Corporate View: Kate Smedley, 2 Sisters Food Group

Published: Nov 2014

Kate Smedley

Group Treasurer

2 Sisters Food Group is a leading UK and European food manufacturer with annual sales of around £3 billion and over 24,000 colleagues across the UK, Ireland, Holland and Poland. The Group has strong market positions across branded and retailer own brand products, including in bakery, biscuits, chilled, frozen, poultry and red meat. The Group serves the retail, wholesale and foodservice markets and brands include Fox’s biscuits and Goodfella’s pizzas. The Group’s focus is to serve every meal occasion and put customers at the heart of everything it does.

As a professional treasurer of many years’ experience, working with the likes of BBC Worldwide, UK airports group BAA, Jarvis Construction and the Morrisons supermarket chain, Kate Smedley has built a reputation within the industry that has put her services in high demand. But having taken time out to start a family she found the work-life balance was more difficult to manage than expected when seeking a part-time professional position. The reason? Senior treasures work full-time. This is not fact, just the message that she heard many times. She found a way to overcome this hurdle.

Leaving university with a “generic business degree”, Kate Smedley, Group Treasurer at 2 Sisters Food Group, explored the usual world of temp jobs before finding a nine-month contract (covering maternity leave) as PA to a Group Financial Controller. Part of the job involved currency administration, dealing with banks, applying forward contracts and so on. The career turning point came just before the contract was due to expire, the company announcing its plans to move from Sheffield in the north of England, down south to London.

With the currency role up for grabs full-time, with a daily cash management position thrown in for good measure, Smedley took a leap of faith and became the new London-based treasury assistant. Sponsorship of ACT examinations followed, as did the realisation that the role was now too basic for the burgeoning talent. A move to BAA, a far larger business, ensued bringing considerably more responsibilities as ACT study progressed and promotion to Treasury Manager raised the game yet higher.

Having reached a point of settling down with all the usual trappings or heading off on a global adventure, Smedley boarded a plane to Ecuador and worked her way round the world, finishing up in Hong Kong having exorcised the wanderlust. On return to the UK, job hunting opened up an opportunity as Treasurer for BBC Worldwide, the Corporation’s commercial arm. With no formal treasury department it fell to Smedley, under the guidance of the BBC’s Group Treasurer, to establish the rules and processes.

With the success of a fully functioning treasury behind her, Smedley took the big decision to move back to Yorkshire with her husband-to-be. “I remember thinking ‘this could be career suicide’,” she says. “In London, if you want to move treasury jobs you just pick up the phone and speak to the agents; there is always something that looks interesting. I knew that if I moved back to Yorkshire it could be the end of all that.” An Assistant Treasurer’s job with Jarvis Construction came up (working with Gary Slawther: see Corporate View, February 2014), offering a fascinating work environment and confirmation that she had made the right decision.

A move to the rapidly expanding TV and broadband specialist, Pace Plc, saw Smedley once more establish a treasury from scratch. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” she recalls, adding that this was one of her best career moves ever, being able to call upon all her experience to date to bring about an entire new way of working for the company.

Going part-time

But soon, Smedley found herself at the point of taking maternity leave, and her thoughts turned to part-time work. “I loved the job and the seniority and I knew that I wanted to stay in treasury; I’m not qualified or experienced to do anything else!” she comments. Furthermore, prior to returning to work the company underwent a major restructuring programme. This, for Smedley, ultimately led to her seeking another position; a 12-month contract at UK supermarket giant, Morrisons, as Interim Senior Treasury Projects Manager. The role was perhaps more junior than she was used to, leading Smedley to suggest that she undertake it on a part-time basis and thus it was agreed. As this position came to an end she was back in the market once more, and is now safely ensconced at 2 sisters Food Group, this time in the more familiar senior role of Group Treasurer.

As far as treasury experience goes, Smedley is clearly in a position to tackle most jobs but with a young family and a natural desire to balance her commitments, the mere suggestion of taking on a senior treasury role on a part-time basis can have some interesting effects on recruitment agencies, she notes. She has been fortunate so far to find employers with sufficient flexibility to meet her needs, but each time the search has been far from easy. “As soon as I say I’d like a part-time permanent senior treasury role you can almost hear the tumbleweed blowing past in the background!”

Some agencies have been very good and listen to what is required “but with some you can see they lose interest the second you say you want part-time”. She accepts that to some agencies, asking for a senior treasury position with part-time hours may sound ridiculous and she has therefore had to learn how to talk them round, explaining for example how a company will be acquiring a very high level of experience effectively for less money. But even with a well-developed power of persuasion she underlines the need to be selective with agencies, weeding out those that clearly are not interested. It can be, she adds, “a long and laborious process trying to explain myself”.

The problem exists in part because the finance industry is male-dominated and the agencies – and indeed many companies – are just not used to meeting the needs of flexible working. “Typically when they are recruiting a treasurer, they want someone there five days a week. I do understand that because it is a demanding job,” she says. But it is true to an extent too that the job is full-time because it has always been full-time; this fact is rarely questioned because it is a male-dominated profession and men have traditionally worked full-time and long-hours.

She accepts that to some agencies, asking for a senior treasury position with part-time hours may sound ridiculous and she has therefore had to learn how to talk them round, explaining for example how a company will be acquiring a very high level of experience effectively for less money.

There can be a lack of understanding that finding the right part-time role is difficult at this level, particularly from people who either don’t work at all or who have traditionally more flexible employment conditions (government employees for example). “You can almost feel that they see it as an excuse because really I do want to work full-time and that I’m a terrible mother.”

The current situation leads Smedley to believe that if two similar CVs are submitted for a job and one wants to work part-time then the employer will likely pick the full-time applicant rather than discuss the matter. There are some companies that see sense; her current employer, 2 Sisters Food Group, has been remarkably accommodating in this respect. Even though it originally wanted a full-time individual, she was able to negotiate terms that suited her and the company got the best person for the job.

There is an upside to being an experienced treasurer and living away from London; although there are far fewer senior jobs than would be found in the capital, there are also fewer people with the level of experience that companies might require. “They almost have to be a little more flexible,” comments Smedley. “In London, where there is a wealth of treasurers, I think I would have struggled.”

Selling yourself

Where a treasurer wishes to go part-time it may not be possible because the company cannot find another person with the right skills and knowledge to complete the package. Agencies would do well to try to mix and match the skills and hours requirements of individuals to make one full-time equivalent, but clearly many do not do this. Job sharing a senior treasury role is possible and all it needs is for those seeking such a role to co-ordinate their needs. “We need a network where we can discuss what jobs are coming up and what work schedule each person wants to follow,” suggests Smedley. By pairing up individuals of matching skills it would be possible to approach an employer seeking a full-time employee as a team. “But doing something like that feels a long way off!”

Having spoken to many recruitment agencies in the region, each time highlighting her need to work part-time for the next few years, Smedley continues to actively promote this idea. When other women of similar standing in the profession (and Smedley says it will most likely be a woman seeking to balance professional employment and childcare) approach those agencies, she hopes that they will think about matching the right people to the right job.

An alternative may be to set up a group on LinkedIn; this is a tool that she says has been extremely valuable in finding work (as indeed other treasurers have reported) and could be used to enable people in the same geographic region seeking part-time work in the same field and at the same level to co-ordinate their search. It may also be useful to try to meet treasurers and senior finance people directly (perhaps at regional ACT meetings or at a conference) to sound them out about work availability; an extra pair of skilled hands may be required in the interim, perhaps to flexibly cover a period during a major technology implementation or a merger. “The key to making a success of this is to talk to as many people as possible, to make sure the right people are aware of who you are, what your level of experience is, and the fact that you do want to work part-time.”

Making others aware of your status once you have started working part-time is not always an easy task, reports Smedley. Quite often colleagues and even other senior managers forget which days you are at work, she says. “They probably do not mean to make you feel bad but you do have to carry a certain amount of guilt about not being available.” Of course, the awkward interactions with colleagues around availability are felt far less with external parties, there being little need to explain why a date for a meeting needs to be changed.

Making it work

Because you are not visible, what may also be described as ‘office banter’ about relaxing in front of the television all day or generally taking it easy on the days when not in the office is also quite common (and anyone who has ever looked after a small child even for one day will know, this is not possible anyway!). Not only that, but there seems to be a difficulty for some people in associating part-time work with a position of seniority. This probably harks back to the view that treasury is a male-dominated world in which men almost always work full-time.

There is a further perception, says Smedley, that somehow you’re not doing a full job. But, as she has indeed proved, an individual could be doing a full-time job in fewer days.

There is a further perception, says Smedley, that somehow you’re not doing a full job. But, as she has indeed proved, an individual could be doing a full-time job in fewer days. “You work a lot harder – sometimes at night to catch up – and you get paid less. But to reconcile that, you know you get to spend a day with your child. That is the sacrifice that many women are willing to make. The guilt still can be immense on both sides; guilty for not being at work all the time, and guilty for not spending more time with your child. It is a real juggling act.”

The key to removing the difficulties faced by treasurers (or any other professionals) when working part-time lies in changing the long-held belief that the job can only be full-time and giving instead an alternative. “Having done this once with the company I work with, potentially in the future they could do this with someone else.” There may come a time when the hours need to change slightly or when the choice is made to return to full-time employment. But with a flexible approach to working on both sides there is no reason why, with the right alternatives in place, this cannot be made to work.

For anyone seeking to work part-time or flexibly, as well as getting the CV up to date, Smedley advises setting up a LinkedIn group to meet like-minded people. There is no need to pay for a premium account, she says. “Way more agents will contact you than you will have even heard of, some of whom will be recruiting for senior treasury roles.” Don’t state you are seeking only part-time work; that can be explained later. “Do pick your agents wisely. As soon as you speak to them you will know whether they are taking you seriously or not.” Another tactic is to try to bypass the agents and contact as many companies as you can find with treasury departments within an acceptable radius: “don’t be afraid to say who you are what it is that you want”.

The more that professional personnel work flexible or part-time hours, the more the practice will become just an accepted part of working life. Rather than overstretching existing departments, calling upon an interim treasurer to fill in the gaps makes more sense. “There are professional treasurers out there, many of whom are women with children, who would jump at such an opportunity,” notes Smedley. As a treasury resource, few would argue against the value of a part-time army of professionals that are eager to get the job done.

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