Mike Watson CA reflects on his career path, from Beano boss to hospitality
Mike Watson CA’s journey has taken him from practice to publishing and now hospitality as Group Finance Director of Apex. He tells Lysanne Currie about his journey, the importance of mentoring and the leap from CFO to CEO
This time last year, Apex Hotels declared its return to profitability following the pandemic. The group was perhaps better equipped than most to weather the series of storms that battered the hospitality sector, starting with the outbreak of Covid. Apex was founded by Norman Springford MBE, an accountant who spent 21 years working first for the Inland Revenue, then in practice, while simultaneously building a business empire that began when he bought a pub in 1971. In 1995, he purchased an Edinburgh site that would become the location of the first Apex Hotel. Springford stepped down in 2014, but the accounting influence that runs through the business remains strong. Angela Vickers CA, who was brought in back in 2004, is now Apex CEO. Last year she appointed Mike Watson CA as Group FD.
Mike arrived at Apex as the latest step in a career that has taken him to some unpredictable sectors, a versatility he credits to his CA qualification. “My training has been pivotal,” he says. “Irrespective of industry, the ability to analyse and interpret complex financial information gives you a huge grounding in financial principles. And the learning around risk management and optimising the implications of changes and fluctuations in a business model has been a strong string to my bow.”
Born and raised in East Kilbride, Mike was exposed to his father’s office life as an engineer, giving him an early familiarity with the corporate world. “I always had an interest in running a business – even though I didn’t really know what that meant,” he laughs. At high school, he was drawn to practical subjects – accountancy, economics, mathematics – and went on to a degree in accountancy at Glasgow Caledonian University. “There was a lot of practical experience,” he says, “but it also allowed you to keep your options open in terms of whether you work within practice or go into a hands-on operations role.”
Mike trained at Nelson Gilmour Smith, in Glasgow. “I got a really broad overview and it exposed me to a variety of aspects, from dealing with bank statements and receipts to pulling together a cash book, to being involved with quite specialist audit work.” That broad experience continued when he moved to the Bank of Scotland’s business department as an auditor/underwriter: “So many different people, so many different businesses, so many different sectors,” he says.
From 2001, he had spells at Agilent Technology, logistics company Kuehne+Nagel, and Greene King, where he got his first taste of hospitality, before, in 2012, joining a very different sector – publishing. The timing might have been better: Mike’s tenure as CFO at DC Thomson in Dundee coincided with a particularly difficult period for the industry. For Mike, however, “there were challenges but they weren’t new challenges. Newspaper and magazines had been in volume decline for 30 or 40 years before I even joined the business.”
So why join an industry in decline? DC Thomson is of course famous for its portfolio of publications from My Weekly to the Beano to the Sunday Post. Mike saw the opportunity to grow “some absolutely fabulous brands within the stable”. He explains: “DC Thomson was a traditional business in terms of how we produced and distributed our content, so there was great opportunity to optimise the commercial offer for each brand and re-engineer the products themselves. For example, moving daily newspapers from broadsheet to compact was a huge shift for our audience and our teams.”
For the first few years, his leadership aimed at “extending the life cycle of some of the brands. We came up with innovative ways of producing content, whether online or through brand extensions or experiential.” For his first few years as CFO, he focused on economies of scale and being transparent about finances, budgets and projections, looking to save money through outsourcing, technology and content systems. But it wasn’t all scrimping.
“We also looked at new products and brands and how we launch them,” he says. “I love the publishing industry. It’s very, very creative. Earlier in my career I had a brief spell with Hewlett Packard in an R&D lab. The work was so theoretical, I found it difficult to grasp what we were trying to achieve, and then it’s difficult to relate the commercials. But a newspaper or magazine is a tangible product you can see and feel. It’s so much easier to understand what the business model is.”
He reflects fondly on how publications connect with their readers, creating a unique dynamic in which brands are like trusted friends: “It’s all about delighting the customer with whatever your output is. You want to engage and entertain and enlighten. The connection you have with the brand, that tangible nature of the product, is really exciting. The engagement you get from your readers is quite incredible.”
Speaking of one of DC Thomson’s most famous titles, the weekly People’s Friend, he says: “The audience treat the brand as its own. Woe betide a publisher who makes changes to that product or increases the cover price. You can expect a sackful of letters!”
Mike’s promotion from CFO to CEO in 2016 was “a colossal jump”. He cites his predecessor Ellis Watson as “a supportive sounding board”, someone who helped smooth the transition. But still the top job came with surprises. “I initially found the role unexpectedly lonely,” he admits. “It was certainly a much bigger change than I had anticipated. As CFO, you’re the subject matter expert in that area. When you’re the CEO, you’re the subject matter expert in no areas.
“But that’s the way it should be, because you should already have knowledgeable, skilful people around you in your team. I was fortunate to build a fantastic senior management team, who steered the business through those five years. The buck stops with the CEO. If you’ve a team you can rely on, trust and respect it makes those difficult decisions and lonely moments a little easier.”
So does he recommend the leap from CFO to CEO? “Absolutely! Grasp the opportunity,” he says. “But prepare yourself for an enormous step and how exposed you become. As a CFO you’re focused on the future and forecasts, but CEOs have to be both in the moment and looking at the long term. It can be all-consuming.”
Mike also advises prioritising your mental and emotional health in the top seat. “Take time away from it, because you can be immersed in work 24/7, and that’s to your detriment,” he says. “If you’ve got a team or support network around you in the business – or in my case, a hugely supportive and experienced executive chair – lean on them.” Having a young family also helps, he laughs: “It absolutely brings you back down to earth. When you’re dealing with kids, you’ve got no option, you have to clear your head.”
Mike’s experience also taught him the value of having a coach and mentor: “We’d have a couple of hours each month. She was able to show me the importance of looking at the bigger picture. It was about resetting my expectations to be much more strategic. External counsel from someone dispassionate about the business was invaluable.”
In 2022, after 10 years, Mike decided to take a break. “Without overdramatising it, the Covid situation, and all that’s involved in trying to manage our business – whose very future is dependent on newspapers and magazines getting into people’s hands – was intense,” he says. “It was time for a change.”
When deciding on his next challenge, Mike had three key conditions: working with and for good people, ensuring a company’s culture and values aligned with his own, and a potential for growth: “That was a big one for me. In publishing, it often feels that you’re pushing water uphill. A sector where you have the opportunity to really grow was definitely a pull, as was the opportunity to make a difference.”
Having worked in hospitality in the past, moving to Apex felt almost like a homecoming for Mike: “It’s a vibrant sector, and in terms of customer service and experience, a tangible output. I think that’s really exciting.”
Mike discusses Apex’s expansion into country hotels, as signalled by its acquisition of Pine Trees hotel in Pitlochry. The company aims to build a diverse offer, including rural and city centre properties, over the next few years. Helping to drive forward the company’s sustainability agenda, which has seen all its hotels achieve Green Tourism accreditation status, is also going to be a key part of his remit.
“We have a strong portfolio, our properties’ customer service scores are very robust, and the fact we can invest and grow for the longer term is great,” says Mike. “The Apex team are skilful and knowledgeable, and playing my part in developing the business to its fullest potential is exciting. I’m looking forward to the year ahead.”
Read our Big Picture feature on the UK hospitality sector