Profile: Paolo Pieri, FD of

The history of online travel retailer has become the iconic
representation of the dotcom bubble at the beginning of the new millennium.

Riding the crest of the internet wave, it floated on the market at 500p per
share in March 2000, just as things started to turn sour. The media frenzy that
surrounded its introduction to the capital markets started to throw up some
uneasy questions about how it would ever be able to make enough money to justify
its market value of £600m, questions that were then levelled at other high
profile dotcom companies.

By the end of the following year, the company’s share price was languishing
at just 20p, with many market watchers predicting its downfall.

A lot of hard work and diversification eventually moved the company back on
to a more solid footing, but in the end management decided that a market listing
was not for them. The company pulled itself from the stock exchange and was
bought by the US Sabre corporation in July 2005.

The man holding the purse strings through this most recent period of
transformation has been 34-year old Paolo Pieri. He has been working as FD at
the online powerhouse since 2004 and was heavily involved in the company’s
integration programme when it was acquired by Sabre.

It was his task to identify synergies from integrated systems and back
offices and drive down the cost base. Four finance locations were reduced to
two, while the 200-plus headcount within finance was dramatically shrunk. The
work continues, with an end-to-end systems redesign in areas such as accounting
and ERP currently under Pieri’s control.

While handling such an important task at such a high profile company at such
a young age may seem daunting to some, Pieri had few worries, having worked as a
FD since the age of 29 for another equally well-known brand.

In 2001, when was going through some of its toughest moments,
Pieri was cutting his teeth as FD at Virgin Retail, the company responsible for
the running of
. He had served his time with Virgin since 1998 as a group finance
manager for the entertainment group and attributes a lot of his success to the
attitude presented by Virgin.

‘It was a great opportunity to work in a cutting-edge environment, with an
innovative group, where you are given the opportunity to improve,’ he says.

Virgin was not the first to see the potential in Pieri. During his training
at PriceWaterhouse in Glasgow, he had been identified as a possible future
leader, and once qualified he was placed on a fast track management programme
and whisked off to Silicon Valley, California to broaden his business experience
and develop professional skills.

The result was a depth of knowledge of initial public offerings, and
potentially a very bright future with the firm. But the call of retail was too
strong for Pieri, and retrospectively it was almost certainly the right move for

Yet, despite the size and stature of the role he had achieved at Virgin
during a short space of time – being put in control of a £300m group at the age
of 29 is certainly no small feat – Pieri was already looking for his next step.

‘I had spent three or four years there. I felt I had gained my stars as an FD
and I wanted to get experience of something else,’ he says.

When the opportunity arose at last, Pieri saw it as the right
move. At the time he joined, he says ‘it was a significantly bigger business
than Virgin Retail. We had just acquired four or five substantial companies and
integrating them into has been one of my major tasks.’

This wasn’t the only significant difference between the two roles. Pieri
moved from handling a team of 45 to managing over 200 people. While at first
daunting, he says it taught him a valuable lesson about management.

‘It’s essential to make sure you have a really strong team around you,’ he
says. ‘You can’t interact with everyone when there is a team that size and you
can’t know everything. You have got to have reliable people who can be your eyes
and ears on the ground and bring you the information that is important at the
right time.’

Since his initial introduction to the company, circumstances have changed
somewhat following the takeover and delisting, but the experience of integrating
and scaling down has simply added more strings to Pieri’s bow. As a man who
tends not to rest on his laurels, this is something he will certainly use to his
benefit in times to come.

‘Now that I’ve gained FD experience, I’m looking to attain more operational
experience,’ he says. ‘I’m not saying what my plans are, but I’m only 50%
towards where I want to be.’

Leading by example

Pieri has risen rapidly to the position of finance director without getting a
nasty case of the bends. Here are some of his tips on how to get ahead.

• Formulate a game plan: ‘Although I didn’t really set myself target dates, I
did have a game plan. It was all about making sure that I took advantage of the
opportunities that I came across.’

• Target the right job: ‘Look for a company where they are expanding rapidly
or the market is growing rapidly. The company should be innovative and have
strong leaders.’

• Spread your wings: ‘Always look to get involved in projects that wouldn’t
necessarily fall into the general remit of accountancy or finance. Knowledge in
areas such as marketing and HR helps to develop the overall package.’ l Know
your market: ‘You have got to understand the drivers of the company’s leaders.
To help you do that, always think of yourself as the consumer when thinking
about product development. You will gain more kudos by understanding more than
just the numbers.’

• Be emotional: ‘If you have the opportunity to learn about emotional intelli
gence, do so. It enables you to find the optimum way to interact with all types
of people in order to get the best results.

‘Working with very senior people can make you feel intimidated or inspired,
depending on how your emotional intelligence is developed. It’s a good skill to
identify as it’s a real differentiator. Other more technical skills are great to
have but are often taken as a given.’

Ten places to go before you die

Here are the trips of a lifetime according to the BBC’s Holiday programme…

1. Antarctica
The four day boat trip to get to Antarctica is well worth it as there aren’t the
superlatives to describe the beauty found there.

2: Galapagos islands
Charles Darwin called the world’s largest archipelago a world in itself
and what will greet you is the greatest wildlife show on Earth, with many
species that can only be found on these islands.

3: Northern Territory, Australia
Stand in awe of the world’s largest monolith ­ Uluru (Ayer’s Rock)­ and the
striking rock formations of the Kings Canyon.

4: British Columbia, Canada
Enjoy a spot of fishing at Princess Royal Island 515 miles north of
Vancouver, with no road or rail link.

5: Pacific Ocean
Take in a spot of surfing on Hawaii’s Oahu before moving on to absorb the
culture of Fiji and scenery of New Zealand.

6: Mexico
For a holiday with a conscience, why not volunteer to monitor and clean
up the world’s second largest barrier reef at Pez Maya.

7: Northern Thailand
Soak up the exotic atmosphere of Buddhist temples and take a ride on the back of
an elephant to explore the natural side of Thailand, rather than the tourist
traps of Bangkok and the southern beaches.

8: Cruise to New York
Bring your sea legs for a trip aboard luxury liner the Queen Mary 2 on
the six-day voyage from Southampton to the bustling Big Apple.

9: Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia
The longest railway in the world, the Trans Siberian, stretches from Moscow all
the way to Vladivostok in the Far East. Take in the beautiful view from the
comfort of your carriage.

10: Rajasthan, India
Take on a hunt for tigers, one of the most elusive and mysterious creatures on
earth, in the forests of Ranthambore National Park.

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