For 16 years Unsworth has been helping to build and scale businesses, from start-ups to established players. He has been involved in management buyouts, private equity deals and other exits, including concierge firm Ten Group’s listing on the London stock market, where he was chief product officer. He was previously chief customer officer at tax refund firm Global Blue and chief innovation officer at Blue Rubicon (now Teneo), as well as chair of ad:tech London. Last year he founded Upgrade Pack, working with businesses to offer flight and hotel upgrades. Via Nurole he was appointed a non-executive director at travel specialist cazenove+loyd.
How did you hear of Nurole?
I was referred by a friend. I found it refreshingly different. A large part of my personality is based on being a hybrid. The traditional headhunter model can often be a bit of a misfit for misfits. I would speak to a headhunter who had approached me because of one aspect of what I do and with that model you can quite often leave behind the fact that there are lots of other things I like to do as well. Nurole was great because it captured all of it.
Do you think that a hybrid personality is more common with entrepreneurs?
Yes, but I think we will see it become more prevalent in the future. The board of tomorrow doesn't look like four square shaped pegs in square shaped holes. It's going to be much more about adaptability, bringing in a chief financial officer who has been a chief executive, for example, or the chief executive will be a digital native.
You have just set up your own business. Why did you want a Non-Executive role?
There was an aspect that I knew I would miss, which was fixing existing issues and working with challenges around legacy and businesses being a certain age. I have usually worked for companies that are 15 to 20 to 25-years-old and that comes with its own issues. I knew I wasn't going to have that in this new company I'm building, so I wanted to keep my skills sharp. It's what I've done forever, I knew I would miss it.
You've spent most of your career successfully working for other people. What drove you to start your own business?
I have spent a number of years driving exits for entrepreneurs and chief executives, who for one reason or the other had gone as far as they could with the business that they built. Each time I think I worked extremely hard and delivered something which built value. I was always comfortable that they left with a huge amount of money, I left with some, but the bit that I struggled with was the team that I had built, because usually it meant going in and building a whole new team, most of them got nothing.
I knew I had to build a business and to do that within. I've not quite achieved the John Lewis model, where the employees own the entire business, but we have given away millions of pounds worth of shares and it feels really good to know that in X years, if we’ve had a new partnership or a new structure or a new ultimate owner, everyone here has benefited from that process as well.
Is there a right exit strategy?
The best advice I can give anybody is the most obvious but the least adhered to. When you're selling your business you have to sell it to someone who understands the business. It may sound slightly ridiculous but the IPO that I was part of, I still maintain to this day that business should never have floated, my vote was a trade sale. If you look at the share price of that company since it's floated I know I'm completely vindicated in that view that the market doesn't understand that space. The majority of what I've done in my career has been in the luxury or premium sector and the mass market, specifically the retail market from the investors’ side, don't understand that space.
What role will technology play in shaping up the board of the future?
The biggest risk to business in the UK that I can think of is the lack of migratory skills to compete on a global stage. It's very easy to hire a token tech person but until the chief executive is a product person or until the chief executive is able to assimilate digital nativity the businesses are just not going to be able to adapt.
It's such a fundamental role and if you look at the traditional top team, that traditional triumvirate has got to include someone who can think about product and customer experience and that applies to absolutely any business. If you're a pharmaceutical firm you could be a services business. You have to have someone who's there at board level driving it through.
The good news is we've never had more people able to fulfill those roles but the environments are still pretty horrific especially if you don't happen to be a middle-aged, grey, white straight man. It's really tough.
Now some quick-fire questions…
Best professional advice?
I had the great pleasure of working with David Baxby, Sir Richard Branson’s former right-hand man, when I was at Global Blue. He absolutely instilled in me the mantra that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission sometimes.
Biggest career break?
Leaving the agency and consultancy world behind. I was starting to feel I wasn't learning anything new.
There have been opportunities I didn't get because I was too young. Even after I had significant, proven experience, I still probably had half a dozen roles, mostly non-executive roles, where they chickened out in the end because they were worried what would it look like me with being so young on the board.
What are you reading at the moment?
I only read non-fiction. I've recently read Shape Up Your Business by Sophie Cornish and Holly Tucker, the founders of Notonthehighstreet.com. It was interesting because it shaped a huge amount of the thinking I had around flexibility in the workplace.
Favourite film or TV show?
It has to have subtitles. If I watch something with subtitles I'm going to watch it because I can't sit on my phone and send emails at the same time. I absolutely love Scandinavian drama.
Mexico. I go every year.
Find My Friends and Slack.
When did you last cry?
I cried two days ago at my friend's wedding. I cry all the time.
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