Sian Westerman - Stairway to Success!

Sian and I met at Daylesford in Notting Hill to dive into her career over a cup of coffee and green tea. I first met Sian when I was working for BGF and she was advising Sophia Webster - who BGF subsequently invested in - and throughout many meetings I was always so impressed with her eloquence, knowledge and confidence. Not forgetting the odd Dior earrings that occasionally caught my eye! Sian began her career as a magic circle lawyer with Slaughter and May before swapping to banking and joining Rothschild. She ascended the ranks over 10 years becoming Managing Director in the Global Financial Advisory Division and specialising in retail and luxury. With her combination of blue chip foundations in legal, negotiation, finance and luxury, Sian went on become a non-executive director of Anya Hindmarch, Roksanda and Nicholas Kirkwood, an advisor to Charlotte Tilbury and Sophia Webster and President of Business and Investment Pillars of the British Fashion Council. She also manages to find the time to sit on the boards of the Royal Academy of Arts and English National Ballet! Read the interview to learn how she does it all one step at a time...


Meet Sian

Current Job I have a number of current roles. These include working as a senior advisor for Rothschild in retail and luxury, running the Investment and Business pillar for the British Fashion Council and working as strategic advisor to a number of other companies. I also serve as a non-executive director of a number of private companies.

First Job My first proper job was at Slaughter and May as a trainee solicitor. It developed a discipline and a way of thinking and the ability to read, dissect and interpret huge volumes of information. The down side however was that I felt quite far down the food chain and it seemed to me then that everything happens before the lawyers get pulled in. My actual first job was a Saturday job at Miss Selfridge. It was formative in terms of how you wanted to live your life and how ambitious you wanted to be, particularly knowing what it is like to be on a shop floor and how appalling people can be to you. 

Education Manchester High School for girls then Birmingham University where I studied English law with French- so effectively part of a French degree combined with French law. I went to Limoges for a year and did two years of a French law degree doing the finals in French. Looking back, I can’t quite believe I did it! 

Go to meeting spot I like Daylesford, but most of my best meetings are when people come to my home and we sit in the communal gardens. I prefer it when you can control the environment. 

Necessary extravagance My hairdresser 

Productivity tool Moleskin notebook and a 2b pencil 

Favourite book/blog/podcast All aspects of Radio 4 other than the drama. I love having it on in the background, listening to programmes that you will probably not be exposed to again and I always learn something. I love the ones on medical science and 'More or Less' which explains the economics and statistics used in everyday life. 

Recent inspiration I met the most wonderful woman, Sinéad Burke, at The Business of Fashion Conference -  Voices, who has dwarfism. She is a school teacher and someone who overcomes things and is getting out a positive message about the opportunities for disabled people.  She has this hilarious picture of herself standing in a shop with all of the clothes rails way above her. It could have impeded her but she considers herself lucky and I found her immensely inspiring.

What do you believe that most around you disbelieve or the other way around I have trouble believing in myself but everyone else seems to believe in me, both past and present. I worry about whether I can actually make things happen, but it spurs me on not wanting to let people down. 

What do you wish you could change in the world of business and investment? The spoofing aspect of the industry upsets me, where people feel that it is fair to essentially spout fake news about their business and expect you as the investor to be the greater fool. The industry is engineering this culture of over-exaggeration, but it would be far better for everyone to have straightforward, honest conversations, rather than over-promising. I also don’t know what one can do to change it. I find it interesting that one of the criticisms levelled at women seeking investment is that the do not portray an optimistic enough future, but maybe it is the investors that ought to change their expectations, or at least not expect everyone will exaggerate what is possible.


The Journey

Why did you enter the world of law, what did you learn and what was the motivation to leave and enter the world of banking? 

I was ambitious and I aspired to a certain lifestyle and therefore I wanted to make money. This was the 80s after all.  I had come from a family of academics in Manchester, but realised academia wasn’t going to be the solution. I didn’t feel particularly commercial so law seemed to tick both boxes. I always intended to be a family lawyer, but then I had never come across corporate or merchant law.  The city firms were paying three times as much as a provincial law firm so that’s why I applied to Slaughter and May. I loved it and I got thrown in at the deep end and within three days I was working for a young partner, William Underhill on the British Gas Privatisation. I was told that being a woman I would be noticed - if I did well or badly - which was good and interesting advice. I worked on both the British Gas and BA privatisations - it was early days of privatisation and a lucky time as there was little expertise, so even as a junior you could add value and have relatively deep knowledge. I compiled the first draft of the BP underwriting agreement which caused such a problem in 1987. I was planning to specialise in EC competition law but felt I wasn’t commercial enough. At the time, I was working with merchant bankers and my view of them was that they went home at 6 o clock, gave poor instructions and got paid twice as much as I did.  So, when Rothschild offered me a job, I thought I would give it a go for a couple of years and come back to Slaughter and May with more commercial experience. I went to Rothschild and found they didn’t go home at 6 and actually worked really hard! What was interesting was being a lawyer you present the options but don’t actually have to make any decisions, whereas as an investment banker you were expected to have a view and that was quite a difficult transition for me. There were no mentors - you were simply expected to figure it out. 

You then embarked on a long tenure with Rothschild where you became a Managing Director in the Global Financial Advisory division before becoming a Senior Advisor focused on retail and luxury. Can you share some details about that journey in banking, perhaps demystifying what a banker actually does, the highlights and drawbacks and some of the deals that you worked on? 

There are lots of different type of bankers - some who love the modelling, analysing the business plan and formulating valuations. Personally, I enjoyed the strategy around putting businesses together, and raising investment. I was quite unusual in having the ability to read legal documents in addition to understanding the technical (legal, regulatory, tax) aspects of the transaction. Much of what you do within public company banking is juggling regulations - takeover code, listing rules, tax rules and legal systems and you are trying to weave a path through all of them to ensure you tick every box, don’t fall down any hole and still achieve your goal. The transaction that was most exciting for me was Royal Dutch Shell who got into trouble with the SEC in terms of their reserve reporting, which prompted them to look at their whole corporate structure and culture. They moved from being a 60:40 JV UK Netherlands firm to being a UK incorporated Dutch tax resident company with two classes of shares and classes of ADRs, listed in the UK, the Netherlands and the USA. We had to make sure all institutions were satisfied and nobody lost the stock market indexation that they wanted. It was really interesting and took two years of my life. I was devising the structure and dealing with all of the political implications relating to either being UK or Dutch incorporated and we felt we achieved both. Latterly I got exposure to the fashion retail industry with the first Jimmy Choo sale from Phoenix to Lion capital when Tamara's business was valued at £100m. People were amazed that we could create a shoe business in the UK that had that high a valuation - it is a bit like the Charlotte Tilbury deal which I also had a role in - the market was surprised that a UK beauty business could attract Sequoia Capital and I think this deal changed people's mind-set. Of course, with the dynamos or Charlotte Tilbury herself, and her CEO Demetra Pinsent, I did not find it surprising at all!

During your time at Rothschild you also assumed NED positions, including most notably with Anya Hindmarch, and whilst as an advisor you have also become NED at Roksanda and Nicholas Kirkwood and an advisory board member at Meli Melo. How did these come about, did you get headhunted or was it more organic and how do you choose which boards you are interested in joining? 

I’ve had one public company NED role where I was put forward and I think this is the general approach. I learnt a big lesson however, to only sit on boards where I really like and understand the product and the people. I sat on the board of an oil and gas business and I kept asking questions about their tech and the view that came back was ‘you’re just here to do the M&A side so don't worry about the technology dear’. This made my skin crawl, so I resigned -  thinking lesson learnt. I was on the Anya Hindmarch board as I introduced her to her first investors and Nicholas Kirkwood as I advised on his investment and he subsequently asked me to join the board. Similarly, Roksanda because I did the investment. Generally, I like to be on the board where I invest or have a close personal interest in the outcome rather just handing over the money.   

What do you think are some of the key ingredients to make an effective board and what do you like to bring to the table as a member of a board? 

As a director, you are responsible so you have to be prepared to look across all aspects of the business and understand what is going on. I like to think I am empathetic to creators and have an ability to understand the financial side and the tightrope there. When I work in fashion, I bring a lot of experience of the market and an understanding of what peers and competitors are doing and therefore different ways to solve problems. It is good to have people who bring different areas of expertise. A board has to be willing to have a proper discussion, to meet and engage. The engagement is really critical. Boards which meet monthly, set KPIs and have a proper structure around the meeting and are systematic in their approach tend to do better than those who only meet four times a year and see board packs as a nuisance.  

As well as your commercial NED positions, you also are a member of the Board of Trustees for the English National Ballet and the Royal Academy of Arts and recently you became President of Business and Investment Pillars of the British Fashion Council. Can you tell us a little more about your involvement with each of these organisations and what they mean to you and why you make time to be involved?  

The BFC is promoting an industry where I can bring a different perspective being from a finance and banking background. I can explain to the managers of these businesses that they have to focus on being cash flow positive and not to assume that there is some magic money tree. They find that quite difficult. They assume that creating a label and designing beautiful clothes is enough to generate investment. I explain that they need to prove the business first and they find that a little shocking. Most of my time I’m explaining there is no money and they need to go away and rethink their plan. I do it because I love working with young people and being able to allocate money, grants and provide mentoring which is transformative for their business. The Royal Academy of Arts is a great board and a fantastic institution which gets no public or arts council funding whatsoever. Every penny comes either from ticket sales, sponsorship or donations - so to have an involvement with that beautiful building in Piccadilly where artists are involved is an incredible privilege. The ENB is a very creative organisation and I’m involved during a period where they are trying to modernise it. Tamara has produced some incredible new pieces, working with an increasing number of female choreographers and has simply elevated their approach. It has been a fun journey. 

You have been involved with the fundraising of some of the fastest growing consumer brands including Charlotte Tilbury and Sophia Webster. Beyond the creativity of companies that pitch to you, can you tell us what you are looking for in a business model, in a team, execution etc. that makes you confident in the success of an early stage company within luxury and retail? 

I look at the product first and foremost. Then it is the mind-set of the people involved. If it is just creative and they only think in that way that’s not going to work. They have to encapsulate both the creative and the commercial themselves or have a team of people who have those disciplines…and be willing to listen to and embrace the financial /commercial perspective. It is trying to work out whether the business brings something new and different to the market and ensure that the barriers to entry are high. 


Women in Business

In your opinion, and it is of course multivariate, but what do women need to do more of to push themselves forward in the workplace? 

I think there are two key points I would make here. Firstly, don’t be scared of speaking up, having a view and asking for roles, promotions, exposure. Stretch yourself to do things you don’t feel comfortable doing but which are key aspects of a senior role…I wish I had done more of that, such as public speaking…without notes! Secondly work with everyone in the work place – women and men and be conscious that men hate tears, confrontation, being made to feel threatened…so work around that!  And remember success takes patience and perseverance. Being a working mother sometimes, walking the tightrope of home and work is tough…but every day is different so don’t think every day will be like your worst!

What advice would you share with women in the early stages or thinking about launching their own venture? 

Ask for help – lots of it.  You will be amazed how many people with expertise are willing to share their thoughts and experience.

What advice would you give to those seeking investment? 

Really think through how you want to run your business.  Have you considered all the alternative sources of finance? Is it investible? Have you thought through all the angles? Can you justify your plan?

What personal qualities to you attribute most to your success? 

Persevering, being willing to compromise. ..A little…and my genius in finding a very supportive partner and having two children who together are my biggest cheerleaders.