John Sutherland CA shares the journey that led him to relocate to NYC
John Sutherland CA tells Rachel Ingram about life and work in New York City and the series of fortunate events that led him to the centre of the financial world
It’s a dream shared by millions. Walking the streets of Manhattan, gazing up at high-rise buildings as yellow cabs rush past and buzzing restaurants teem with the famous and the fashionable. For decades, movies such as West Side Story and TV shows such as Sex and the City have glamorised life in New York City. Its energy, we’re told, is unmatched. There’s nowhere else quite like it.
For one New York-based financial professional, John Sutherland CA, this is no mere fantasy. “The city lives up to the scale of what you see on TV. It is as I hoped it would be,” he says. John, who grew up in Scotland watching shows about the city, has been living his American dream for the past year as Director, Group M&A, at the London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG). He tells us about his journey, via Edinburgh and London, and the twists of fate that delivered him to New York’s doorstep.
When I was much younger, I wanted to be a pilot. Then I wanted to be a rock star. I almost deferred higher education to try to make the music thing work, but my dad was a very strong advocate of me going to university. He won that battle and I did my degree in business and accounting in Edinburgh. A big part of that was inspired by my dad, who had his own company – he was a strategy, business development and leadership consultant and he originally trained as an accountant.
Despite this, I left university convinced that I was not going to be an accountant. I did not want to go down the ICAS route like my peers. I was more interested in strategy because, at university, I’d developed an interest in how organisations are built and operated. So, I did a master’s in international business in emerging markets and, through that, I went into a consulting role at a real estate investment company.
After a year, I started to think about my next step and I realised I wanted a more specialist knowledge set. I wanted some core grounding, so I turned to my accounting roots and, by extension, ICAS. I joined the Standard Life training programme and worked across various finance teams, which I enjoyed. I saw how central numbers are to understanding all aspects of an organisation and the level of oversight a finance function has.
Towards the end of the programme, I ended up in the group corporate development team, where I got a full-time job. I joined that team at exactly the right time, when Standard Life was working on a $14bn (£11bn) merger with Aberdeen Asset Management – that was the very first M&A deal I worked on. I was hooked.
I stayed at Standard Life for a couple more years and did a few more transformational deals, including the £3bn disposal of Standard Life Aberdeen’s legacy pension business. But everything was gravitating towards London. I knew if I was going to take financial services seriously, I needed to move to one of the centres. So, in December 2018, I moved to London, and got a job with LSEG.
It felt like a big risk, but within about a year I found myself in the right place at the right time again. LSEG did a $27bn acquisition of a very large US data company called Refinitiv. From there on, I had an incredible run of transformational high-impact deals, including the $5bn disposal of the Italian Stock Exchange, Borsa Italiana, a $1bn disposal of LSEG’s North American wealth transaction processing business, and more recently LSEG’s transformational $5bn-plus 10-year strategic partnership with Microsoft.
I was becoming more US focused as LSEG was trying to build a team here. In July 2022, I was given the opportunity to move out to New York. I am still a director in the group corporate development team here but with more of a focus on trying to build our relationships and presence in the Americas.
From a work perspective, the move to London was natural. I had been there quite a bit through my job, so I knew the work side of the city fairly well. From a personal perspective, quite a few of my friends had made that move already so I had an established base there. For the move to New York, again, I’d been out quite a lot before so it felt familiar enough. The big difference has been on the personal side as I don’t have that established base out here. My family and friends aren’t a train ride away, so I am on my own.
I’ve got to build my life here and make friends, which has been a challenge for me because I’m reserved by nature. I think having a ginger beard and a strong Scottish accent helps – Americans seem to have an admiration for Scottish people. I find they are more receptive, which creates a bit of an icebreaker.
The working hours are long but I didn’t find that a huge change. I’d spent years in M&A and corporate development in Edinburgh and London, so I was well accustomed to the odd 4-5am finish or 24-hour shift. The unique thing in my situation is the way LSEG is structured. It’s still a London-centric organisation so, ironically, despite moving out to a far larger financial and capital market in the global sense, I do still spend a lot of time dealing with my colleagues back in London.
I enjoy the energy of New York. Coming from Edinburgh, I felt London had a massive energy about it, but New York’s is different – it’s bigger, it’s always on. All the restaurants and bars are open late – it’s such a vibrant scene. When I’m walking through the street, I really do feel like I’m just in the centre of the world.
I also like it being a hub to the rest of the US. Americans seem accustomed to travelling domestically, and I like that. I’ve been able to visit different states and see a lot of America, which I wanted to do on moving out here. I spent some time skiing in Utah, which was fantastic. I’ve also been to Denver, Boston and Miami, which I absolutely loved. Next, I’m going out to California and then to Maine for the Fourth of July weekend.
Moving abroad is daunting. It’s a big change, with lots of different dynamics to it, but at the end of the day you’ve got to listen to your gut. You can make an elaborate plan for your life, but it never works out that way. The one thing that is generally consistent is how you feel in your gut, so listen to that, put away the noise and the plans, and follow it.
My advice to other CAs is, before you make a move like this, think about how it drives your career, and whether there’s a life purpose behind it. Then you’ve got to weigh up both and be clear about your reasons for making the leap. For me, moving to London was a career move, but moving to New York was a life move, which was more about me creating a new life for myself. I was at a crossroads where all my friends were settling down and having children, but I felt I still wasn’t ready for that. I saw the opportunity to do something big for myself without having to worry about how it would fit into a relationship. I’d also, rightly or wrongly, always had an obsession with America through the silver screen, so all of that has come together.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything about my journey. While I fought the ICAS route initially, I’m glad I eventually embraced it and I’m looking forward to making use of the network here. The unique knowledge it gave me to really understand numbers and what they mean is one benefit, but I also feel it gave me a strong grounding and core which has impacted my life meaningfully – almost a centre of gravity that has stayed with me throughout. For me, that’s hugely important.
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