Sacha Romanovitch – the Grant Thornton CEO on making the UK economy vibrant

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Sacha Romanovitch covered in a cloud of pink paint

Last year Grant Thornton CEO Sacha Romanovitch became the first female boss of a top City accountancy firm and has made waves with a profit sharing policy and by capping her salary. Now she’s leading the company’s initiative to make the UK economy vibrant

On a cold night in February, an eclectic group of leaders from the private, public and third sectors met up to chew over both dinner and the knotty issue of how best to fortify Britain’s economic future. This was no high-frills corporate event, though. Rather than stepping from the gilded pavements of Mayfair towards a function room in a plush hotel, attendees found themselves winding down the dark, narrow backstreets close to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, and into a modest social and culinary hub by the name of Jenius Social. Dinner was prepared not by multi-Michelin-starred culinary titans, but by students from catering colleges around the UK. Capacious limos, silver-service flourishes and six-figure-sum after-dinner speakers were conspicuous by their absence.

The event in question was one of several – others have taken place in Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester – held as part of a new flagship initiative from accounting and consulting giant Grant Thornton by the name of Vibrant Economy. With its emphasis on youthful talent, fostering opportunity and thrusting corporate heavyweights into modest surrounds, the function was not just a celebration, but also a microcosm of a distinctly left-field plan to make the Britain of tomorrow a blooming commercial milieu. “The whole concept behind Vibrant Economy is this idea that, for all of us in the UK, if we’re going to thrive, and pass on something better to the next generation, we’ve all got a responsibility to step up and drive the things that are going to create growth,” says Sacha Romanovitch who, as CEO of Grant Thornton, was the first woman to lead a major City accountancy firm.

The initiative – more about which later – is ambitious, to say the least. But then, the person helming it exudes can-do optimism from every pore. Romanovitch’s journey to the vanguard of the project begins in the early 1990s when, having left Oxford University with an MA in chemistry, she joined a small firm in Windsor. The financial scene at the time wasn’t exactly in rude health. “It was all people being made redundant, clients going bust, interest rates peaking at 15 per cent – I was on my first mortgage, and suddenly the repayments were more than my monthly salary,” she recalls. “That’s why I came into the profession. I’d thought I was going to go to start my own business in fashion and design, but because I’d seen so many go bust, I thought, ‘I’d better go and learn how to run a business.’ That was my motivation.”

Romanovitch relocated to the capital when the firm merged with Grant Thornton in 1994, and has remained with the company ever since, bar a year’s sabbatical in India which probably informed her approach to her role today as much as any formal qualifications and in-house experience. “There’s just this vibrancy, this energy, this dynamism, this sense of possibility about India,” she explains. “There are a lot of challenges there too, but a sense of ‘We can do stuff and make it happen’. It was a personal and spiritual journey, which – I know it sounds like a cliché – helped me make sense of what I’m on this earth to do.”

Made a partner upon her return in 2002, she served as head of London advisory (leading the firm’s audit and tax practices, she quadrupled both the size and profitability of the unit) and later as a board member for people and culture. Then, in summer 2014, the chance arose to step into the shoes of then CEO Scott Barnes. Despite Barnes’s exceptional success – having reached a financial target, a turnover of £500m by 2015, a year early, he was unanimously voted in as global chairman (the firm bars chief executives from serving more than two terms of up to four years) – Romanovitch was resolved on a fresh approach even before she was awarded the position.

Devising her pitch, she covered the walls of the sewing room in her Devon home (Sacha Romanovitch supported herself at college by manufacturing and selling ball dresses) with notes and ideas that would become a 12-page manifesto.

“What I’d learnt from the business world was that it’s important not just to be operating within the economy, but to step back and say, ‘What’s good for my business is businesses generally growing, thriving and creating jobs,’” she says. “The analogy I use is being on a ship – you can find yourself in the engine room the whole time making sure things are running efficiently, but you also have to find time to get up onto the crow’s nest to monitor what’s coming over the horizon in three, 10 or 20 years’ time – in the context of what’s happening for our clients in the wider economy. It’s about turning things outside in, rather than inside out.”

Having convinced the board to let her unleash this game-changing approach, one of her first moves was to instil a more democratic attitude to ideas and decision-making – hence the Shared Enterprise model [sharing ideas, responsibility and rewards], which was proposed by Romanovitch and backed by 99 per cent of partners in a vote. “What we knew was that, if we really want to create value for our clients in the world in a much more impactful way, then we needed all of our 4,500 people thinking, contributing ideas and taking responsibility for making them happen – not just a few leaders at the top.”

The scheme was an unqualified success. Not only does a pervasive feeling of inclusiveness thrive within the organisation, but the greater sum total of intellectual might devoting itself to the tasks at hand has borne fruit. “We did face-to-face workshops with people, then we used our social media platform and had over 100,000 hits – either people pitching ideas, people liking them or building on them and so on. “One idea that is now in development concerned how we can use our buying power to actually support our clients. Our client base employs 6.6 million people in the private sector alone – that’s 25 per cent of private sector employment in the UK. Another idea concerned live and transparent feedback from clients. What was lovely was that these ideas were developed at all levels.”

Sacha Romanovitch and business leaders sat around a table at Jenius Social

Sacha Romanovitch at Jenius Social, where she gathered other business leaders as part of Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Economy initiative

Sharing profits 

Erosion of the hierarchical company structure has been another goal. Sacha Romanovitch doesn’t have her own office (“Wherever I lay my hat,” she laughs), and believes that, thanks to greater transparency and connectivity, we live in an era in which minority control is a hindrance to lucid business practice. “We’re trying to operate in a sensible way, hiring really smart people who, if they’ve got an idea, it’s probably a good one – so let’s leave them the space to go and do it.”

Can she see this catching on in the wider business world? “I think it’s something that really will get wider currency, because if you look at all the research in terms of what motivates and engages people and gets the best out of them – as well as paying them fairly – it comes down to questions like: ‘Have I got purpose, do I believe in what this business is doing, does it fit with what I want to achieve in my life, have I got autonomy and freedom to contribute to things without just being told what to do, and am I given the space and investment to get really good at what I’m doing?’ So we’re just harvesting those insights, and making them part of our DNA.”

As well as sharing ideas, Sacha Romanovitch’s emphasis is on a democratic allocation of responsibility – and, crucially, on distributing profits fairly too. “There’s a sense that if we’re all in this together, and we generate superior results, then, of course, we should all share in [the superior rewards and profits],” she says. “I was with a non-exec chairman yesterday, and he said, ‘Your partners really do care that they’re running this firm for the benefit of all the people in it, not just for themselves.’ It’s unusual, and it’s one of the things that’s special about this firm.”

Early in her tenure, Sacha Romanovitch also announced a decision to distribute profits – which she intends to double by 2020 (pre-tax profits stood at £81.2m in 2014) – among employees, John Lewis-style. Even more of an eyebrow-raiser, though, was her decision to cap her own salary at 20 times the firm’s average (to put that into perspective, the average FTSE 100 chief executive pockets 149 times the average pay packet of their staff).

How did the announcement go down? “It was funny, because we were expecting a lot of naysaying, but it didn’t get any. It was very much based on a personal view of what was right for me and right for our business. We hire lots of really bright people, and as CEO I play an important role – however, it’s not a situation where my ability is so massively ahead of everybody else’s in the organisation. Our talent issue is about whether I can attract 4,500-plus amazing people to deliver value for our clients. So for me the cap in my pay was a statement about the kind of organisation we want to be. Being ‘The Big I’ is not right for our business. As a leader, what you’re always trying to think about is, what are the things you can do that make everything joined up, aligned, in terms of the philosophy behind how you’re trying to run your business?”

Romanovitch explains that the Vibrant Economy philosophy is underpinned by three areas, the first of which involves the restoration of faith in the UK’s companies and markets. “We know from the financial crises that world markets nearly lost their confidence in the UK as a safe place to invest. That’s a really big deal for us. To solve a lot of the big problems the world faces, we’re going to need innovation and change, and trust is absolutely fundamental to being able to adapt and take on new things for the world to solve.”

The second pillar concerns fostering a culture of dynamic growth across all sectors. “Our recent research has looked at factors like red tape and assistance when it comes to exporting, and identified that just with mid-sized businesses there was potential for an extra £50bn that could be contributed to the economy if certain barriers to growth were removed,” she says. The third component, meanwhile, will address how conducive to business cities and communities across the UK are. “How easy is it to do business here? Is there good transport? Have you got good broadband infrastructure, have we got education systems providing skilled and talented people to employ, have we got a health system that makes sure we’re looked after and don’t fall ill?”

In essence, though, the Vibrant Economy initiative is really about cultivating hope and aspiration. “At the Birmingham dinner, the way someone put it was, ‘Who will be the statues on Broad Street in 2028?’ Who will be the leaders of the corporate revolution? Who will be looked back on going into the next century? Who set our place in the global economy? We want to discover and celebrate those people.”

To that end, Grant Thornton is curating a list of leaders who embody the Vibrant Economy ethos. “We wanted to showcase 100 leaders who can inspire others to be part of shaping our future – those demonstrating industry innovation, inspiring leadership and driving a positive impact on their community and wider society. Choosing who we celebrate and look up to matters – it would be wonderful to have a wide range of role models for young people to look up to. The list will be compiled by Grant Thornton, and an external panel will convene to create a community we’re calling the Faces of a Vibrant Economy. We hope this will become a celebration of the businesses and people behind them that are already unlocking their full potential to benefit the nation and inspire others to follow their lead. It’s not just going for established names, but the up-and-coming stars.”

Diversity of perspective

If shaking up a financial institution’s entire ethos and modus operandi seems a big deal, it’s arguably an even bigger deal when you’re a woman operating in such a Y chromosome-dominated environment. Sacha Romanovitch has alluded before to feeling like she had to be a “she man” earlier in her career. These days, she says, her husband – a corporate finance director turned house-husband, who looks after their children in the family home in Devon – encounters more sexism than she does.

Image shows the cover of Director magazine featuring Sacha Romanovitch

Sacha Romanovitch on the cover of Director magazine

Impervious to lingering gender prejudices she may be, but she’s certainly in tune with the finer nuances of how each gender approaches business. “I was in a group discussion about leadership recently with a group of male leaders,” she says, “and their examples were all rugby fields, military fields – one example took place in a tank! I had to step back and say, ‘None of these examples in any way resonate with how I want to be as a leader.’ An orchestra, for me, is a much better metaphor for leadership – different sections knowing what their part is to play, creating a harmonious whole through diversity of perspective.”

When it comes to the forthcoming EU referendum, Grant Thornton research shows business leaning towards a “remain” vote. “For our clients being able to trade internationally is absolutely fundamental to growth and creation of jobs, and certainly to the strength of our economy,” she says. “Look at the economic growth generated over the last few years, and we still are very underweighted in terms of exports. We’ve still got too much growth built on consumer debt. Sometimes people come at the debate with a deficit mindset – we’ve got a limited cake, let’s keep as much of it to ourselves as we can – when really the conversation should be ‘how can we make the cake bigger?’”

A committed practitioner of both yoga and meditation, she works from Devon on Fridays, and seems to have work and life not so much balanced as synchronised coherently. “Devon gives me that distance and space to work out if I’m focusing on the right things,” she says. “My best thinking is done when my brain’s rested and recharged.” The town she calls home, Exmouth, also offers valuable contrasts to London that go beyond coastal beauty. “It’s a wonderful town with a lot of great opportunities, but also has a lot of social challenges, and therefore a realism to it. There are kids there who live a mile from the sea but have never seen it. There are an awful lot of the population who work tremendously hard in the tourism industry and so, for half a year, feel that they’re not contributing, that there’s a limit on their opportunities and aspirations. That’s not a world I want my children to grow up in.”

But if anyone can assert with confidence that they’re doing something to shape the world they’d like their offspring to inhabit one day, surely it’s Sacha Romanovitch. The polar opposite of the macho, ruthless, workaholic leader many might associate with heavy-hitters in finance, this is someone who is not just rewriting the rules. Her ambition is to rethink the entire game.

Sacha Romanovitch to speak at Women as Leaders 2016 conference

Some of the country’s most inspirational business women, including Sacha Romanovitch, will be speaking at the IoD’s Women in Leaders conference in London on 17 June. Hear fascinating stories, learn how to implement lasting changes in your company and leave motivated to accelerate your career. Find out more and book tickets on the IoD website – click here (opens new window)

Sacha Romanovitch CV

1968 Born in Barnet, north London, Sacha Romanovitch was brought up in Surbiton and attended Tiffin Girls’ School in Kingston-upon-Thames. She studied chemistry at University of Oxford.

1990 Joins accountancy firm in Windsor, which merges with Grant Thornton in 1994

2001 Made a partner before taking a sabbatical in India

2002 Becomes head of London Tax & Audit

2009 Sacha Romanovitch wins Women in the City Woman of Achievement Award

2014 Becomes chair of the Patron Group for Access Accountancy

2015 Appointed as Grant Thornton’s UK CEO and made a member of the Evening Standard’s Progress 1000 list

grantthornton.co.uk

Watch Sacha Romanovitch and fellow business leaders discuss the Vibrant Economy

 

About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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