“Sometimes the wild-card opportunities offer you the chance to grow”

22nd Jul 21

Shuli Levy low

Shuli Levy spent more than a decade in the Big Four hon­ing her skills and learn­ing what busi­ness­es val­ue. But she realised she need­ed to jump the career tracks to stay inter­est­ed – and like many female execs, mater­ni­ty leave opened the door. Unlike most of them, how­ev­er, it wasn’t her own that did it

Like many stories of the ascent to finance leadership, Shuli Levy’s journey begins perfectly conventionally. Strong at maths, she studied statistics, but was drawn to the business world as way of making her facility with numbers feel real.

“I was offered an internship at PwC in my second year at university,” she says. “For a previous summer job, I’d worked in an Abbey National branch with personal and business account holders; I knew I liked working with smaller companies. So when I was offered the PwC internship, I asked to be placed in their mid-tier audit practice.”

It made her realise accountancy was a great way to be involved in interesting businesses. “And I also came to see audit as a good discipline,” she adds. “Tax seemed pretty technical. Deal advisory wasn’t particularly meaningful to me at the time. And while management consultancy looked interesting, I’m a firm believer you need to do something before you can advise on it.” Wise thinking from a young accountant.

Audit and beyond

Meanwhile, friends working in audit were getting to work with clients from day one, and learning a huge amount about how businesses work. “Even as a junior auditor, you’re looking hard at the way cash works in a business, and that’s a fundamental for success,” she explains. “So I qualified ACA by working in audit with medium-sized companies. This was around the time of the dot-com boom and bust, so I got to see extremes, too – there was certainly a lot of fear creeping in during the stock market decline.”

Shuli was also seconded to the public sector team for a period. “I liked the idea of moving outside my core discipline to see what I could learn,” she says. “Variety is really valuable – and sometimes the wild-card opportunities offer you the chance to grow.” Auditing data for her own local council that included non-financial metrics also broadened her horizons.

And so, bit by bit, Shuli was building a wider portfolio of skills. Tax was next. “I saw my audit clients really valued their tax advice – it made a real difference to their decision-making and sense of security,” she says. “And I liked the autonomy – it was much easier to manage my own workload, my time and office space. You keep in touch with your clients on your own timetable and you can be more proactive in building relationships.”

Taking the tax line

That flexibility helped a lot as three kids came along. “PwC was very good on that front, they looked positively on pretty much every proposal I came to them with to work flexibly,” Shuli says. “Initially I went part-time on a fixed-day basis and later moved to a scheme based around annualised days – essentially ensuring I had more time-off during school holidays and some home-working days during term time.”

But we’re already seeing a pattern in Shuli’s career: hone the skills in one area, then look around for what new can be built on them. And it’s no surprise that in 2012 she was looking for a change. One benefit of a big firm like PwC is there are many opportunities. “I wanted something that would allow me to work on my softer, communication-type skills,” she says.

Tax was getting into the news for the wrong reasons – this was the time of front-page headlines around Starbucks and Amazon. “The Transparency Team I joined had been exploring the total tax contribution of the FTSE 100 to show their overall support for the economy when you factor in things like employment taxes, stamp duties and VAT,” Shuli explains. “I was working with clients directly on their comms and PR side as well as their finance teams – it was more strategic than a lot of the work I’d been doing.”

Better still, she got to work with PwC’s economists measuring companies’ environmental, social, economic and tax impact on the communities in which they operate – a forebear of the ESG frameworks that are redefining how today’s corporates are run and evaluated.

Stepping out

But by 2014, the fixed career tracks at PwC – even with the potential variety in the firm – were losing their appeal. “I looked around and saw a lot of PwC people who knew exactly what their trajectory was, they had a career mapped out – and I realised I didn’t,” Shuli says. “I enjoyed the more stimulating challenges, but I was still balancing work and personal life. I could see that by fixing a ladder securely in place, I could climb quick up my career – but I was wary that if you do that, you won’t end up anywhere else.”

The path at PwC was becoming increasingly technical and specialist, and the comms and PR challenges she’d been working on had given her a taste for life outside. Then an interim role covering the tax lead’s maternity leave at PE-backed retail and consumer credit company BrightHouse opened a door for Shuli.

“It was a toe out of the water after 14 years at PwC, and because it was maternity cover, there was a natural route out if it hadn’t have suited me,” she says. “Plus, I was keeping my ‘coveree’s’ job steady for her, ready for a smooth return to work when the time was right.”

But the move worked. And when the maternity cover ended, the business needed someone to lead a project to ensure governance procedures and culture were robust and appropriate for the FCA. Shuli knew both the financial and commercial sides of the business by then, and had good relations on the leadership team.

“When you hear tax people are ‘branching out’, that often means they’re ‘dabbling in treasury’,” Shuli says. “But understanding the practical implications in applying rules and guidelines to the commercial parts of an organisation, and how people make decisions, is a core part of the tax skill set. Alignment with strategy, risk, and implementation of controls are key – so for me the move into governance felt natural.”

Private lives

When the project finished in 2016, Shuli had some ideas how she might exploit her increasingly interesting CV. Private equity wasn’t high on the list, but she’d worked with many PE-backed businesses on finance, tax and deals. And when the role of head of operations at Electra, a listed PE house, came up, it looked great – needing experience of finance, investment, commercial – and a can-do mindset. In short, she ticked all the boxes.

The role was meaty, too. A new board and governance structure meant the firm was building a more defined HQ set-up, with all the corporate functions in-house. “It was my first genuine leadership team role, and I definitely felt ready,” Shuli says. “I’d been ‘in the room’ enough times to be confident when it came to making a contribution. All that time spent advising businesses meant I understood the leadership mindset and I was ready to contribute to the kinds of decisions on opportunity, risk and governance that I’d helped other people make in the past.”

The job of the in-house corporate team shifted during those three years – from setting up the HQ, to running the business, then developing and preparing the portfolio businesses for sale, until eventually setting a course to wind down the investment vehicle. “So it was shorter than expected – but a lot more variety in terms of decisions than I might have predicted,” says Shuli. And entirely consistent with that accretion of skills and experience.

A mission emerges

A year spent with KPMG doing interim organisational work gave Shuli the time to come up with a personal mission at this point. “I knew I wanted a broad leadership role in a growing business,” she explains. “I’d done lots of work in legal and HR – and more commercial – at Electra and I felt I’d developed a more informed view to managing strategic opportunity and risk. That, plus working as part of a leadership group taking decisions, and running my own team, meant I was keen for a permanent role somewhere dynamic on a great trajectory.”

Covid-19 delayed things a little. Home-schooling isn’t the ideal accompaniment to finding the kind of role your career’s been building to. “I kept my hand in, helping small organisations with finance, strategy, risk and so on,” says Shuli. “Then in March the opportunity to be CFO/COO at Expedition Growth Capital came along. It ticks so many boxes: the breadth of the role with both finance and operations; working with investors and growing companies; and being able to apply all the expertise I’ve built up over the years.”

Sounds ideal for her personal mission, then. “And it’s justified my approach to the ‘fixed career ladder’,” she adds. “You can lock it in place and probably climb faster. But I’ve really benefited from taking opportunities in different spaces, gaining unexpected experiences. I draw on everything in my role now – from accounting and tax, to transparency and governance, HR, operations and commercial decision-making – pulling it all together at a more strategic level.”

Seeing how all that fits together, she concludes, is an essential part of business leadership. “And a key thing is to remain open to where those skills and experiences might take you. The ladder still isn’t set!”

FD Direct Limited (trading as Equity FD, Equity FC, Equity Interim and Equity Chair) has ceased trading.

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