“It’s not unreasonable to choose flexibility”

16th Nov 20

Emily G 1

Emi­ly Gestetner’s CV only lists a hand­ful of com­pa­nies. But she rarely sits still, refus­ing to be pigeon-holed, over-spe­cialised or (per­haps most impor­tant­ly) bored. She’s also been deter­mined to run her career on her own terms.

Like a lot of finance leaders, Emily Gestetner doesn’t waste any time. Our chat takes place from her car on her way home from her job as CFO of Enra, a specialist mortgage and loan provider. We’re talking just before ‘Lockdown 2’, but as she makes clear, the extra effort to lead her team through what’s been a hugely challenging year isn’t going to stop her getting home for the family supper.

“I love being a parent, so I choose to do the school drop-off and get home in time to make dinner, too,” she says. “It pays to be open with people. Some jobs, and some people, really do need that 16-hour-a-day push, and good luck to them. But it’s not unreasonable to choose more flexibility if that’s important to you and if your employer is happy.”

It’s at this point she reveals that later she’ll be back at the computer, tying off loose ends and prepping for the next day – ‘flexibility’ definitely does not mean ‘letting things slide’. And she’s relished getting back into the office after working from home in Lockdown 1.

But coming back into the office, I’d forgotten how fast an internet connection could be! And face-to-face meetings are so much better than Zoom calls, where you have all the niceties and the technical glitches, and not enough hard questioning

“We all got used to it,” she says. “We set up a kind of virtual ‘command station’ where the leadership team would meet every day. And we prepared our processes well in advance – so we were ready to switch over before lockdown was formally imposed, including testing the technology and the processes.

“But coming back into the office, I’d forgotten how fast an internet connection could be! And face-to-face meetings are so much better than Zoom calls, where you have all the niceties and the technical glitches, and not enough hard questioning.”

Enra’s mortgage and loans businesses have weathered the pandemic pretty well and the government’s support of the property market via both the stamp duty holiday , and more relaxed planning regulations should help the professional developers and buy-to-let market.

Not that we’re out of the woods yet. “These are more uncertain times – and this is where the teamwork, that you spend your time as a leader building, comes into play,” she says. “We have some great long-term relationships in the team, and a very collegiate style, which means we’ve stayed aligned and remained really effective.”

During the pandemic, that’s meant liberal use of WhatsApp groups for light-touch interactions – and the CFO says the good old phone call remains a brilliant leadership tool when you can’t be in the office. “It’s always great to speak with members of the team – it helps them feel reassured, but they can also express any concerns to you as the CFO. And it’s important that applies across the business – it’s not just being a leader for finance or compliance or treasury, it’s keeping that clarity going for everyone.”

Drawing on experience

A background in the financial services industry does mean that Emily has seen tough times before. She joined Price Waterhouse straight out of university, spent some time in Hong Kong and worked in audit, M&A, consultancy, training – and across lots of different sectors. “But when I returned from the Far East, I started to feel that being an auditor was always to be on the outside looking in,” she says. “Even when you’re doing consulting work for a big firm, you rarely see whether the recommendations you make actually deliver or not.”

And as she got more senior, the pressure to specialise within PwC grew – so she moved. At RBS she helped manage the corporate balance sheet – dealing with dividends, share buy-backs, the regulatory side and much more – which meant she got some of the variety she enjoys. “I was even involved in restructuring a car dealership to sell it on,” she says. “And I ended up finance director of the corporate bank – so it was a successful spell!”

She spent nearly nine years at RBS in those various roles, leaving in 2005. That means she was also a senior finance executive during the reign of CEO Fred ‘the shred’ Goodwin – which did not end so well. With the benefit of hindsight, were there any signs that things might get out of hand later?

“This was in the mid-noughties, when financial sector was particularly overheated, and there was a sense RBS leadership was operating within an ivory tower a bit,” Emily says. “For example, we invested in a brand-new HQ, but only a select few were ever allowed in to one particular wing. And some of the focus just seemed wrong. I was in charge of opening a new Spanish office, for example, and someone from HQ said the carpets we fitted were just the wrong shade of blue. We’d used locally available, cost-effective materials that were a pretty good match –frankly it’s not that important and no one would have been any the wiser. But they demanded we re-fit specialist materials from the UK.”

Emily is clear that RBS was still an overwhelmingly positive experience – and the executive team was more than capable of showing leadership, even if towards the end the priorities skewed towards aggressive deal-making. But after her second child, it seemed like the right time to move.

She ended up at Kaupthing, the Icelandic bank that would later be a poster-child (alongside Lehmann and RBS) for the global financial crisis. As FD of the Singer & Friedlander operation, she had significant responsibilities. “But I left early on in 2008[before the crisis properly unfolded], which turned out to have been a lucky move,” she says. “During my time, there were decisions that you’d push back on, the kind driven by a bullish approach from the top. But even then, in the UK operation at least, the problems that arose weren’t around liquidity – the business was fatally undermined when the banking licence was revoked, not because it was fundamentally unsound.”

Break from financial services

Some time off after her third child helped Emily conclude a change of scene was needed. “After the global financial crisis, financial services jobs were mainly focused on cost reduction, which gets very dull,” she says. “Emap was a wild card in many ways, but I got on well with the CFO and the situation was interesting.”

That’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up working in high-growth businesses...It’s intellectually very stimulating and things are constantly changing – you’re not doing the same jobs day-in, day-out

The number one job, she recalls, was making sure the publishing and events group met all its covenants. “This was my first experience of working with a PE house, so it was a learning curve,” she recalls. “But the business itself was really interesting – we had a fashion division, for example, which is pretty glamorous compared to financial services. Emap was a diverse, young, creative environment headed by a CEO who was both very smart and laid back.

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up working in high-growth businesses,” she continues. “It’s intellectually very stimulating and things are constantly changing – you’re not doing the same jobs day-in, day-out. In a smaller organisation, I learned later, you build – and when you can’t do ‘a bit of everything’ any more, you get to pick which bits to keep as you grow.”

At Emap the reverse happened: the model was to demerge. That meant the inspirational CFO and CEO she’d joined to work alongside left, and Emily didn’t fancy being a CFO at any one division, especially not an international business. “Any CFO has to know what they will and won’t do,” she says. “And as a parent, that’s doubly important. For me, overseas travel is on my ‘no’ list.”

The ex-CFO of Emap created her next role, consulting on the restructuring of outsourcing business Equiniti. (It’s a reminder that it’s often the people you gel with, not necessarily the roles or businesses, that offer the best opportunities.) But in 2014, the CFO role at Enra showed up. “It was very small when I joined,” Emily says. “And in some ways that made it risky. But there was so much potential. And having another really smart CEO to work with was a huge plus. When you find that energy in an organisation, and a leadership with vision, it really makes a difference.

“I find new challenges particularly attractive – even though I haven’t actually worked in many different companies,” she concludes. “You can choose wisely within an organisation and uncover new roles and experiences without having to hop around between employers. Once you’re clear on what you will or won’t do, so long as you’re flexible about the rest of the factors, you can usually find new challenges.”

Emily Gestetner on…

…teamwork: “It’s more of an ethos than a series of processes or a technological solution like Zoom. It creates a culture that enables you to manage effectively even when the team is all in different places.”

…career: “My advice would be to take a bit of a risk on the roles you pick… but don’t pretend you’ll be able to do the job that’s clearly not compatible with your preferred work/life balance.”

…banking in the global financial crisis: “Towards the end, there were definitely things that made one question the priorities. I know how hard it is to walk away from a deal, for instance. But I felt like there was a lot of ‘deal fever’ taking hold.”

…on business in 2021: “The stamp duty holiday has driven some property trading activity, and more relaxed planning regulations should help the professional developers. But you also have to look ahead when we’ll have Brexit and possibly higher unemployment to add to the mix.