Insight & Analysis

Life after treasury

Published: Sep 2020

Alison Wilson – entrepreneur, mentor, Non-Executive Director and the former Head of Treasury & Governance of innocent drinks – reflects on the skills she learned as a treasurer, and the challenges involved in establishing a new business during a pandemic.

Wool Mill, weaving
Portrait of

Alison Wilson

Entrepreneur, mentor, Non-Executive Director and
the former Head of Treasury & Governance of Innocent drinks

Could you give me an overview of your career history?

I did Economics at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, before moving down to London and working for the Bank of England in a variety of roles up until 1993. I moved to the private sector and worked for Citigroup as a risk manager for about ten years.

After that I took a step outside the corporate world and ran my own eyedrop dispenser business for five years, before applying for a job at innocent to see whether or not I was still employable. I ended up staying there for eight years, first as a finance manager, and then ultimately as Head of Treasury and Governance.

What did you do after leaving innocent?

I left innocent three years ago – I felt that I had one opportunity to do something different before I hopefully take my foot off the pedal a bit, and do less work rather than more.

The first thing I did was refocus my efforts on the eyedrops dispenser business, to see if I could do that. I also took a Non-Executive Director position for a members’ club in Soho called The Union Club – they had just raised some money to expand, and were looking to ensure that those funds were used to achieve commercial growth.

Another thing I’ve done is start a business with my sister. We’d been talking about doing something together for the last 15 years, so at the end of last year we bit the bullet and started our own little Scottish knitwear company called Urbanglen.

I also really love mentoring the next generation of talent who are looking to take that next step in their career, or want some guidance on starting their own businesses.

How do these mentoring arrangements come about?

When I left innocent, a couple of people asked me if we could keep in touch with that kind of relationship. innocent tends to hire smart, bright, ambitious people, so it was a great opportunity to work with people who had a clear idea of where they wanted to go, but not necessarily the experience to get there as easily as they might want. From there it was just word of mouth.

I only ever mentor a couple of people at a time, and only when there is a good fit. I haven’t mentored anyone from treasury, but that’s one of the beauties of treasury – you have to interact with every part of the business to do the job well.

How have you drawn upon your treasury skills while setting up Urbanglen?

One of the benefits of treasury is that you see the whole supply chain, from procurement through to sales. My sister and I spent 2019 doing everything from sourcing the range to trying to understand how you build a website and make it look attractive. We launched the website in November last year, and then it was all about trying to build brand awareness.

Then the pandemic hit. So at that point, the focus was on being nimble and flexible in our thinking, and trying to work out how we could use our start-up nature and entrepreneurial outlook to adapt to a new situation.

On the one hand, there is a freedom in being able to react to the situation in ways that are harder for more established businesses with staff and premises. But at the same time, those bricks and mortar knitwear brands were pumping huge amounts of money into online sales. We certainly hadn’t planned to go head-to-head with the big names online straightaway.

Another challenge is that we had a clear vision of who our ideal customer was and what their lifestyle looked like. With COVID-19, we have had to completely review what that lifestyle is, because their requirements have changed very quickly as well. But I only knew that I needed to have a customer profile because I’ve worked in a company that allowed me to interact with all different parts of the business.

What do you miss about being a treasurer? And what were you happy to leave behind?

I’m very pleased that I don’t have to keep looking at the FT website every morning to check out what foreign exchange rates are!

I do miss being in an office with a collaborative feel to it, as well as the world of treasury and all the intellectual thinking that has to be done around the different financial risks across the business. But I get that same intellectual rigour and challenge in different ways now.

At this point in time, a lot of treasurers will be facing a really interesting time, in terms of determining the financial risks of the model they currently have, and how they transition into the model they now need. From a strategic point of view, I think those treasurers who have the ear of the FD and CEO will have a really pivotal role in transforming some businesses.

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