We caught up with Richard Apletree, the Managing Director of giffgaff money who was a crucial part in the success of starting up giffgaff’s one-year-old personal finance company. Graduating with a first class degree in engineering management, Richard spent the last 15 years working in the Telecoms industry, with notable past employers including O2 and Tesco Mobile before moving into finance. We find out about his experience at University and how that has shaped his prosperous career path.
• Can you speak about your Bachelor’s and Master’s degree studies? How different is the level of study between the two?
I did a Bachelor’s degree in Manufacturing Systems Engineering. What was different about the course I did and why I chose Warwick was that it had a common first year, so you covered a bit of everything and it gave you a good grounding in each of the different elements. Then, in your second year, it allowed you to choose which discipline you wanted to focus on.
At the end of the third year there was an option for those who were doing well to stay on for a fourth year in Engineering Management. What that did was continue some of the engineering skills but also prepare you with business studies skills – understanding financial elements, covering HR. It was very useful for me because it gave me insight into other areas of business and helped me to become a more rounded individual.
• How was your experience of Warwick University? Were you part of any societies?
I spent my first and third years on-campus, my second year in Leamington Spa and my fourth year down the road in Coventry. I was very actively engaged in a lot of societies, and it’s very important for people trying to get a job to have a breadth of activity. When we look at graduates, we want someone who’s not only smart but also has drive and being involved in societies and activities at university really makes your CV stand out.
I played rugby for their third-team and also did athletics, training in one and two hundred metres. I was involved in SIS which was the Student Industrial Society and that was quite good for understanding how businesses and recruitment worked and that helped quite a lot when I was being interviewed.
• 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. As a result 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 a 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 very 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.
• 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.