When Alastair Horrocks left the British Army in 2009, he knew it would be a challenging transition. Learn how he went on to forge a successful career in finance, discover which transferable skills he brings to his role and the advice he has for anyone seeking to follow in his footsteps.
Tell us about your current role
I’m a Director in the Mergers & Acquisitions team at a Big Four firm, advising shareholders on selling their business. My job is to maximise the value they receive for their business when it is sold. Less frequently I also work on the buyer side, advising clients on how best to buy a company and supporting them through that complex process.
What attracted you to corporate finance?
I think it’s because to sell something you need to understand it, and I have a strong understanding of the sector I specialise in. Industry knowledge allows you to offer real insights – you understand how best to position it. You need to get to know the business, be able to forecast, be critical of the business and its strategy and help your client get the business ready for sale so that it attracts the right buyer pool. There’s some science behind it, but what I enjoy most is working with the client and making sure the message they send to buyers strikes the right chord.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part is when you get a good result for an entrepreneur or private shareholder who has invested a large part of their professional career, and probably quite a lot of their personal life and savings, in a business and then you see them rewarded for that effort. The other is building relationships with clients over a period of time so that you become a trusted advisor. I enjoy it when clients turn to me on an informal basis to get my advice on aspects of their business – it’s all part of the relationship I’m building with them.
How did you come to work where you are now? Tell us a little about the path that brought you here.
I joined the Army after university in the Green Jackets regiment. My last role was with the infantry, doing a staff job in HQ, focused on intelligence. When I left the Army I wasn’t sure what to do, and decided to do an MBA at INSEAD to better understand which area of business interested me, and what I was good at. I enjoyed the corporate finance modules, but it was 2009 and the financial markets were not the best place to find a job. Instead, I went into a well-known global corporation in their business development team. There, I made sure I became involved in M&A work so I could gain some experience, which I then decided I wanted to do in an advisory firm.
What skills and knowledge are you still using from your military experience?
Having transitioned from the forces to finance I can see that in both it fundamentally comes down to relationships and communication. In the Army you are taught to address issues head on, and you spend a lot of time in your formative years about how to communicate those issues properly. The experience served me well in M&A, where I have to give powerful messages, and the way I deliver them is important. I also find that in my current role I’m dealing with a constant input of new information which I must use to make decisions. It was a similar situation in my military role, and you have to accept the decision you make might not be perfect, but you have to think of the best outcome based on the information you have. It’s really all about communication, agility and being able to step back from problems and frame them in context.
How was the transition from army to civilian life for you?
Coming out of the Army is tricky. I think I mitigated some of the challenges by doing structured learning – I had a goal to aim for, which was really helpful, but it was still hard going. After eight years with the Army I had friends and colleagues I’d grown close to and the sense of what I was doing there was very clear.
The downside of having spent all that time after university in the Army is that I wasn’t forging the long-term career path that I wanted to pursue, I wasn’t taking a professional qualification. That meant when I came out, and I wanted to work in a company where a certain level of education and experience was needed, I had to work hard. The Army stands you in very good stead, but you still need to learn the new business or sector you’re in. It’s unnerving in three ways:
- You’re not quite sure what you want to do, or if you do, you’re not sure how to get there
- You have to learn very quickly. You’re being thrust into an environment where your colleagues may be much younger than you but they have more experience, and you have to show what you can offer.
- You miss the structure and support that the Army can offer
What additional training have you pursued to help you with that move?
I did the MBA through INSEAD, and I also did the first two parts of the CIMA qualification to get up to speed with a basic level of understanding of accountancy. Once in work, I’ve taken on whatever training courses the firm had to offer that I thought I could benefit from, such as modelling and evaluations. I’ve also done some training in business development. I think BD probably comes very naturally to many people moving from the forces to finance, because they’re used to engaging with people they don’t know, but there’s a knack to selling in a non obtrusive, non aggressive way that has to be learned.
How does working for a Big 4 company compare to working for the British Army?
In many respects they’re more similar than you’d think, because they are fundamentally people businesses – the key assets in both are people. This is in stark contrast to the engineering company where I worked before, where the focus was much more on the products and the IP in them.
They are also similar in that they are very large organisations, but within each there are smaller teams. My immediate team in M&A has ten of us, then there are 60 more across the wider business. In that respect, I can relate to the platoon and company structure in the Army – it’s just lots of small teams working within one bigger one.
One of the key differences you see when moving from the forces to finance, or likely most civilian organisations, is the management culture. The military is a lot more hierarchical than my company, which is a partnership and has a lot flatter structure. Decision making is very different too – you get a lot more communal input here, which has obvious upsides and downsides.
What advice would you give to someone considering a move from the forces to finance?
The key thing is to work out what technical qualification is going to get you through the door and enhance your capability as well as your credibility. The military serves you well and the things you learn will be useful, but you need to demonstrate your technical understanding of the sector to make yourself credible to the company hiring you.
You also need to understand what part of finance you want to go into and how you can best serve that area. It’s a broad church, and some sectors will be more challenging than others to transition from the forces to finance. M&A is actually probably not a very sensible choice for someone a little older with family commitments, because your peers will be 23 year old qualified accountants who can work 15 hour days!
Other areas of finance have a better work life balance and might not require you to have such a deep technical knowledge in the early years. Be realistic about what you want and what the employer wants from you, and frame that in the context of you, your age and situation, your experience and your background.
If you are considering a career transition such as a move from the forces to finance, please do get in touch to have a chat about your options.