s so materialistic and driven – it becomes your focus to the exclusion of everything else. Getting out of that bubble helped me become more relational – to see other people’s perspectives much better. As a result of that experience, I learned to recognise what I didn’t know and what I needed.” That emotional intelligence has stood her in good stead in later leadership roles, too.

On the CFO trail

When the family’s five-year stint in Romania was up, Seema faced a dilemma. Her last role in the UK had been as a ‘head of’ in Collins Stewart, a pretty senior position that made it trickier to move into smaller roles on her return. At the same time, broader interests – family and community engagement – meant she wasn’t interested in the kind of 80-hour week that often comes with City jobs.

“But I’d helped IPO Tangent Communications back in the day, so I knew the business well enough to step in as head of corporate development and investor relations,” she says. “I already had my eyes on a CFO role, to be honest, but I needed to get some relevant in-house experience to build up to on.”

Her next role was head of corporate affairs at LendingCrowd (including a stint as a director of the fast-growing UK Crowdfunding Association) – which opened the door in 2016 to the CFO post at Nails Inc, a post she held for three years. “They took a bit of a flier on me; I was still short of the right experience,” she admits. “But Thea [Green, the founder and CEO] and I just gelled really well. That CEO/CFO relationship is so important, and it worked brilliantly.”

She felt the same rapport with Dr Anna Persaud, CEO of premium skincare business This Works, when she moved there as COO in early 2019. “It’s all about having trust – that sixth sense when you anticipate each other’s needs – I just don’t think those top teams work without it,” Seema says. “The CFO and COO roles are so broad – especially in medium-sized business where you’re custodian, challenger, strategist… even IT and supply chain expert. It’s been a steep learning curve, but those early days in accountancy helped. That discipline around process and the need to adapt to different situations stand you in good stead.”

Seema is also a trustee of Resurgo Trust, which runs Spear, an award-winning programme helping young unemployed people into work or education; and Resurgo Ventures, supporting emerging social entrepreneurs to make a positive impact on society. It’s proof she’s lost none of her zeal for community action – and when she looks back at the positive influences on her career, it’s clear she’s someone who’s sees value in sharing her own talents as broadly as possible.

“In work, I like to be an interactive leader – in the sense of being close to the team and understanding where they all want to develop,” she says. “I’ve been lucky: my husband is a coach, and he’s helped me be a better leader. And I’m so grateful for the great bosses I’ve worked with over the years. I just hope I can give people the challenges and the reassurance that allows them to be their best, too.”