Mark Lewis shares his thoughts following our Next Generation CFO event with Chief Commercial Officer at Edinburgh Airport, John Watson.

We were delighted to welcome John Watson, Chief Commercial Officer at Edinburgh Airport, as a speaker in the latest of our Next Generation CFO series.

The growth at Edinburgh Airport in the last 4 years has been impressive to say the least. In 2016, Edinburgh airport handled a record 12.4 million passengers and provided more direct connections to more destinations than ever before. From a broader perspective, studies show that the airport contributes almost £1 billion to the Scottish economy every year and supports more than 23,000 jobs across the country. Most recently, Edinburgh was recognised as the most improved brand within the European airport sector in YouGov’s annual BrandIndex rankings.

So how has this been achieved? For John, the answer fell into three main areas:

1 – “The passenger is the customer” – it seems obvious, but John’s view is that too many airports treat the airlines as the customer rather than as the supplier (though a very important supplier of course!). Putting the customer central to their strategy is core to Edinburgh’s success.

2 – “Focus on the brand” – for Edinburgh, it’s not just about being the best airport, it’s about being the best Scottish business.

3 – “Base business decisions on data, not opinion” – despite being in the commercial function, John’s first six months were spent largely with the finance team, building an assessment of the organisation via the numbers before creating a dedicated data team

John’s uncompromising outlook in his role at Edinburgh airport is symptomatic of his approach to his career and to business. John didn’t have a career plan per se; in simply terms he followed those jobs he enjoyed, where he was working with like-minded people and felt fairly rewarded. It has not been a case of progressing from job to job, but more a built in desire to work in change environments and searching out the role content that he enjoys.

By his own admission, John has never considered himself to be the best accountant and his degree had been in Mechanical Engineering, followed up by a MSc in IT & Business. He had fallen into his traineeship with PWC’s Corporate Finance team, though notably his focus, and indeed interest, had been more about deals than accounting. This was further cemented in his move to 3i plc as an Investment Manager where he learnt a number of key lessons on company valuations in the middle of the crash.

At 29, John found himself as CFO of Craneware, helped him to realise that he “liked leading change and finding something difficult to do”. Undoubtedly, John found plenty of both on his next move into Financial Services, especially latterly when running the Small Business Lending Portfolio for Lloyds during the worst recession in living memory.

However, John realised he was as little a banker as he was a Partner of an accounting firm and took a year out in 2012 to build his NED portfolio, a task made easier by his working for 3i a decade before where he held many similar posts. During this year, he further developed his passion for the pace and candid commerciality of private equity which made the decision to join Edinburgh airport, backed by Global Infrastructure Partners, an easy one when the opportunity arose..

When asked to summarise his career to date, John used the parallels he’s relied upon when leading change, penned as “Surviving the Vacuum”.

  • It’s ok not to like change but becoming frustrated at it is a pointless activity. The people around you will seek leadership and positive action so be clear about what you want to achieve.
  • You need to be prepared for the fact that organisations will want to revert back to “old world” ways of working and your plans for change will be attacked.
  • Find mechanisms to keep going when times are tough – it sucks, but you need to get used to it!
  • Take power and authority with you or change will be impossible. Making sure you have the appropriate backing, even if that means going to the top of the organisation to secure it.
  • Without resistance, there is no movement – if you can harness the resistance to change in a positive manner, you can use it to drive a new agenda

To find out more about our Next Generation CFO programme, or to discuss your recruitment needs, please contact Mark Lewis on [email protected]