They say working in banking can drive you to drink - and Matthew O’Connell took it literally, leaving Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division to become Head of Investment at BI Wines & Spirits, the largest global fine wine merchant. His Goldman years working across corporate finance, debt financing and risk management have come in handy as he focuses on building BI’s existing investment platform into a larger scale asset management offering, while also driving other key strategic growth projects for the company. After a busy spell renovating his Grade II*-listed home, O’Connell has also recently launched his NED career, becoming a trustee of Historic England’s charitable arm.
You recently restored a Grade II*-listed property, which is now your family home - can you tell me more about how doing so ignited a passion for the historic environment and heritage?
We spent a year restoring our current home, Saling Hall, which is a Jacobean house in North Essex. My wife and I have always had a passion for historic buildings but bringing a house with so much original historic fabric back to life in such a hands-on way was an amazing experience. It also made us feel keenly a wider responsibility to take a more active role in preserving and promoting the historic environment. This applies not just to beautiful 1600s-built houses, but parks and gardens, monuments, revolutionary buildings like Historic England’s Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, and the education, skills and engagement which sit right alongside these heritage assets.
So the Historic England trustee role came up at just the right time. But given your background is in banking, and current role is in wine investment, what made you want to focus on a totally different area in your first trusteeship?
I have always been a firm proponent of transferable skills and of the idea that we produce the best results when working with something one is passionate about (my interest in fine wine was one facet that led to my current role at BI Wines & Spirits). When I saw the Historic England Foundation Trustee role, it immediately excited and engaged me - all the more so once I had met with the chairman and head of philanthropy.
Having recently started a new job, and become a father for the first time, why did you want to take on a trustee role now?
Charity and charitable giving is very important to me but I particularly favour a hands-on approach where possible. Having one or more trustee roles had therefore been a focus of mine for some time but I was patient to ensure I found the right charity where I felt I could make a real difference.
What's your advice to others in a similar position, keen to take on a board role relating to a hobby or special interest?
It is of course the case that there will only be a small number of roles – whether professional or not-for-profit – which overlap with a hobby or special interest. So my advice is - within reason! - not to let reservations about lack of directly relevant experience hold you back from applying for a particularly compelling role.
What have been your most transferable skills from the banking and HNW fundraising arenas?
A lot of our focus so far [at Historic England] has been on “business planning” for the charity, in relation to which it has been great to get perspectives from all of the trustees who have quite divergent professional backgrounds; for me, of course, it’s quite a natural read-across from corporate finance. Another focus of mine so far has been the idea of ensuring that the right charity projects can be matched with the right potential donors, something which I believe is a cornerstone of successful fundraising whether in the asset management space or for charities.
How do you think the digital revolution will change fundraising?
It’s a very interesting area: the digital revolution is intuitively most applicable to individual giving rather than other charitable-giving sources. There’s a perception – as in many fields with apparent digital applicability – that the right digital strategy can potentially transform any charity (or business), but my view is that it will be very impactful for charities where smaller-scale, higher-volume individual giving is key and less significant to other charities (indeed for such charities high digital spend may drive surprisingly poor investment vs. income ratios).
And now for some quick-fire questions…
What’s your favourite book?
The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben – simply mind-blowing.
Serit arbores quae alteri saeclo prosint (‘we plant trees not for ourselves but for future generations’); Statius, quoted by Cicero.
A trip around Japan.
What do you do to have fun?
As you might expect from my current profession, I am a fan of very good wine…
A bit sad but I am slightly obsessed with WeatherPro. We are extremely passionate about our – rather drought-prone – garden at Saling Hall, and the app is remarkably useful!
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you have on average?
630am. I try to get seven hours’ sleep after years of deprivation working in M&A!
When did you last cry?
When our first child, a daughter, Cecilia, was born earlier this year.
If you are looking for senior executive and non-executive director roles, Nurole's innovative recruitment platform can help.