An age-old question in UK executive search and interim management circles is whether the best jobs, and therefore the best executive talent, exist solely in London. Most of us would find that statement questionable in 2017, but the perception remains.
So if you're a talented CFO do you have to remain in London to have a vibrant, challenging career? And, if you're a great company outside of London, how do you access and attract the best people to your leadership team?
In this blog I talk with Simon Reilly, the Commercial Director and Deputy CFO at Scotia Gas Networks (SGN), about his new role at their headquarters in Horley.
Simon is a Chartered Accountant with an MA in Economics and Management Studies from the University of Aberdeen, and a professional background in transport and infrastructure.
His previous roles have included four years as Head of Corporate Finance for the Eversholt Rail Group, based near London’s King’s Cross, and fifteen years as Director of Corporate Finance (Transport) at Ernst and Young.
Simon's new appointment at SGN requires a one-hour commute from his home in South East London to the company’s Surrey-based offices.Having lived and worked in London for so long, did you have any reservations about taking up a new position outside of the city?
“It did cross my mind that it wasn’t going to be in London. I’m from Scotland, and coming from a small village in Scotland, I do still find London quite an attractive prospect!
But actually now I’ve been doing it for a few months, it’s really a lot easier. The commute is much more pleasant, you’re not on the tube, you’re going against the traffic and it’s just a different type of environment.
Whereas before I was standing on a train with no internet connection, now I’ve got an hour sitting doing my emails or reading twitter before I get to work. So it’s still the same hour commute as I had to Kings Cross, but a much more pleasant hour.”
How important was geography when you were exploring your options?
“My background is in transport and infrastructure, so when I was leaving Eversholt Rail Group I obviously looked across that whole space. Although I was offered some really attractive roles, some were just too far away to be viable.
The challenge is moving your whole family somewhere just for one job. And especially these days where quite often companies are owned by shareholders. If they sell then somebody might bring their own management team in, so there's always that risk.
There can be a reluctance to uproot yourself for any one job. You might go and spend three or four years somewhere overseas and maybe rent out your house, but moving elsewhere within the UK feels a bit more permanent."
Do you think there’s a trend towards moving certain executive appointments outside of the bigger cities?
“There are some jobs that tend to be more focused in London, such as financial services for example. But industry jobs, particularly if they’re heavy industry, or infrastructure like airports, they’re just by their nature not suited to Central London.
I think too that more and more businesses are looking at what they can get for Central London real estate and saying ‘do we really need to be here? And especially in the current climate when there’s a lot of focus on reducing costs. Transport links on the periphery of London are improving all the time too."
Have you noticed any differences in your new work environment?
“The role I had before, there were probably 120 people in the business and everyone was based in the same office. So if you needed to speak to someone you’d just grab them and say ‘Let’s go to Room One and have a chat.’
The sort of work we do at SGN, people have got to be on the road quite a lot. We’ve got depots all over our geographical area so there are a lot more flexible working practices and people working remotely and travelling when they need to.”
What advice would you offer to other managers considering roles outside London?
"Depending on your location a commute out of London can actually be much more pleasant, so I think there are advantages to be honest. And most weeks I'll have a day when I'm up in London meeting shareholders or clients or people we're doing business with.
I don't think it's a kudos issue with moving out of London. It's more about the role and the credibility of the business. Whether it’s a business you want to work for and a job you want to do. I think geography is pretty low down the list as long as it's reasonably manageable."
We live in an increasingly connected and virtual world where technology enables people to be connected all the time. For many professionals this raises the question, "Do I need to be sat in a particular office in a particular location from 8-5?"
As Simon's experience demonstrates, while London and other big cities may always hold an allure for management executives, there is much to gained by exploring options for executive appointments beyond the City.
For professionals open to looking further afield, there are opportunities to work with a raft of innovative multi-national companies, with the same exposure to senior decision makers and the potential for greater levels of autonomy.