In our latest MERJE Meets article, we had the pleasure of chatting to Matt Oldham, CEO and co-founder of Unizest, a specialist banking app for people who have just moved or are moving to the UK.
Matt shares with us the wisdom he has built up over his 30-year career with companies such as GE, Avios, and Thomas Cook, and more recently as an entrepreneur. From Marketing Graduate, to Head of Business Development, to Chief Executive Officer, NED and beyond, Matt discusses his varied career path, his secret to success and who he looks up to.
What has your career journey been like to get to your position today?
I am co-founder and CEO of a fintech start-up – but I didn’t start there! I have had a 25-year career prior to that in financial services and loyalty with the likes of GE Capital, Airmiles and Thomas Cook. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was building up experience and connections that would serve me for life as an entrepreneur.
I think it is the connections made that have been most valuable to me. When I spotted the opportunity for Unizest, I was able to tap into people who could help me make it a reality. This included the long-term relationships I had with my two co-founders, Tony Shawcross and Chris Donnachie, and with advisors and with investors, all of whom have been essential.
My journey has not been smooth though. There have been bumps, peaks and troughs! My first job was as a Marketing Graduate with Pilkington (the global glass manufacturer) and I had no clear plan about what I wanted to be or do.
I have always wanted to be involved in growth and I have been lucky to have a broad range of experiences, including a lot of international travel. And, I have always met and kept contact with interesting people along the way – many of whom have become very good friends and even business partners.
What challenges have you faced and what have you learned from them?
It is impossible to have a career where you push yourself to succeed without having disappointments. Whether that be jobs you didn’t get, projects that fail or being rejected for investment. Challenges usually feel more like a slap in the face than a learning opportunity!
The biggest challenge I have faced in my career was a legal battle I had with my first start-up business. We eventually won, but the process was draining and stressful.
If I had a cure for work-related stress, I would be loaded (!) but I can only share what helped me.
Over time I have developed a great network of friends, former colleagues, clients, etc. This provides me with a pool of resources that I can dip into in times of need. But that is a two-way deal – it is only effective as a resource if you are prepared to contribute yourself. So I do try and help when I can if my contacts and network want something that I can help with. What goes around…
Has there been a key moment in your career that has led you to where you are today?
I was 40 when I left the “corporate world” to try out life as an entrepreneur. Hardly the teenager-in-a-garage story, but not actually uncommon. Many founders have had broad commercial experience before setting off on their own and it proves to be very valuable.
It is however a leap of faith to leave a “steady job” and rely on yourself and a smaller bunch of fellow travellers. Being a founder is tough and there is no safety net. You can’t coast or stay under the radar.
Taking that first step into the world of the entrepreneur was significant for me personally. It was the start of an on-going journey…
What is your leadership philosophy?
I’m not sure I have one!
I am not a big reader of business books and I don’t follow any leadership gurus. I think I am quite instinctive in my approach; however, I have picked up things from people I have worked with or for in the past.
Ultimately, it’s more about following than leadership. People will only follow people who they think have integrity, who will lead them somewhere and who have a credible plan. Perhaps we over complicate things.
What do you believe is the Key to Success?
This answer should be different for everyone you ask, because we are people, not robots. We all have individual motivations based on our personalities, our passion and our personal goals.
I have a clear vision for where I want to be at a certain point in time. This is not a personal monetary goal or a “KPI” – it is a forward projection of what I want my life to look like, with an understanding that it might change!
For me, success is measured against that vision. Am I closer to it or further away? The key to success for me is having that clear vision and being honest about where I am on the road to achieving it.
What do you enjoy most in your current role?
The most enjoyable part of being a founder and CEO is seeing what you initiated come to life.
I am sure it is the same for many founders – it starts as an itch of an idea, then gathers some pace as you share your thoughts and get some affirmation. It might spend some time as a PowerPoint deck, but eventually it becomes a real “thing” – your business.
Seeing the first bits of marketing materials, a website, a business card! These are all the things that make you believe it will happen. And then when you get customers and partners…it is a real buzz, and definitely the most enjoyable part.
(For balance…much of the above is also nerve-wracking, stressful and the cause of much angst!)
Are there any other Chief Executive Officers that you admire?
If you will indulge me slightly…
My father was recently 80 and is still Chairman of Suresite Group, a business he founded 30 years previously. Despite not playing an active part in the business these days, he knows every employee by name and is respected and like by everyone there. They even threw him a surprise birthday party!
Whilst I am sure there are other leaders who have a tighter grip on strategy and current management trends than my dad, there is much to be said for decency, treating everyone with respect and being people focused. In return you get tremendous loyalty and people who care for the business they work for.
There is much I can learn from my father as a CEO (just don’t tell him!).
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Only ever hire 10s.”
This piece of advice was given to me in my 20s before I had ever hired anyone. It is simple yet true.
If you hire someone you think is an 8 or a 7 (i.e. pretty good or nearly good) they might go on and hire what they think is an 8 or a 7. Before you know it you have a team full of 4s.
In reality, this means taking your time. Not compromising on talent even when you have a pressing need. You are only ever as good as the people around you so make sure they are as good as they can possibly be.
A big thank you to Matt for taking the time to collaborate with us on this great article. If you would like to work with MERJE to produce great content, get in touch with our marketing team: email@example.com.
If you would like to discuss this, or any other topics in our articles, drop us a line.