GSH chief financial officer on returning to profit following a delisting
Ian Davidson, CFO of facilities management group GSH
In business terms Ian Davidson has remained close to the heart of the action. A glance at his CV reveals that his early travels across the world marked a career watershed allowing him to focus on his journey to the top.
As chief financial officer and chairman at facilities management company GSH he has played a pivotal role in returning the business to profit against the backdrop of a controversial delisting from the Alternative Investment Market (AIM).
GSH hasn’t been Davidson’s only experience of steering a business through challenging times. His first job as group accountant at AAH Pharmaceuticals was equally testing. “It was a role that put me right at the centre of the business and brought me into direct contact with the board,” he says.
Davidson admits that he hadn’t intended to stay with AAH for longer than a couple of years but as it turned out, his personal agenda was overtaken by events. In 1995 AAH was taken over by a German company called Celesio. Shortly afterwards, his new employers announced plans to take over the Lloyds Pharmacy Chain, a bid that was subsequently referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
As the only “Brit” working at the German HQ, Davidson played an important role in ensuring that the takeover would go ahead. “Following the MMC recommendations I sold 10 businesses over a two year period. After that I moved back to the UK and in 2000 I became FD of the UK business.”
Davidson is clearly proud of the part he played in growing the Lloyds operation from a “weak” number two in the market to “number one”. However, in retrospect he thinks he stayed a year too long.
But such doubts weren’t to delay his ascent. In 2008 he became finance director at Auto Windscreens, then owned by the RAC. At the time the company had posted losses of £30 million and Davidson’s brief was clear: to restructure and ultimately sell the business.
“The business began generating cash again and we realised cash from asset tied up in the balance sheet,” he says.
According to plan, Auto Windscreens was sold in 2008, although Davidson’s preference – indeed his ambition –for a management buyout but scuppered by parent company, Aviva-owned RAC. Once the sale was completed successfully, Davidson left in 2009 to take up the post at GSH.
Into the calm?
On the face of it, the move suggested that Davidson had carved out a niche as a finance director that could be relied upon to enter into challenging situations and sort out problems.
When Davidson joined - shortly after the delisting that left some stakeholders unhappy – the business was losing money; and had just lost its board. Uncertainty reigned and confidence was low.
Davidson stresses, however, that GSH was in a much stronger position than Auto Windows had been. “When I took the FD’s job at Auto Windows it was burning desperate amounts cash,” he explains. “That wasn’t the case at GSH. We had losses of £15 million on £250 million turnover but it was a fundamentally sound business. “
Still immediate action was required by the CFO to stem the losses and restore credibility. With the much of the board gone, Davidson became chairman and CFO, working alongside managing director John Davy.
Davidson admits it was a steep learning curve. While his MD had risen through the ranks and knew the business well, he was very much the new man in the boardroom. With no other board members in place - not even non-executive directors - there was only a limited sense of continuity between the old and the new GSH.
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