31 January 2020 by Sonia Sharma
Provident Financial plc were the winners of the Team of the Year at the ICSA Awards 2019. David Whincup, Deputy Company Secretary at the organisation discusses some of his role’s biggest challenges and what the next year holds
It was a great moment. I have been fortunate and won the award before in a previous role, but this year’s award was special – the team had had a very challenging year which pushed us to our limits, and it was such a pleasure to see them recognised for their achievements. The team started the year as three separate company secretarial resources across the Group, which were combined as one central function; so, the first and foremost objective was to come together as a team. Gaining this award so early in our new form is very special.
We have played a pivotal role in the delivery of the Group’s success, not only by delivering on the ‘business as usual’ challenges us company secretaries face each year in an evolving regulatory landscape, but also in relation to some extraordinary projects. I feel we don’t recognise our successes enough as company secretaries; the hard work and great contribution we make to the success our employers can often go unnoticed. This is why the ICSA awards is such an important annual event.
Like many of us, I “fell” into the profession to some extent, but very pleased I did. I read a Law degree with the intention of seeking a career in employment or corporate law; however, by the end of my degree I had decided that it was just not a career I wanted to pursue. A family friend had worked as a company secretary and after some discussion, I was immediately drawn to the profession – the skill set was a good match for me and I saw it as a fast-track to the Boardroom. Not many professions sit in such a privileged position at the heart of an organisation and challenge you as broadly as this one does, it’s great.
I am also big believer that you can learn a lot by working and engaging regularly with directors and senior management from different parts of an organisation. The profession provides a great, almost unique, opportunity to be exposed to high calibre colleagues from day one. It’s a great way to learn and become a well-rounded member of senior management.
I have been at Provident Financial plc since July 2018. I undertook a Masters in Corporate Governance/Grad ICSA course and then started my company secretarial career, about nine years ago, working at FTSE 250 companies in the housebuilding and commercial property sector.
I moved to work for two large FTSE 20 companies, firstly in the international FMCG sector and most recently in energy. Each move I have made in role has been carefully considered and made in order to ensure that I have experience in the full spectrum of ‘plc’ company secretarial work and that I continued to be challenged, develop and progress.
My current role in financial services was certainly a step-up, going from being a member of a team as an Assistant Company Secretary to actually managing the function on a day-to-day basis as Deputy, but I have enjoyed the challenge. From a personal perspective, the role also enabled me to move from the south east back to Yorkshire and to be close to family.
I think what my experience has also shown is that as company secretaries, we can adapt and work for companies in different sectors. Each one brings different challenges, but is also stimulating in its own way. I always take the time to get to know the business I work for: how it works; what makes it different; and how it delivers for its stakeholders. I think this helps me add value and also makes working life more interesting!
The financial services sectors brings its own additional regulatory and other challenges, which, given it’s my first role in the sector, has taken a little time to get up-to-speed on. I think when you move to a new role its key to get to know the business as quickly as you can. Whilst it is time consuming, reading all of your Board and committee papers is essential; it enables you really understand the challenges your business is facing and allows you to anticipate risks and mitigate them.
Over the last 18 months Provident Financial plc has also had a notable refresh of its Board and the team has played a critical role in enabling those new directors to operate effectively. We have done this through effective induction planning, by being flexible and accommodating where needed and also through a rigorous focus on the quality and quantity of Board and committee information. From my experience, there is a strong correlation between the quality of information a Board gets and the quality and effectiveness of the discussion.
As mentioned, the team, which as a whole is relatively inexperienced, has also had to deal with a number of exceptional items this year (including an unsolicited offer for the Group). This turned an already busy year into one which really stretched us, and a key part of my role was to ensure the team was focused on the right things, at the right time. This largely came down to effective prioritisation and resource management, which, at times, required some tough decisions on what work to start, stop and continue.
I think without doubt it was winning the Team of the Year Award at this year’s ICSA awards. For me, no personal accolade can compare to seeing your team, which has been through a tough year, getting the recognition they’ve so dearly earnt.
It seems to me to be an increasingly competitive profession to enter, so first it would be not to give up. I got my first job by writing personalised letters to every company in the FTSE 350, so just persevere. So get as much work experience as you can for your CV, and there are more opportunities for that than there has ever been. Plus most of the company secretaries I have met are keen to help, so ask.
For those already in role, I think what sets a good company secretary apart is not necessarily technical ability (although you do need that), it is the ability to build strong relationships with all your stakeholders. Getting yourself in the position as a trusted advisor is not easy and takes time, but you will need to rely on these relationships regularly so spend time cultivating them.
One other suggestion would be to seek a formal mentor, and particularly as your career develops, consider someone you respect from outside the governance profession to be that mentor or coach; this, from my experience, helps you to develop into a more rounded governance professional.
I am hoping it will be a little quieter than 2019 for starters! Really, now we’ve had a full year together as a team, I would like us to have the time to focus on really delivering a best in class company secretarial service to our Group and to develop both as individual professionals and as a team. But I am sure 2020 will bring in some unanticipated challenges, and that’s what keeps the job interesting.