Profile: Marie-Louise Clayton, FD of oil group Venture Production

Ever since she was a teenager Marie-Louise Clayton, the finance director of
oil company Venture Production, yearned to work in heavy industry.

It is a desire that has stayed with her throughout her career, and over the
years had a profound influence on the way she does business.

In a corporate world characterised by euphemism and spin, Clayton is one of a
rare breed who prefers straight talking, almost to the point of bluntness.

She acknowledges that she has developed a reputation as an uncompromising
executive, but says there is more to her and the way she works than the stern,
hard-nosed manner she is known for.‘All senior people have an outside dimension
and an inside dimension. The two are quite different but equally important. I
don’t think that always comes across,’ she says. ‘I have always been truthful
with people, so yes, there is talk about me being tough, but I have always been
truthful and sincere. It is just about treating people with respect.’

Clayton moved into accounting after completing a law degree at Exeter
university, but has refused to fit the mould of the traditional chartered
accountant. She has worked in both the public and private sectors, enjoying
stint at the Inland Revenue, Exxon and Associated British Foods.

Indeed her professional and personal achievements should help ditch the myth
that accountants are dull, boring individuals: in between multifaceted jobs she
spent two years in the US working as a volunteer for a charity, another six
months travelling through Europe on a motorbike and even clocked up time working
as a temporary administrator for Dunlop Slazenger in Bywaters.

‘When you take charge of your career there is a level of risk, but I am not
one to wait around for my career to develop in prescribed fashions. The level of
risk taken in my career has worked for me. I have never regretted it and it has
borne dividends by helping me develop into a diverse and flexible finance

‘If you sit in a large multinational then your career will happen to you. My
career has never happened to me, because I have made it happen in various
countries in various organisations and various roles,’ Clayton says.

Making her own choices and refusing to be bound by convention is something
Clayton is passionate about, especially as she has often been one of the few
senior females working in industries traditionally dominated by men.

‘I have always worked in a heavy engineering environment and the behaviours
that come out because I am often the only female around are annoying, but there
is nothing different about my set of problems that is different from those faced
by a singleton in any norm group,’ she says. ‘There is no reason why anyone
shouldn’t be able do something differently, it is a mindset, and those barriers
are as much in a man’s mind as they are in a woman’s.’

Her individuality has served her well over what has been a very challenging
year for Venture Production.

Clayton has been the oil group’s FD for just over a year, arriving in the
middle of its transition to international financial accounting standards and a
rapid growth phase. Clayton joined the Venture Production board in February 2005
and by May the company had surged into the FTSE 250.

Clayton was faced with a massive challenge getting to grips with IFRS. To
make matters more complicated, Venture had hedged the price of its oil, leaving
it significantly susceptible to the new fair value requirements of IFRS.

‘We were a company that had grown increasingly fast with a new FD that had
joined in February 2005 and entered an environment where the accounting language
had changed. The fundamental bread and butter of accounting’s principles
completely changed,’ Clayton says. ‘The whole profession didn’t realise quite
how fundamental it was. Then for Venture specifically we had a hedging policy
that had been in place for sometime, and when anybody introduces new guidance or
laws with retrospective application, you struggle to make what you bought two or
three years ago fit into the new regime and that was where we found ourselves.’

A year on and Clayton has grown accustomed to the new reporting regime and is
far more comfortable now that she and her auditors have come to terms with the
reporting changes.

Clayton remains concerned, however, that as IFRS evolves the principles based
accounting she was trained in will gradually be overwhelmed by rules based
standards; a development she believes could destroy the use of judgment in
financial reporting.

A more pressing issue for Clayton at the moment, though, is the extra 10% tax
charge levied by Gordon Brown at the end of 2005 on North Sea oil.

She recognises that the remarkable spike in oil prices meant that some
additional tax was likely to be imposed on Venture, which is wholly based in the
North Sea, and other operators in the region, but is frustrated that more
thought was not given to the new tax charge.

‘I am annoyed from a UK plc perspective that there is a lack of recognition
of the importance of encouraging people to invest in the North Sea, which is a
UK asset, employing thousands if not millions of UK people and providing energy
security,’ Clayton says. ‘There was no differentiation between harvesters and
investors. I think that it just bad, bad policy making. It suggests to me a lack
of strategic thinking in terms of maximising this huge resource that the UK
still has. That is what disappoints me more than anything else.’

Clearly a few more challenges lie on the horizon for Clayton. But with her
skills and natural determination, Venture Production looks to be in good hands.

The inside scoop

There are not many FTSE 350 finance directors who have an inside view of the
machinations of HM Revenue & Customs. One of them is Venture Production FD
Marie-Louise Clayton who has benefited from her time spent working for the
After completing her law degree in Exeter, with a specialisation in tax law,
Clayton was working in Birmingham for engineering company GKN and studying
accountancy, when the opportunity to work for the Inland Revenue came up. ‘One
of the areas of law I really enjoyed was tax so the Inland Revenue was an
interesting place and something that I always wanted to do,’ she says.

She spent 18 months with the Revenue, before beginning to feel restless.
Initially, she says, the learning curve wasn’t there, ‘which was a nightmare’.
This improved as time went on, but Clayton did grow frustrated. ‘I worked under
a very good district inspector and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Southampton,
but you just don’t get the breadth of intellectual stimulation,’ Clayton says.

Since her time at HMRC two of the companies Clayton has worked for have
undergone major tax investigations. She is adamant that having worked on the
other side of the table proved invaluable during these probes. ‘You understand
where the Revenue is coming from and it stops you being scared. You recognise
that these guys are doing their job and they do have rules they have to follow.’

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