Dianne Buchanan is CFO at fleet company Tuskerdirect. It’s the latest stop in a career where she’s always sought challenge, teamwork – and as much travel as she can get. But as she explains to Richard Young, she’s never forgotten the mentors who helped her develop. That’s given her a keen sense of the importance of team leadership too.
Tusker manages over 18,000 cars on Britain’s roads for a diverse range of clients – and CFO Dianne Buchanan clearly has considerable drive of her own. That all began at an early age.
“I’m from a working class background from Edinburgh, my teachers saw academic potential in me and as a result my father worked two jobs to allow me to attend a prestigious private school in Edinburgh,” she explains.
“I was acutely aware of the sacrifice that my parents made and the fact I was always a report card away from my father pulling me out of the school. From an early age this instilled in me a number of attributes that would help me in future business life. Firstly, accountability for my actions; the recognition that when given a privilege or opportunity I had to earn it; and also that I have a duty to do all I can to deliver results for the people that have put their trust in me.”
Those attributes have stood her in good stead over the years. She worked hard through school, earning her A-grade results while holding down a part-time job and participating in team sports.
Dianne decided to plump for a business orientated career, and having completed an MA in Economics & Accounting at Edinburgh University she managed to escape home life and spent a year in Japan teaching English. And it was in Japan that she contracted a travel bug that she has been unable to shake-off to this day.
An interview at the Bank of England in their economic planning department convinced her that economics seemed a little too academic. So she opted for an accountancy training contract at Coopers & Lybrand. “It seemed to fit my desire for a work-hard, play-hard business environment with opportunities to travel,” she says.
So what others lessons for FDs and CFOs did she build onto to that early love for application and endurance?
Lesson one: keep challenging yourself
Having spent four years in audit and gaining her chartered accounting qualification, Dianne decided a new challenge was in order. “I was too curious about what was going on underneath the veneer of the audit at my clients – I wanted to know how their businesses really ticked,” she says.
“So I took a role in a Coca Cola planning function at 25 years old. It was completely different – from a massive firm with huge teams to a corporate NewCo set up on the bottling side. But there was lots of talent they’d brought in from Coca Cola’s HQ in Atlanta, including Neville Isdell as CEO [who later went back to Atlanta to run The Coca Cola Company] and it was all really forward-looking and so very different to audit.”
“That said, the grounding and variety of client work that I experienced at Coopers was fantastic. Audit taught me a great deal in terms of attention to detail and process. I guess the lesson is to know when you have stopped learning.”
One of the other aspects Buchanan liked about the audit role was the leadership training and teamwork, and those stood her in good stead in her next role at Coca Cola which was a business geared to tight-knit teams and direct action towards a very clear goal.
Lesson two: move fast and build things
“At Coca Cola the plan was to set up in London, then look for acquisition opportunities – so it was all about massive growth from very start,” she says. “And two-and-a-half years later, we did complete a deal with the Hellenic Bottling Company thanks to this ‘best and brightest’ team that Coke has established.”
In a fast-moving environment, Buchanan was able to get exposure to a variety of activities – treasury, supply chain, restructuring, refinancing, tax, financial reporting. “I loved working with the Treasurer Helen Wilkinson on the bank refinancing project,” she recalls. “And I did a stint as EA to CFO Craig Owens for six months.
That was a massive education – sitting in business planning meetings and seeing how all the regional teams’ work comes together at a strategic level. We were working up an incredible detailed five year plan – and not many companies do that.”
Lesson three: don’t settle for the safe option
After the high energy and focus of that deal, the next role was always going to be tough to find. When Coca Cola’s HQ moved to Athens Buchanan wanted to stay in London. “My Mum had passed away and I was emotionally supporting my Dad – so I didn’t feel able to move my career permanently overseas.
“So I joined Sainsbury, and I had a great manager who was very supportive,” she continues. “But it was tough moving from that hard-driving environment to one of big teams focused on process. That’s what you need to in retail – quick decisions and on the next thing on the list.” Strategic acquisitions it was not.
Following her own mantra of seeking challenge, Buchanan decided to go travelling in Australia to work out what she really wanted to do next. After her return to the UK, her patience and need for challenge was rewarded when recruited to be global FC in market research firm Synovate – part of the Aegis Group.
Lesson four: always seek out the most interesting people
The Synovate role had the global reach Buchanan had always liked, and a three-and-a-half year stint at the company speaks to her satisfaction with the role – including challenging projects such as outsourcing the finance function to Bangalore. But it’s hard to imagine a CFO position was ever very far from her thinking, and Buchanan says she’d always been very impressed with WPP supremo Sir Martin Sorrell.
“So when a headhunter offered me the chance to work at WPP, I jumped at it,” she says. “I went initially into GroupM, working for CFO Colin Barlow and CEO Kelly Clarke, who recast the role after I told them in the interview that I didn’t really understand the job they were asking me to do! Colin then opened the door for me at Mindshare – which at the time had a £300m revenue – and working with him and the Mindshare CEO Nick Waters was brilliant.”
Talking to Buchanan about her career, it’s clear that she’s most energised about the people she’s worked with – and particularly the execs who she feels have mentored and coached her in different organisations.
“WPP was terrific – I had a number of great mentors and got my first CFO role there at Mindshare,” she says. “I got to travel a lot – the EMEA role covered 52 countries and I spent more time in Moscow, Istanbul, Milan, Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt than I did in London Being CFO from 2009 to 2016, I got to experience the contraction period from a worldwide recession, to the growth period with the digital revolution transforming the whole media industry.”
While her fellow leadership team did a lot to help her development, it was there that Buchanan really got a sense of the importance of relationships at the top level. “It’s just great when it’s a real partnership,” she explains. “If the CEO gives you a clear mandate and everyone is aligned, it becomes something very intense and collaborative. And while for me personally, dealing with change and travelling were a bonus, the key was who I was working alongside. It was a challenge, but it was also fun – and that’s always a winning ticket.”
Lesson six: know when to move on
The Mindshare CFO role – with all those digital transformation challenges to keep her interested – lasted nine years. But knowing her story, it’s no surprise that she got itchy feet. What was the trigger?
“WPP was going through a growth curve, but then the autonomy for our part of the business declined,” she says. “That made it less enjoyable – and I like to be on the front foot when it comes to my career. So I looked for a move – and when an opportunity in a private equity-backed business came along, it seemed an interesting new challenge.”
SLR Consulting, backed by 3i since 2008, is an environmental consultancy with diverse global operations. But as well as the new experience of working within a PE structure, it brought precisely the kind of new responsibilities Buchanan relishes.
“Being CFO, responsible for the global finance function covering over 50 staff, was my first main board experience and also an introduction to PE – so the buck stopped with me on a range of issues,” she says. “Being part of the executive team that changed the equity partner from 3i through a transaction to Charterhouse was an intense and stimulating experience – working long hours with a wide range of third party advisers.”
By the end of the transaction, she felt that she’d completed the hard yards, learnt a huge amount about an event process – and at the same time was able to assist over 650 employee shareholders realise value in their investment in the business.
Lesson seven: Never lose your hunger
At Tusker, a business backed by ECI, Buchanan is part of an experienced Board that operates in a very collegiate manner. “The organisation’s culture needs to be supportive to get you through the stress bumps that are inevitable in business particularly during the current times,” she says. “And when the relationships on the board are strong, and levels of trust high, timely & effective decision making can be made”.
What excites her now is an industry that’s facing a fascinating opportunity: electric vehicles. “We’re uniquely positioned to ride the wave of interest in EVs for company fleets – and we’ve gone to an accelerated growth phase of the kind that only comes along every so often,” she says. “Although right now my focus is on the more immediate issues facing our business thanks to the unprecedented Covid-19 situation.”
Is that enough? Buchanan says she’s always looking for ways to be inspired and stimulated – and help others to be, too. “I feel that at this stage in my career, I spend more time with my team to guide and support for all the functions that make up the team,” she says. “Tusker also gives me ten days a year to do a non-exec role at De Montfort University where I can translate the lessons I’ve learned in the private sector to a more public-sector type organisation. It has lots of investment challenges and working out how to help universities navigate a fast-changing environment is helping me stay on a learning curve.”
It’s a great example of combining that work ethic from childhood with a passion for mentoring that has served her own career so well – a great example to any FD.
…diversity: “Just being a woman should not be the ticket in. For me it’s always has to be about merit. Getting to the board is about doing the hard yards, it’s effort and working the hours and sacrifice. Because you’re going to be tested – you need to be effective when you get there, and you have to be a sustainable option when the going gets tough and work effectively with your team, peers and stakeholders.”
…seeking help: “One of the hardest things for people in high-pressure jobs is to put their hand up and ask for help. It’s not a weakness. I know I didn’t always do it when I probably should have.”
…leadership: “In senior roles, the team looks to you for guidance and for role-modelling. Finance teams must always have high standards. There are serious consequences if we don’t nail it. But my door is always open and people in the team should always feel psychologically safe to raise issues with me.”
…integrity: “Sometimes this job can feel lonely, but try not to be pressurised into a course of action if you don’t feel comfortable – follow your gut instinct. Don’t always expect to make friends in this job as at times you have to decisions that make you unpopular.”
…mentoring: “Bringing team members along, whatever their background, is so rewarding – it’s a real feeling of achievement when you see people develop and come out of their shell personally and professionally. As I’ve matured in my career I’ve realised my job is now more about the team.”
…advisers: “It’s not just whether they can do the job. I ask myself: do I trust them? And do I like them? Can I see how we’d work together when things aren’t going according to plan? That combination of competence and likeability is the test every time.”