ICAS Vice President, Alison Cornwell CA: Leading from the front
Alison Cornwell CA, Vue International Group CFO and ICAS Vice President, has enjoyed a stellar career in the entertainment industry. She tells Lysanne Currie why working at a start-up made her a better corporate FD and how newly reinstated Disney CEO Bob Iger shaped her own leadership style
It’s not often the business world is taken completely by surprise. But that’s what happened on 20 November when the news broke that Disney’s Bob Iger would be returning to the role of CEO, supplanting his hand-picked replacement, Bob Chapek, only a year after retiring. One of the reasons given for Chapek’s departure was his alleged “feuding” with other departments – as well as with superstar Scarlett Johansson. Complaints were made to the board, while MoffettNathanson analysts wrote that the restructuring process he oversaw “has hurt the morale of the creative leadership and has created more bureaucracy”.
Iger, on the other hand, is renowned for his people-first leadership skills – a trait Alison Cornwell CA, formerly of Disney, now Group CFO Vue International and ICAS Vice President, highlights in citing him as the business leader who most inspired her. Cornwell saw the power of Iger’s skill in real life, having had the “privilege of working with him for almost 10 years” while with Walt Disney TV International.
Cornwell joined Disney in 1995 as CFO, a role in which she was responsible for the finances of three fast-growing components with a combined turnover approaching $2bn (then equivalent to £1.25bn) – licensing some 6,000 Disney titles across multiple platforms to 500 broadcasters in 100 countries; a portfolio of 13 equity investments in third-party broadcasters; and the Disney Channels, which brought her into direct contact with Iger.
“Bob Iger is an incredible guy,” she says. “He was absolutely focused on investing in high-quality content and using tech and innovation as ways to reach people, such as via Disney+. I believe in leading from the front and that’s what Bob always seems to do. He likes the personal interaction. He breaks down barriers and is a very good listener. Disney became much more collaborative under Bob. And he is a great dealmaker, always personally fascinated in getting involved in key content decisions.”
Indeed, Iger brokered the deals with Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, owner of the Star Wars franchise, that have kept Disney at the forefront of 21st-century entertainment.
Cornwell’s passion for the screen, big and small, shines through – her favourite Disney movie is The Incredibles – and, as well as the Vue role, she has been a Governor of the BFI and an NED for high-end production company Moonriver TV. But film wasn’t Cornwell’s first love – that was a tie between maths and music. “I played in bands. I wrote songs.” Music is still a passion; her taste – “everything from madrigals to grunge” – still eclectic. Of course, her day job satisfies the numbers geek in her: Vue currently operates more than 2,000 screens in over 200 cinemas across the UK and beyond, with an annual turnover of £900m.
As a teenager, Cornwell was unsure what to pursue, when her uncle, a partner in a local practice, suggested chartered accountancy. “He said I could keep music as a hobby; then with an accountancy qualification, the world would be my oyster,” she says. “I thought that was excellent advice, so I took it.”
A degree at the University of Glasgow beckoned, followed by training at Coopers & Lybrand. “I knew I wanted to move into corporate finance,” she says. “In the Glasgow office at that time, there was no corporate finance practice as such, but I was involved in the couple of smallish corporate finance assignments that we handled. I loved working on a transaction which had an end goal. But the only way for me to be involved in corporate finance was to move, so I came down to London in 1990, with a two-year plan. I’m still here.”
At the firm’s London HQ, Cornwell was swiftly promoted to Senior Manager. She knew the next step would be partner, but, “I didn’t want to be a partner because what I loved doing was the actual work,” she says. “I decided my next step would be moving to industry.”
She joined Disney at the end of 1995, starting as Head of Finance for the international television distribution business. “We delivered exponential revenue and profit growth. I was responsible for every country outside of the US. It was a massive job with huge opportunity to get involved in start-ups and to really drive the business.
“We became a victim of our own success. We grew the business to be so significant, we ended up spending 90% of our time preparing internal presentations rather than running the business!”
When, almost a decade on, an exciting offer arose to join the new team in Sparrowhawk Media Group, raising private equity money to buy and run the Hallmark Channel, Cornwell took it.
“We transformed the business, expanded it, then sold it two and a half years later to NBC Universal,” she says. “We’d wanted the Hallmark acquisition to be the foundation on which we would then buy and build other businesses. But for various reasons that didn’t happen and we ended up selling our business. Everybody did well. It was a rollercoaster and a great learning experience.”
Cornwell was headhunted by Alliance Films, a Goldman Sachs-backed film distributor with operations in Canada, the UK, Spain and more, to be CFO. “A wonderful six years,” she says. “I did a huge number of deals and a lot of business transformation.” Cornwell helped to move the business from pure distribution into film financing: “We created a very successful film financing arm. Then, being private equity-backed, it became time for an exit, which I ran.”
Following the sale, Vue founder Tim Richards heard Cornwell was considering leaving Alliance and asked her to become Vue’s CFO. “I knew Tim as we were both on the board of governors of the British Film Institute,” she says. “Tim is exceptional – a great businessman, a great entrepreneur. I jumped at the chance. I’ve been with Tim ever since.”
Cornwell believes in continual learning and takes lessons from each of her career chapters, up to and including the challenges brought by the pandemic.
“I was relatively young at Disney and I had huge responsibility,” she says. “It was a corporate job with massive scale but sometimes I felt I wasn’t a real CFO: I didn’t have to worry about where the money was coming from to meet that month’s payroll. There were lots of other people in Disney who looked after those things. Sparrowhawk pulled me out of my comfort zone and I loved the challenge. We made a big success of it but there were a lot of challenges along the way. Focusing on making sure you can grow within your available liquidity means being very, very practical.”
Cornwell says her time as a start-up CFO was invaluable in enhancing her skills, and making her a better corporate FD, a better business leader. “It’s all about prioritisation and focusing on the right things,” she says. “When the buck stops with you, you have to make it work. And you’re responsible not just for yourself, but for everybody. I think being a CFO and dealing with the rollercoaster that we had over those two and a half years was a phenomenal experience. And it’s all about working with people. There’s no time for politics. It’s about working with people who you trust and finding solutions together.”
And it was this experience that Cornwell drew on when the pandemic dropped its bomb on Vue’s business. “We were significantly adversely affected,” she says. “We experienced several periods of mandated closure across all nine countries in which we operate. And that situation compelled me to follow a very particular leadership style. The functional silos, whether in finance or operations, had to blur because we all had one common goal: managing liquidity.
“Once you get everybody in it together, leadership has to be more inclusive and collaborative. It was all about teamwork and making people feel valued. At the beginning of the pandemic, I formed what I called the liquidity task force because I wanted everybody to feel like they were a superhero. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it was to get people focused on one goal.
“We all worked together with clear communication, ruthless prioritisation and problem solving in partnership. More recently, all our stakeholders agreed to a balance sheet restructure – every investor, every tier of our capital structure. That’s almost unheard of.”
Cornwell dates her ability to focus and prioritise back to her early accountancy days and, as the recession bites, it’s still the first piece of advice she would pass on to any business in any sector.
“I learned some of those skills early in my career,” she says. “A lot of it is just common sense. It’s about working together as a team, explaining the situation, what we need to achieve. Bob Iger would always listen to people: ‘What do you think? What do you think?’ It’s the same in any business: treat people with respect and courtesy, listen to what they’ve got to say – and give them a framework in which to thrive and deliver.”
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