Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top- Center Parcs CFO

Route to the top- Center Parcs CFO

Colin McKinlay, finance head of the iconic holiday village group, reveals his progress through the travel industry.

Although born in Scotland, we moved to Manchester when I was quite young. From Altrincham Grammar School I went to Essex university, where I studied Accounting and Financial Management.

I didn’t have as my career path being a partner in an accounting firm, I was always much more interested in working in business. At Coopers & Lybrand working in audit and tax, I got to see lots of businesses mostly in the north-west, which provided valuable experience for moving into industry.

I travelled a lot when I was growing up, so was drawn to Airtours- a listed chartered tour operator that became My Travel group. There I became a junior group accountant, working in areas such as leasing and taxing structures. The experience gave me lots of insights into how the travel industry worked.

The internet was starting to impact the travel industry by the mid-1990s. EasyJet and some of the online travel agents were just starting to emerge, and I found the industry very interesting. I worked my way up and became one of two financial controllers- gaining a broad financial experience- in group accounting, consolidation and tax, financial reporting, financial management, investment appraisal.

In my early 20s I was always enthusiastic about the roles I was in. I always put my hand up and generally volunteered for different work. We all know when we do there’s things in any walk of life that we prefer doing, and others you prefer doing less, but you have to recognise you need to be willing to do what is needed to get the job done.

My first finance director role came when I was 29. The group CFO asked me to go to Canada, initially to look at a group of companies under the Sunquest Vacations brand. It was the classic situation of a head office guy who had gone out to do a review, to understand what was making money in the business, and what wasn’t making money, and using that to work out ways to  grow the business.

It was a challenge to win support of the people in the business in Canada, to not be seen as the head office mole or spy. I made it work through building relationships. For younger people coming in and looking to build their career, I would advise people not to underestimate the power of networking based on trust.

There was a lot of travel as there were businesses in Toronto, California, Atlanta and Mexico to visit during what became a restructuring and turnaround, and a little bit of business development and growth as well.

You may have to have difficult conversations in a restructuring, where sometimes people may have to leave the business as a result. The thing to do is to have those conversations in a way that you would want done to you, if the tables were turned.

I was asked to go to Germany, where the business and social culture is different, where there’s more formality and hierarchy. It’s an environment where you quickly learn you have to fit in in order to get things done. I went to night school to pick up German, as I couldn’t speak the language before I went, and learnt enough to just about understand what people were saying.

Germany was both fun and challenging.  The role involved restructuring of a tour operating business activity, that was part of MyTravel, which required more tough conversations. I then returned to Britain as UK CFO,  wearing a number of different hats- notably undertaking a financial restructuring of the group,after 9/11- when the travel industry took a real hammering.

It was a period of contraction, of needing to cut cloth according to revenues. Having come through that experience, I was approached to be the CFO of Thomas Cook UK in 2004- a role more focused on business development and growth.

Then I got a call to do something a little different. I moved to a small entrepreneurial outfit called Travelzest, an AIM-listed business that had a strategy of acquiring specialist travel businesses. The role was mainly about corporate finance. I did numerous equity placings, debt facilities, acquisitions and business integrations.

When the markets crashed in 2008 it was clear we weren’t going to be doing any corporate finance or any business acquisition. I moved to Homeserve, a specialist in home emergency repair work, a completely different industry-which I found very stimulating and challenging.

It was a step back into a much bigger business. I was CFO for the UK business, in a role proving to myself I could do finance outside of the travel industry, my comfort zone. It was a really well-run business, that was maybe seen as an aggressive retailer in the period after I left.

A return to the travel industry beckoned. I was hired by Tui, initially as CFO for the UK business, and then latterly also for Northern Europe. I recognised that the travel industry was probably where my heart was- an exciting industry that everyone talks about and we experience ourselves. Having got all of the core housekeeping done, I focused on developing a business partnering role for finance.

Tui exploited data– joining financial and customer data through analytical workstreams together for a more cohesive end to end view of the customer. That was combined with a really strong yield management system that maximised aeroplane and hotel numbers.

We were at the forefront of developing a product proposition. It’s not just about how the product is distributed, or data collected, but about delivering a first class customer experience. You can have all the data in the world to help, but it’s ultimately about the way you then interact with customers.

Moving to Center Parcs enabled me to become a number one CFO, rather than a CFO role in a business that was a subsidiary of a group. The role gave me the chance to use all the facets of my experience from corporate finance, to external stakeholder management, in a business which is as good on the inside as the impression you get on the outside.

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