Shelley Fraser is an immensely experienced and incredibly passionate CFO with a very strong interest in the pharmaceutical industry. It is a sector which although she “sort of fell into it “, after a comparatively short period away she would now find it hard to conceive of herself being anywhere else.
Shelley started out with a degree in Management Studies and Accountancy at the University of Waikato in her native New Zealand. In common with many from her country her response on graduating was to travel, with the UK being a natural choice. She looked for a role that would assist her in qualifying as an accountant. She thus found herself as a credit controller at British Rail Communications and then very quickly promoted to management accountant with the need to acquire additional skills with her new responsibilities. The company had been created in 1992 out of the old BR. It was the at that time incredibly the largest private telecoms network in Britain, consisting of 17,000 kilometres of fibre optic and copper cables connecting every major city and town in the UK and it had a nationally trunked radio network to allow for mobile communications. It was subsequently acquired by Racal Electronics in 1995.
Not long after that acquisition Shelley returned to New Zealand. And it was at this point that her long relationship with Pharma began as she became a company accountant for Astra, a big player in the sector. Much of what the business did involved marketing its products to medical professionals. In those days, that meant a sizeable amount of corporate hospitality with overseas trips as part of the sales pitch. It was a lot of fun and Astra trained its team well and gave her a key and early insight into what best practice really looked and felt like.
After three years an opportunity to move upwards to become Finance Manager at Merck opened. Given the relatively small size of the New Zealand market, opportunities to gain extra seniority are not that common and must be seized, which Shelley did with both hands! After just two years she was elevated further within the firm and became IT and Finance Director. This was a major step up with all of the challenges expected and also an opportunity to step outside of her comfort zone into IT, not instinctively an area of strength. Her CEO had however been the Finance Director previously (which was unusual) and was an excellent mentor. Through him, she better understood what she needed to learn it order to be as effective as possible and took with her a strong belief in that mentor role as being key to career success for her.
However fantastic the role was at Merck, nothing could really get around the reality of geography. New Zealand felt like a small market as well as a small nation and all too often large Pharma companies seemed to treat it as a sub-branch of Australia. Shelley wanted to progress and made the move to CFO role in the textile sector. This meant leading a much larger team (75 people rather than 20 previously) and taking on a completely new space, literally, as she was tasked with completely transforming the warehouse side of the business. This had been functional but did not have a commercial outlook and was ripe for rapid and radical improvement. She relished this challenge, and the breadth of her skills and commercial impact were honed in this period- she really developed change management in its broadest sense as a strength.
Yet the desire to broaden her horizons past New Zealand could not be abated and so Shelley returned to the UK but with the limitation that she was on a two-year Visa. She was offered a City position centred on commercial property but instead became intrigued by the unique chance to become, for a limited period, CFO for Oracle Racing, an America’s Cup team. It meant operating alongside an entrepreneur, spending a large amount of time in Spain, and being “really hands on” for the team. This was definitely “not a career move”. It was about personal progression before returning to be what she really wanted to be, namely a CFO in the UK and ideally acquiring the right to stay long term.
Her timing was not fortuitous. She was searching for her perfect role in 2008 amid the aftershocks of the global financial crisis and found that having been a CFO in New Zealand did not necessarily make UK employers excited about her. To an extent, to start with, she would have to take what was there.
So, she initially accepted an Associate Director of Finance at Celgene. this got her foot in the door and enabled here to search for what became her real big break and into the pharma space for good when she landed a Finance Director role at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a large US-based institution, which, among other activities, was a major presence in the clinical trials world, an area she has true passion for given its major societal contribution. In this role Shelley had never learnt so much and had the interest and authority to develop people. The company was aware that it was not achieving in terms of recruiting women to senior positions and had resolved to address the issue. Shelley became key in leading and developing a proactive programme which women of her rank and higher in the firm would set annually.
She did however want to gain M and A and even IPO exposure to add to her by now very broad collection of skills and experience and so after a couple of roles in fast growth pharma businesses which were great but limited by their scale, the opening to do precisely that came with the Induction Healthcare Group, a Med Tech business. Acquisitions occurred at almost breakneck speed and filled what she had sensed was a missing part of her personal portfolio. She remained, nonetheless, much more inspired by the “Med” than the “Tech” aspect of the company and was determined that the pharmaceutical industry was a force for good that chimed with her values and made being employed worthwhile. She had now seen almost every aspect of drug development across the whole of its cycle. She knew that this was where she wanted to be and that fast-growing companies with potential for further expansion were appealing.
Which is how she came to be where she is today, the CFO for Medical Research Network (MRN), a business which grew by more than 82% in 2020 (despite COVID-19), that is based in Milton Keynes but functioning in a hybrid fashion at the moment. She has the challenge of building up a team at some speed in what are still far from truly “normal” conditions. It is the role and opportunity that, as she sees it, is “the one that pulls it all together” for her in terms of her experience, breadth, influence and enthusiasm.
This impressive and in many ways extraordinary career evolution has given her a series of insights and lessons. Seeking constantly to add breadth is one but she has also developed her own thoughts on what she perceives to be the differing ways in which men and women can approach their career progression.
She has, after all, been in significant posts for the better part of 20 years and in two countries. She personally found New Zealand’s business ethos to perhaps be more in tune with female CFOs. Despite that, she was often the only woman in the room offering a different perspective that she reflects was perhaps “not always welcome”. She has always believed, wherever she has been, that if she could see inconsistencies and unfairness in the way in which anyone but in particularly women, were being treated, that she should speak out. She would stand by her values even if that involved a risk of credibility (with men) potentially being eroded.
Although matters have improved and are continually improving over two decades, she does not consider that true equality of opportunity has been secured yet. One of the insights she acquired at a previous employer is that looking around her, the men seemed often to deliberately identity potential sponsors, other men of more seniority, who could help them to get promotion and would engage in social courtship to win them over. The goal for women, by contrast, seemed to be (as has been Shelley’s experience) to look for a mentor, someone of seniority, whose knowledge might help them do the job that they are doing better, rather than potentially offer a faster track upwards.
It is of course never that binary in reality but an insight which, until speaking to Shelley, I as the writer of this piece had never reflected on before. It is quite seminal- there being a meaningful difference between a sponsor and a mentor.
So, Shelley’s advice to other women on the CFO journey - get as broad as experience as you can , take on new (even daunting) challenges and maybe have a think about that difference between a mentor and sponsor and whether that is at play where you work . Always be yourself though. she adds and “don’t change who you are to get promoted”.
By Tim Hames