Interview with Tony Evans, Director of the UK’s Institute for Interim Management
Tony Evans, Director of the UK’s Institute for Interim Management, began his interim management career in 1994. Since then he has worked in CEO/GM roles across three continents and a multitude of sectors, from sugar in Israel to tyres in Romania to meat processing in Hungary.
Prior to interim work, Evans spent 20 years in a wide range of corporate roles, familiarising himself with different business functions. That broad experience proved the perfect background for a fruitful career in interim management, with a track record of 15 successful assignments.
We spoke to Tony about some of his more memorable experiences.
“Interim management is a bit like peeling an onion, you take a layer off and then there’s another layer, and another and another, until you get to the heart of the matter. When you strip the layers off and resolve the issues attached to each layer, you manage to produce something worthwhile.” Tony Evans.
How did you transition from your previous career to interim management?
A former employer sent me to the US to run an acquisition and at the last moment they pulled out, and by that time had passed my other work on to other people in the UK and decided to make me redundant. It gave me a chance to stop and think about what I enjoyed in the work environment. All the work I enjoyed in corporate life was about very significant change. I’m a scientist by training; I did a degree in chemistry and botany and during my studies I discovered that I like the breadth of things rather than the depth of things. All the interesting stuff tends to be at the interface between pools of knowledge of work. Through a contact at Mars Wrigley Confectionery, where I worked for six years, I knew a guy who ran a recruitment business for temps and he offered to introduce me to a potential client. They asked me to submit a strategy paper and off the back of that they signed me on; that was my first interim management role.
Had you been planning on moving into interim management all along? Is that why you took on such diverse roles throughout your corporate career?
In 1994, the concept of interim management was pretty new, it was not well understood at all. But I did my first interim assignment and enjoyed it and just sort of went from there. I was quite ambitious, I had pretensions to be able to run a company, but to me, you needed to see a business and work in a business from a number of different angles to provide a fresh pair of eyes. That fresh pair of eyes coming in independently is crucial for the value-add that you deliver, the last thing a client needs is another expert in the field. If you’re going to get an interim CEO, you want someone who views things differently.
What are the first steps, typically, when taking on a new assignment?
I think you need to go on-site to get a feel of the place, there’s no real substitute for that, to be honest. There are two main questions if you’re dealing with stressed situations where the business is in real trouble. The first question is, can you pay the payroll this week or this month? If yes, you know you’ve got that period of time before there’s a major, major problem. If no, I may not take on the assignment in the first place because it’s too late, or it may be that there are things that can be done quickly to give you the space to do the fix. Then there’s the people question – are senior management part of the solution or part of the problem? You need to get to know these people quite well and quite quickly to see how they’re dealing with the business, how stressed they are, where their competence levels are and where there are gaps. There’s usually a skills gap somewhere which helps you understand why they haven’t been able to fix the problem.
What was your first assignment like?
I worked with an owner-managed FMCG business, they were selling disposable nappies. The owners were two Swedish guys and a US chairman who was very hands-off. One Swede looked after the finance side of things, the other notionally ran the business, he was the original entrepreneur but managing wasn’t his strength. So part of my job was moving him out of a management role. Fortunately, he understood that the business did well when he was doing product development work instead, and he was sufficiently mature to accept that transition. I rebuilt the management team to bring the company to profitability and set up systems to improve material supply chain and manufacturing cost controls.
What would you say has been your most challenging assignment to date?
That was probably running the Romanian tyre industry, which was quite large in terms of assets. The client (a bank) had bought the industry, working with a local entrepreneur, and during one of the regular cyclical recessions in the automotive market “the tide went out” and they were making massive losses.
Some of the challenges and peculiarities of the assignment included:
- Re-structuring the group so that the local entrepreneur no longer had direct line authority (“he was part of the problem”)
- Bringing in an interim CFO with me because the bank didn’t believe the figures being given to them
- The compensation agreement prevalent in Romania at the time, in which companies traded goods in lieu of cash
- Dealing with significant trust issues in satellite Soviet States recovering from the Cold War
- Chairing a shareholders meeting in Romania (while not speaking a word of Romanian)
- Enlisting a computer boffin with cracked spectacles (“he looked an absolute shambles, this bloke”) to isolate a Trojan virus and evade the threat made by their software supplier to demolish the company’s data
- A €30 million hole in the balance sheet
In the fifteen months he spent on the job, Tony:
- Built a strong team of young Romanian professionals to take the business forward
- Re-structured the group’s successful sale (in three parts)
- Achieved a €20m reduction in shortfall between liabilities and current assets
What distinguishes a good interim manager from someone more suited to a permanent position?
The essence of it is there’s no additional magic criteria that an interim has compared to anybody else, it’s a different tune if you like, using the same notes. You need to be very flexible and adaptable, because you have to be able to attune yourself to the circumstances of the new client organisation from day one, or week one at least. You need to be able to take a complicated situation and make it simple, in terms of action. What needs to be done and why? You’re doing this at a much more rapid rate than you would expect in a normal business, the ability to communicate the change needed is very important. In six to nine months, you need to move an organisation on probably as much as a normal organisation would evolve in three or four years. If you don’t do that, particularly in a stress situation, it’s dead.
What has been your impression of Delville so far?
Delville has recently signed up to be an affiliate of the IIM. Delville is a new boy locally, in the UK, but it comes with a track record, history, and approach that the IIM felt was professional and appropriate and that we’re happy to be associated with. People can apply to be an affiliate, we don’t just dish them out, it’s a significant sign that Delville is a force of good in the community, for them to get that recognition this early in the game.
Across his fascinating interim career spanning two and a half decades, Tony has demonstrated impressive vision, decisiveness and communication skills, all vital attributes for a high-performing interim manager. As Tony says:
“The interface between functions and how efficient and effective they are is the distinction usually, in my experience, between an organisation that’s trundling along and one that’s absolutely flying.”
This certainly rings true with us at Delville and we look forward to working with Tony to ensure our clients are “absolutely flying”.