Interview series; nobody makes coffee like Costa

The UK is currently basking in the glow of record coffee consumption. The great news for coffee lovers like me is we don’t have to go far for our coffee fix. One of the most popular names on the high street and in transport hubs for providing hot and cold refreshments is Costa Coffee. All is OK in the world with a latte/cappuccino/americano in hand!

As part of the Whitbread portfolio of food and beverage brands, Costa has enjoyed the continued growth that has led to more outlets being opened year-on-year and this trend is set to continue. Recently, MRK Associates sat down with Alistair Langan, one of Costa Coffee’s Finance Directors to discuss how our demand for great coffee has inspired his business. We took the opportunity to ask his advice for aspiring Finance Directors and CFOs, and how fellow professionals could emulate his success.

This is the first in a new series “Interviews with Finance Leaders”.

Hi Alistair, it’s great to meet you. Thanks for meeting with us. Can I start by asking why you chose finance as your career direction?

Alistair Langan: Finance is about problem-solving and using numbers to tell a story accurately. After 20 years in technology, I was offered an opportunity to move into hospitality and leisure – I’ve always wanted to test myself in this data-driven sector. My transferable skills have been relied upon to help develop the business and my team.

Consumption of coffee is still a booming sector. You only have to go to any Costa Coffee outlet any day of the week to witness this. How do you see the UK’s current enjoyment of coffee “on the go”? What, in your opinion, will be the innovations?

AL: Coffee is still a growth sector and the occasion continues to change when consumers want such a refreshment. Innovation will be about delivery and service methods as well as consumers taste becoming more refined.

Working in this fantastic industry and riding the crest of a wave must be thrilling. You’ve outlined how your transferable skills have benefitted you and how data is interesting, yet what gets you out of bed in the morning?

AL: Developing my team and problem-solving. Data gives all kinds of clues and this helps our business advance further. Working, leading and mentoring my team is hugely fulfilling.

With that in mind, what are the biggest challenges you face in running your finance team?

AL: Data is very important and we’re proud to play our part in offering insight from trade and the wider industry to the business. I like to give my team the confidence, empower them, and give them a license to solve problems on their own. This is great news for their personal goals and our organisation.

I think we’re in agreement that we’ve moved past the mantra of “jobs for life”, but can you stay too long in a job?

AL: It’s an interesting question. Every job should challenge, and you should always be looking to learn, so in that respect, there is no fixed time that you should be in a role. The minute you stop learning is probably the day you start to look at your options. Learning refreshes and keeps you sharp. When you stop learning, your career can start to lose momentum.

New skills, both in and out of the workplace, helps learning and enjoyment. Are there any skills you want to learn?

AL: With my professional hat on, I’m always seeking to improve my mentoring skills. Through positive mentoring, you can spot talent and nurture it, however, any mentor needs to have the ability to lead and develop others. The abilities I’d see as key here are listening, mapping a realistic plan, encouraging and helping identify areas for growth.  Like learning, my mentoring is always improving.

I enjoy the commercial aspect of my role; data and commerciality go hand in hand. Relationships develop and evolve through data and its analysis. Therefore, my customer negotiation skills are those I’m continually honing and benchmarking to improve.

How do you recharge?

AL: Away from work, I love rugby union and I recharge through coaching at a wonderful community rugby club; Tring RFC. Learning new skills, techniques and methodologies in the sport will help the juniors I’m coaching. It’s incredibly fulfilling and great way to start the week!

There’s always pieces of information we retain through life. What are the snippets that help you in your career?

AL: Simplify any message down to three things and always have a call to action.

Will you be hiring in 2018?

AL: That’s certainly the plan. A team should always look to evolve, whether that’s due to market dynamics, company culture or giving colleagues a new challenge.

In your role, you must have seen many CVs and countless candidates. What are the first three things you look for on a CV?

AL: A CV can only tell you a certain amount and what I look for obviously depends on the role. I like a CV to tell me a story which involves consistency of progression, drive, and motivation to move towards a career goal.

At MRK Associates, we’ve been analysing the steps candidates need to make the move up the ladder. What is your advice for finance professionals of tomorrow who want to rise to FD/CFO?

AL: You must identify what gives you energy and what skills gaps you have. With this in mind, make sure you take something from all your experiences and be honest with yourself to address the gaps in your skills portfolio. This will keep you energised and ready to evolve to micro and macro environmental changes. Make sure you enjoy the environment you’re in and have fun; it’s good for your mental health.

Finally, a positive mindset is a trait I really admire, and I know many others do too; try to see the positive in every opportunity. The coffee cup is always half full!

We’ve talked about interviewing, guiding and leading others, but what about your career. Do you have a personal plan for your career?

AL: I am keen to use my commercial experience and lead organisations. I enjoy the mentoring of people as they move along their career journey; it’s incredibly fulfilling.

Does anyone inspire you?

AL: I find rugby union a great team sport and admire the successes and learnings of a team off and on the pitch. From this arena, I really admire Henry Fraser, Ed Jackson or Matt Hampson. These three guys were paralysed on the pitch playing the sport I love. Their outlook and positivity radiates and I find it totally inspirational.

Looking at the industry in totality, what do you believe are the challenges facing the UK in 2018?

AL: In recent years, we’ve grown and evolved as a country so that should breed confidence (not arrogance). With this in mind, all I see from other industries is nervousness.

That said, all I’m concentrating on is what I can control in my role at Costa Coffee.

It’s a good point, yet would you agree Brexit is harming strategic thinking until after March 2019 when we’ve left the EU?

AL: It certainly isn’t helpful, but in my opinion, it’s used as an excuse to be risk averse and stick with what we know, rather than innovate and take steps forward to keep us as industry leaders. We’ll soon know; March 2019 will come around quicker than we all think.

Finally, there’s been plenty of column inches allocated to economic cycles. Do you believe in seven-year cycles (thinking back to the last economic downturn)?

AL: The last economic downturn was over seven years ago, so I believe that helps dispel the myth. Cycles move faster than trends and yet the patterns are more complex meaning calendarising a cycle is utterly pointless and a waste of time, energy, and resource. Remember, be positive!

Thank you, Alistair, for your time and outlining your approach and inspirations. We hope Costa continues to grow from strength to strength. It must be time for another Flat White?

Alistair Langan is Finance Director at Costa Coffee.

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