The Big Interview: Richard Apletree, MD of giffgaff Money

Richard Apletree, pictured below, is the Managing Director at giffgaff Money. He graduated from The University of Warwick with an integrated Masters in Engineering Management and, after working at Proctor and Gamble, Telefonica, O2 and Tesco Mobile, now leads giffgaff’s new expansion into financial services.

How useful were your summer placements? What skills and experience did you pick up?

I had three work placements while I was at university, which gave me a rounded business acumen. Especially the Unilever placement, as I ended up doing quite a lot of work on logistical models, which was very much akin to finance. Because of that and the studies I did in my fourth year, I ended up going into finance on a Procter and Gamble graduate scheme, instead of pursuing a career in manufacturing

For one placement I actually worked in a steelworks, which was really lethal! The first part of my placement was learning about health and safety, trying to understand how people get injured. The second half was spent understanding how services (water, electricity etc.) were being passed around the business. Very interesting, but not an industry I wanted to work in.

How do you think industry placements have changed between your studies and the students applying for placements today?

All I can say is that when I’m looking at a graduate (and I might not be typical), the bit that I still look for is that they have done something that means they can show drive and determination. It might be that they’ve competed at a county level in running, played an instrument to the highest level; something that has shown their drive and determination to succeed. For me, that is more important than necessarily always having a work placement. However, many other people look at it differently. I look at potential rather than just experience.

What range of roles have you worked in during your career?

My summer placements were probably the biggest range of work I completed. I had time in steelworks, a centre of London design studio for Unilever, then I ended up at Longbridge working with cars. I worked at Procter and Gamble for three years and, to be fair, their strapline at the time was “a fast track to responsibility”. And boy did they mean it! So I literally arrived and then was told with about a week’s notice that I was going to be working in Brussels as a capital markets analyst and was basically given over $1 billion and told to invest it. As someone who had studied engineering, I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but Procter and Gamble, again, looked for the potential in people rather than just the experience. So I had to learn quickly and that was probably the toughest six months of my life. Although tough, you learn a lot and it really was an incredibly steep learning curve.

What are the benefits of working for a variety of companies rather than staying in one company for the majority of your career?

So I’ve worked for Procter and Gamble and then I worked for the company that would go on to become Telefonica and then O2, and within there I made an internal move to join Tesco Mobile and then another internal move to join giffgaff.

What I’ve always done, after leaving my second role in Proctor and Gamble (which was in the pharmaceutical division and was effectively a financial controller role), even though I’ve joined big corporations, I’ve always aspired to walk within a small up and coming part of the organisation. So when I joined O2 I went and joined the pre-paid division, which had taken off about a year previously and, if I’m being honest, had grown faster than the controls we had in place. I learned a lot there because, while it was part of a big organisation, it was a small team and it was a rapid-moving business. It was a very exciting time to be there.

I stayed there for a couple of years and then spent three years in marketing, again in pre-paid because it was doing incredibly well and I was plateauing in terms of my knowledge and I thought it would be great to spend some time in marketing. There were some vertical moves available, but I decided to take a horizontal move because I thought, in the long-term, it would do me better. I love learning new things and putting myself outside of my comfort zone.

How do you manage a team of people and keep them motivated?

The first thing is that everyone’s management style is different. I’m not a hands-on manager and the people I employ need to be self-motivated and self-starting. We have controls in place, but I don’t ‘command and control’. So there is some autonomy there. And we employ people who live our values and interact with each other.

It’s interesting to watch people who come from other companies be put into a new environment. Naturally, some of their behaviour (particularly if it’s forced behaviour from their previous work environment) dissipates quickly. We have clearly defined what we want to do and how we want to do it, so we keep communication up and people have clear objectives.

I remembered that we did a strategy day and instead of me delivering an ordinary presentation, we gave the teams the strategy deck I was going to present to them. We told them to form groups, ask the leadership team some questions, and come back three weeks later to present the strategy information in different film styles. They had a small budget for props and we had a fantastic half-day of them delivering the strategy information back to us. That way they absorb it, they live it, they understand it, and they get to have fun passing the information on. It worked incredibly well.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

I’ve been very lucky, really. I’ve worked on international calling, which was my baby, and that went well. Then I went to Tesco Mobile, that went well. Then onto giffgaff and giffgaff money. If you ask me in a year’s time I’ll hopefully be able to say “it’s where we’ve gotten with giffgaff money” but I am very proud of where we’ve got to already.

I think the work we’ve done at giffgaff is my biggest achievement because we’ve stayed true to what we wanted to achieve all the way through and we’ve been successful and changed the face of an industry. The leadership team we put in place has stayed together for five or six years and we’re up to about 170 people now. They’re a great bunch of individuals.

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received? And what is the worst career advice you’ve ever received?

There are three things that stick out. Perseverance is key and you have to roll with a lot of punches. And you see it in life, especially in sports and with Olympians. It doesn’t matter if you don’t come first straight away because a lot of people don’t, but it’s the people who keep on trying and endure that become successful. Sometimes endurance is even more important than talent.

Another one is ‘it only works if it all works’. That’s quite an important one. Some people ask “what’s the most important thing”, and it’s not like that. It only works if it all works, and I think a lot of people are too simplistic about business. That’s one of the reasons giffgaff has succeeded, by ensuring everything works together. And treat everyone with respect. Even if you violently disagree with something, on the darkest of days, things are never as bad as they seem.

It’s hard to think of the worst piece of advice I’ve heard because I don’t listen to it! But I suppose I see a lot of people overcomplicating things that don’t need to be made complex. Try to keep things simple.