Azura Search Network Interview with Adam Smith from Jack Links


Paul Thompson from Azura Search NL recently spoke to Adam Smith, Finance Director EMEA, at Jack Link's based in Amsterdam. During their conversation they discussed Adam's career at Jack Link's, his views on the FMCG industry and what the future finance professional looks like.

Why and when did you join Jack Link's and what has the experience taught you?
I joined Jack Link's after taking a sabbatical for 9 months. It was a frightening decision to just stop, and take time for my family (although I wholly recommend it!). At the time I felt very anxious about getting back on the ladder, and utterly uncertain whether I could just pick up where I left off. I remember being particularly disappointed when a role that I was over-qualified for was withdrawn at the last step. I was fully prepared to take a step backwards in my career, and the labour market at the time made it feel like I needed to do that. Looking back I have often told my wife how lucky I was to miss out that opportunity, as my Jack Link's Journey has allowed me to grow so much, while being a phenomenal amount of fun.

During your time at Jack Link's what major changes to the FMCG industry have you seen?
Europe has been a different place to operate for FMCG’s, and I’m immensely proud that we’ve driven a CAGR of 8%+ over the last 5 years. The landscape is adapting, and while heavy-duty brands are still key players, retailers are looking more and more to differentiate themselves, while facing off against the expansion of hard and soft discounters. I’d highlight three interesting dynamics.

Retailers are looking for category captains who can not only sell, but will also bring consumer incremental innovation. Our Pep’d up Chicken bites in the UK might feel like a “me-too” product, but it’s only been successful because we could show it was driving significant incremental consumers into the category. More and more this is what retailers are looking for – incrementality not just ideas.

Price is second. Or with some retailers, first, and only. Some markets are harder than others here, and as Finance we are spending more and more time prepping and scenario planning negotiations with our sales teams.

Last I think that disruption (buzz-word bingo stamp!) is really at work in the world of FMCG. I can’t walk through a super-market without seeing a non-meat display, or a vegan/bio aisle, or a not-milk section carved out. Retailers are more and more willing to gamble shelf space on the next big growth opportunity, but at the cost of the slow turning items, and the safe-bet incremental innovations. No more “raspberry flavoured” line extensions.

How has your team developed during your time with the business and what have the biggest challenges been when hiring?
I still remember an old boss telling me what he expected from me to give me the top marks in an employee evaluation. “Do my job for me”. This is what I try to develop into my team, the confidence and space to take decisions and move things forward. Jack Link's isn’t a hugely corporate structure, and the more responsibility my team can take for making decisions themselves, the more it frees up my time for more strategic projects. Within the team, we are constantly driving three key technical skills – reporting, communication and process mastery.

The challenges in hiring is less about skills and more about culture. Jack Link’s has an entrepreneurial and positive-chaotic culture, and it creates an environment where people who want to get things done thrive, but others find it too much, or too disruptive. By the time I’m sitting in an interview with someone I usually can tell from the CV they have at least enough skills to do the job. I’m trying to see if they’re fast enough and driven enough to succeed in our team.

"If before Corona, Cash was King, maybe now it’s emperor. Corona has sharpened our cash management skills across the team, in Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable, Controlling, Tax, Reporting, even (and especially) IT – it’s where we’ve made the fastest leaps in our finance agenda this year."

What do you look for when working with an executive search or recruitment firm?
More and more this is about partnership, and being able to trust them to represent our business to potential new talent. I think trust is an important word there. No one joins Jack Link’s because they are excited about mini-salamis (even though they taste great and are of the highest quality!). They join because they are excited about our culture, our people and our ambitions, and I need to be able to trust a recruiter to reflect these properly, to ensure that we continue to attract the very best talent.

I’ve successfully partnered with Azura Search and Altum Consulting, both part of Altum Group, to hire some amazing candidates into crucial roles in my Finance department. They’ve always taken time to understand the culture of our business, and reflected that back to candidates, who are already excited even before they walk into our offices. My best moments with them have probably been the toughest ones. The last fill they did was almost too easy, as the final candidate was just outstanding but I’m personally more impressed on the hard-fill roles, where it takes ten or more interviews to find the right candidate. They were just as invested in finding the right candidate as I was, even after months of searching.

Do you think the pandemic has altered the key skills needed of a finance professional? If so what are they?
If before Corona, Cash was King, maybe now it’s emperor. Corona has sharpened our cash management skills across the team, in Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable, Controlling, Tax, Reporting, even (and especially) IT – it’s where we’ve made the fastest leaps in our finance agenda this year. Even though snacking has been a ‘safe’ industry to be in during Corona, the risks we saw (for example what if we have a government mandated shut-down of our factory, something we saw in other producers) really sharpened our focus on cash management. What had been good enough in times of uncertainty was no longer “good enough”, and we had to very quickly improve. Never waste a good crisis; we drove huge advances in our cash management processes in a very short period, and with the whole business supporting us and understanding the need for change.

At a leadership level, we talked a lot about VUCA – which means Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, and have no better acronym for 2020. I’ve needed team members who are totally fine with abandoning our objectives for the year because suddenly they were irrelevant, and who can quickly prioritise the highest value activities. 2020 has prioritized cash receipts over pretty dashboards.

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