Interview with Gerry Sweeney – group finance director, Robert Wiseman Dairies

Robert Wiseman Dairies is a major milk provider, supplying 30% of the fresh milk consumed every day in Britain. Claire Gillespie of Michael Page Finance talks to group finance director of Wiseman Dairies, Gerry Sweeney, about career progression, what he aims to get out of the hiring process and the future of the company.

Q. First and foremost can you tell me a bit about yourself and your career to date Gerry?

A. Career-wise I have had two proper jobs. After university I joined Arthur Andersen on a training contract where I worked for eight years and I have been with Wiseman for 15  years after that. That’s pretty much the extent of my CV.

Q. How did you make the move from Arthur Andersen to Wiseman?

A. I blame one drink too many with my boss Billy Keane. Wiseman was a client of mine at Arthur Andersen. As well as liking the company and family, I got on well with Billy during that time and he ended up offering me a job. Given the profile of the company and their ambitions to grow it was a very attractive proposition. There was and remains a lot of potential and you could see the future being positive for them so it was an easy decision.

Q. What positions have you held here?

A. My role has constantly evolved since I arrived here. Billy was the finance director when I started, so I came in as his right hand man and as financial planning manager. This was ideal providing an exposure to the whole business. I then started looking after the finance department and became company secretary. This culminated in July 2010 when, further to Billy becoming managing director, I was appointed the finance director of the plc. 

Q. What do you see as being the biggest challenges for Robert Wiseman within the market place?

A. The challenges for Wiseman would be similar to other companies at the present time. Retailers want to provide value to their customers and suppliers are looking to address their own cost pressures. So there is pressure right through the supply chain meaning the major challenge for us is to try and build on the margins that we are making - through working with customers and controlling our own costs. That is the biggest challenge that will face us in the short to medium term and I suspect this is similar for most organisations in the current market.    

Q. What would you say are the current opportunities?

A. We will continue to present ourselves as being Britain’s biggest fresh milk professionals. We have made tremendous investments over time and the opportunities are there for us to leverage off. This investment means that Wiseman will still be one of the main UK dairy firms in the longer term.  So the challenge or opportunity is to retain our volumes, grow them where beneficial and improve margins over time.

Q. Personally do you think that the supermarkets have too much of a hold over the market and suppliers such as Wisemans?

A. No, the success of the Wiseman story is built on relationships with supermarkets. Much of our historical volume growth has come from supermarkets and has given us the confidence to keep growing the business. Like every other business, retailers are under pressure in terms of their own margins too and you can understand them trying to improve these and working with their suppliers to do that.

Q. What would you say has been the main reason for your success?

A. There is an element of making my own luck but I have been fortunate with the two companies I have worked for. At Arthur Andersen the training and work environment was a great grounding giving me, as a naive guy out of university, a broad range of skills over the eight years I worked there. So that was a fortunate choice as was working with Wiseman. You can look to have the skills, ability and application but as important is where you are working and the people you work with. I have been very fortunate on that side of things.

Q. Career wise where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years? 

A. I am not one for five or ten year plans but I enjoy the broad responsibility here at Wiseman and that or a similar role would be a great position to be in.

Q. Where do you see the economy going in the next few years?

A. I am always wary of grand opinions but here’s my tuppence worth. It’s just a knuckle-down environment with no magic wand to make things better for the economy. For all the theories running about, individual companies just need to focus on doing a better job than the immediate competition and working their way out of it. 
One factor is that, similar to Muller and Wiseman, companies will consolidate and look to come together in a complimentary fashion to benefit each other and come out of this tough economic situation stronger.

Q. In terms of your acquisition by Muller and your answer to the last question, do you see them providing you with funds to go on an acquisition trail?

A. We have about a third of the British market for fresh milk currently, so there is a limit as to what we can do to expand the milk business further in the UK. They are obviously an ambitious and acquisitive company but I couldn’t comment on their longer term plans.

Q. If you were a student again now, what advice would you give yourself knowing what you now do?

A. My only pearl of wisdom would be not to worry too much about things early on and not to necessarily rush towards things. Regardless of how they started, pals and classmates etc from twenty-odd years ago have ended up in a good place. Opportunities will come your way as you go through life, as long as you’re working hard and working to improve your skills through time.

Q. That seems to be a common theme, the last FD we interviewed said take risks and don’t get worried about the future too much.

A. Exactly. No matter how people start their careers when you catch up with them 20 years later people generally end up in a place that they are happy with. As long as you apply yourself to whatever you choose to do then ultimately you will succeed at it.

Q. What is your opinion in relation to generation Y and is that dramatically different from generation X?

A. I don’t think there is much difference between generations, regardless of how they are defined. There obviously are changes in generations in terms of how they interact with people but that is generally down to technology and other factors, but people are people and everyone’s broadly similar. That might be a naive outlook but in terms of people coming in to our business, if they are 24 or 44 you can get on with them whether they are generation X Y or Z and I think that is the key.

Q. What do you look for in a new recruit?

A. We have a very stable environment at Wiseman with limited staff turnover. The most important thing is the character of the individual and how they are going to fit in. It’s not that we have a mould that we try and shape people in but ultimately it is down to character as most of the time you are seeing people who have similar backgrounds, similar qualifications and sometimes similar experiences. At the end of the day it is how well you think you can get on with them and how the rest of the team are going to get on with them.

Q. What is your favourite one line question you always ask in an interview?

A. The one naff question I tend to ask is what they do and don’t like about their current boss.  I think it is a good measure of how open people are with you. You look for an interview to be a conversation and if someone answers the question saying my boss is perfect and has no failings, then you know at that stage you are not probably having the most open conversation.

Q. What is the most disappointing thing a candidate can do for you in an interview?

A. This is going to sound a bit egotistical but if candidates don’t ask questions I find it frustrating.  We don’t do a lot of formal interviews. We maybe spend 30 or 40 minutes with people or if it is going well you maybe spend an hour with someone. It is strange at the end of it if they don’t ask a question as the fact is they should have something that they want to ask you, either about the company, you as an individual or about the role they are about to take on. No matter where or what environment you are going to work in you must have concerns about who you are joining, what they are like and I expect the candidate to politely address these questions in some way.

Q. What has been the most memorable thing or the funniest thing someone has ever said to you in an interview?

A. The mistakes and slips ups are usually mine so I can’t be too critical. Raw aggression, forgetfulness, swearing, repetition, inappropriate references to football... and sometimes the interviewees mess up too.

Q. Moving on to some topical issues for Scotland at the moment, what’s your opinion on Scottish independence?

A. I will plead the fifth, but the one thing I would say is that the argument needs to evolve. There may well be a lot of pro’s and con’s for it, but I think, to a certain extent, at this moment it is a relatively simplistic argument on both sides that is being put forward for it. There are so many aspects that need to be considered and aired as part of the debate.

Q. Finally, what do you do at night to switch off from a hard day at the office?

A. I think if you had to ask my boss he would say I don’t have any problems switching off from work. In terms of what I do when I’m not in the office then I have two kids so all the things that go with them and their activities takes up a lot of my time. My list of interesting hobbies would be the usual clichés of reading, film, music, football, drinking etc. but not in that order. Like anyone else I enjoy socialising which is always a good way to take your mind away from the office.

Q. Muller is high in your thoughts just now, do you know their six common products?

A. Muller Light, Muller Rice, Muller Corner, Amore... I’m sure they’re all in the fridge at home, honest.