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Route to the Top- Holland & Barrett CFO

Chris Keen, finance chief of the health product group, reveals the key developments in his career that set him on track to taking on his current role.

I went to Royal Holloway College and studied maths with computer science. I then went to work with Grant Thornton who paid for my MBA at Cranfield University. I then did the classic thing everyone does with an MBA, and started a computer business with some other guys. I did everything there from the book-keeping to the installs and engineering.

My first foray into retail was a company called Morley Stores where I was finance director, which sold school flip top desks. I did my first private funded deal there before moving to Argos to become a systems accountant, making management systems work. I stayed there till it was acquired by Home Retail Group, working briefly under Stuart Rose, who became CEO of Marks & Spencer.

From Argos I went to high street chemist Boots, a fantastic training ground. I headed up commercial finance, marketing and then did them both together. There I learnt a lot about how to do the trading side of the business, in a company growing massively every year. I managed to take £200m out of the cost base.

Boots cottoned on to the fact that department stores were not going to have a long life and digital was the way forwards. But Boots didn’t necessarily have the wherewithal to bring it to life all the time.

My time in the pub industry started with a random phone call. Spirit had just bought a load of pubs from Scottish & Newcastle. I went to work for them in Burton-on-Trent, where I had no department and had to fill out a high-performance team from scratch. I did it out of greed, self-interest and personal development. I headed up all the FP&A across the business, and was then made finance director for the business, when it was sold to Punch.

The thing I found about private equity ownership is they always think they can do the job better than you, they are incredibly demanding, very urgent, and they want to get stuff done. They ask: Are you talking to the right people? Are you recruiting people who are big enough for the job? I found it incredibly exciting, but some days I thought I couldn’t work any harder.

I was approached to be CFO at Laurel Pub Company, which was owned by Robert Tchenguiz, and the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. We bought restaurant group La Tasca, but then we had issues leading to a divestment of assets and the first pre-pack in the pub industry. I spoke to every supplier, who lost no money at all. The company was split it into the Bay Restaurant Group and Town & City Pub Company, which I stayed on at.

You have to be really conscious that the word of the CFO is really important. If you as a CFO commit to something people believe it, and you have to gain a reputation for having followed through on a commitment.

I then worked at pub group Stonegate for seven years and another called Bramwell Pub Company for six months. The latter role was about building bridges with banks and selling them a business plan, so that we could then sell some of the equity to hedge funds, and keep the business on track knowing fully well the probable end game for this would be a sale, but ultimately saving jobs.

Sitting in front of 20 banks was a new experience. You quickly realised everyone in a banking syndicate is self-interested. You think you’re talking to 20 banks who have a common goal, but they don’t, so you have to manage 20 different agendas. I’ve got 35 banks in my banking syndicate now, so it taught me how to handle multiple parties at once, you stand up and you tell them how it is.

I then met Peter Aldis, who was CEO of Holland & Barrett. I did an awful lot of due diligence on the company. I checked out the management team, the PE house owner Carlyle Group and decided Holland & Barrett is one of the best kept secrets on the high street, and decided to join.

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