“In a room full of men posturing, being a woman helps you sidestep all that nonsense"

14th Jun 21

Sarika Haggipavlou low

As you track Sari­ka Haggipavlou’s career on her LinkedIn pro­file, you notice it con­tains lots of lit­tle sur­pris­es. For a start, she’s one of those finance lead­ers who’ve worked in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent sec­tors. (We’ll come onto what actu­al­ly ties togeth­er her roles later…)

Then there’s the fact that she founded one of the businesses with her husband. But the slight twist on the conventional finance director’s CV starts right at the beginning.

True, it’s not uncommon to see a future CFO train with a Big Four accountancy firm. (Well, Big Six in those days...) “I did the milk round at university and chose Coopers & Lybrand – it was the standard audit route,” says Sarika. “Joining a big firm like that after university is fun – you’re in a cohort of 200 other young people, and while you’re working hard, it’s a great social life too.”

But, she admits, she didn’t love auditing, and after her three-year training period, she started to wonder what was next. Here’s where it gets a bit different. “Each division had its own finance manager and when mine left I convinced the partners to let me try the role out,” Sarika recalls. “It was great: I really had the pulse of the organisation, I worked closely with the partners and directors – and I even got to boss them around occasionally!”

Then in 1998, the accountancy sector went through its last big spasm of consolidation. “We didn’t find out about the merger with Price Waterhouse until all the printers in the building printed out a sheet with the announcement,” Sarika says. “It’s was pretty dramatic – I was still in my 20s and it was a major development.” As finance manager, she was on the front line integrating two functions – and from 2000, she became a member of the Executive Finance team reporting to the UK Audit Executive Management team.

Who audits the auditors?

In other words, while other future finance leaders might have been camped in audit or moved sideways into advisory, by 30 Sarika was a seasoned finance exec in her own right – with some strong leadership lessons under her belt.

“You can tell your clients what they should do; but are you sure you can do it yourself?” she says. “Client interactions can be challenging, but it’s fair to say Big Four partners can often be pretty difficult people. So going into their offices to talk about fees, their clients’ payments, their attitude to training, or their expenses – it was great experience.”

Did being non-white and non-male in what was (and, to an extent, still is) a white male domain complicate her role? “Well, male partners accepting tough questions from me was quite something,” Sarika says. “But I don’t think either gender or race were a barrier. In some ways it was an advantage to be different. In a room full of men posturing and trying to gain dominance, in a way, being a woman means you can sidestep all that nonsense.”

But she’s also at pains to point out: it really helps you to be your best when you actually like the people you work with. That means getting to know them – and overcoming what might seem like barriers at first.

Building a business. Then, building: a business

Her next unusual move was to start her own business with her husband. Two kids in, and with him stepping out of a role in banking, they wanted a fresh opportunity – and realised that the children’s apparel market was huge. “We opened a shop, a franchise, in the Kings Road – then when it went well, we opened two more and ran the shops together,” Sarika says. “He did the buying, I did the finance – but we both worked in the shop every day.”

Building a customer base from scratch and running the outlets was challenging. The shift from physical to digital retail (they launched at the very start of the ecommerce revolution in 2002) at a time when rents and rates were rising fast made it doubly so. So the wife-and-husband team decided to move the business online and tossed a coin to see who would go back into employment – Sarika won.

“It was daunting going back to lead a finance team after six years,” she says about the new role as head of finance at Devereux Architects. “But you soon realise you do actually know what you’re doing. The skills are all still there.”

And the job nicely mirrored her experience in PwC – handling services fee-earners, coping with an earn-out from an earlier transaction and running the numbers on an acquisition – amongst other deals. Best of all, she says, she got to learn about a whole new area – from building design, to the economics of construction projects – that kept her brain engaged.

It was a two-way street, too. She was educating the architects about the inner workings of a p&l. “If you have a genuine interest in what people do, they will reciprocate,” Sarika says. “That helps raise your working relationship to one of mutual respect – you’re not just the one from finance pushing them to comply with the paperwork.”

A Cabinet detour

That stint ended in 2013, then up pops another little surprise in the CV: three months as consultant for the Cabinet Office. Sarika had been looking for a new job after Devereux, when she was introduced to the Cabinet Office who were undertaking major reforms of the Civil Service. “They needed some support auditing savings delivered by the reforms, so I spent three months reviewing performance and supporting some of the succession planning in the service,” she says.

Cabinet office

“The Cabinet Office felt very grand to me after so long in smaller businesses, and it’s a real bubble – you really feel that all eyes are on you,” she continues. “When you leave, of course, you realise very few people are paying attention unless there’s a scandal! There was a real mix there – super-bright people in many roles, but also Civil Service lifers who really knew their way around the place.”

Another example, then, of that leadership tip: know the people you work with. And while Sarika found it interesting in places – and despite an offer of a permanent posting – she had itchy feet once the initial task was done.

Talking the walk

She interviewed at a few companies, but that need for rapport was ever-present. “Sometimes you get a fit – in some places you simply don’t feel right, or you don’t gel with the people in the room,” she says. “Then StockWell Group came up and it ticked the boxes: working with young people in a role that encompassed finance and HR [she was CFO/COO] which meant people could be frank with me in a way they might not have been with their own managers. The communications industry was a brand-new area for me, so I was learning a lot too. It was a great move.”

It’s another case where Sarika managed to combine that pleasure of discovery with her tried-and-tested skills – working with fee-earners, handling a PE owner and even sell-side deal management.

“We weren’t actually looking to sell, and it was a shame in a way, because it brought my own role to an end,” she reflects. “I loved working with the smart people there, and because a lot of their work was financial PR, I had a head-start on the operational side!” She stuck around for the transition and integration – but just didn’t fancy becoming a departmental head in a much bigger corporate with less contact across the business.

Apella logo

A design for life

Native Design offered another new industry (product and digital design), a new culture to enjoy (Shoreditch in 2017 has a very distinctive vibe) and a founder/manager in charge (so no more detailed reports to PE backers or corporate HQ). “It was a lot fewer board meetings,” says Sarika. “There’s less formal governance structure with an owner/manager, so as a CFO you need to be vigilant to ensure fairness and so on. It’s another case where getting on well with leadership colleagues works wonders. You build trust.”

But we couldn’t finish Sarika’s story without those patterns revealing themselves once more, and her latest position melds several of the experiences from earlier in her career. “My old chair at StockWell wanted to start up a new strategic communications firm – Apella – with a difference, and approached me about it in 2018,” she says. “We shared an outlook: let’s build a company the way we’d like it done, with a small team of senior, like-minded people working to offer clients something unique.”

It ticks all the boxes: on the ground floor of a new business; built around constructive relationships; in a client services sector; and with a fresh approach ensuring she gets to learn new things. “Having empathy with your colleagues is the most important thing,” Sarika says. “Whether it’s your boss or your team, the key to leadership is understanding people’s motivations.

“I never ask people to do what I wouldn’t do myself,” she concludes. “At Apella, I’m back to being a finance team of one – so I’m doing everything! But being close to the business and working in small teams is fantastic. The big decisions are so much easier when you can see everything from the strategic down to the basics. You can see it all.”