CEDA member profile: Ferrier Hodgson



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James Stewart, Executive Committee Chair, Ferrier Hodgson

Can you tell us a bit about Ferrier Hodgson?

Ferrier Hodgson is a leading provider of business advisory and restructuring services. Established over 40 years ago, we were the first independent specialised restructuring and corporate recovery firm in Australia and have handled some of Australia’s most high profile corporate insolvencies. Although we are known for our corporate recovery work, the firm we operate today is vastly different from the one started in 1976.

Through Ferrier Hodgson’s consultancy business, Azurium, we offer leading edge performance improvement, data analytics and real estate advisory services. We have also developed a number of technology products for clients including DealDocs – a military grade electronic data room available for corporates and government – and SecuriSearch – a mobile application for searches to identify security interests on personal property (PPSR searches). 

What are your company’s top priorities for the coming year?

Our traditional market is changing. There is a structural shift towards an even greater focus on performance improvement and turnaround management. This will be underpinned with the introduction of new corporate law reform in January 2018 under the Federal Government’s innovation agenda, which will lead to the creation of “safe harbour” environments for business to restructure and reposition themselves.

We are also finding digital disruption is playing out across many industries and our clients are increasingly looking for ways to reposition their businesses for success in the future. We are often seen as the “go to” firm when business models are being challenged and disruption is in the air. In many respects, we are professional crisis managers. It’s a space we are comfortable in and in an age of digital disruption we believe we can offer a lot more to our clients.

We believe the next year we will see even further growth in our advisory practices, including data analytics, change management, performance improvement consulting and cyber security consulting. 

How have you seen the sectors Ferrier Hodgson provides services to change in the short- and long-term?

There is no doubt there is a significant shift in attitude from Australia’s professional lenders. The banking community has never been more sensitive to the needs of its customers and the potential value destruction of corporate insolvencies. As a result, everything we do is being geared towards a better experience for the borrower wherever possible.

The last 12 months have seen record low rates of distressed business loans and there is not a lot of growth in many parts of the economy. Retail is suffering globally and there are still challenges in key commodity sectors such as mining and agribusiness. 

Have you noticed any current industry trends – either in specific sectors, or general trends for the services you provide?

For our restructuring, turnaround and insolvency services, there tend to be industry cycles. Sectors in the Australian economy that are currently going through significant change include: retail, mining services and education services. Retail is a particular focus of mine, with Amazon coming to Australia.

What do you think the future holds for the sectors your clients work in?

There will continue to be pressure to come up with innovative solutions to preserve jobs and enterprise value in companies. Technology has been a significant disruptor and will continue to put pressure on companies that don’t strive to innovate and look to new ways of working.

What is your role within Ferrier Hodgson and when did you start there?

I was recently appointed Chair of the Executive Committee, having been with the firm since 1988. I am also the national retail practice leader.

What are your personal current priorities for the company and your role?

Throughout my career, I have always thrived on a challenge. My personal mantra is: “How can I be the best I can be?” What this means is constantly challenging myself and also the organisation to look at new ways of doing things. I am fortunate that the work we do throws up so many challenges and the opportunity to engage with some highly intelligent people across such a wide variety of industries.

For the past 18 years, I have lead our national retail practice and have lead some of Australia’s highest profile retail corporate recovery assignments. Retail is very much a people business and knowing how to communicate and manage large groups of people is the key to establishing a great culture and dealing with adversity when it presents itself.

Going forward, I would like to position the firm for the next generation of partners. I am really enthusiastic about helping the organisation grow, challenging how we do things and sponsoring a culture of continuous innovation and change.

Looking at your career history, how have you come to your current role?

Like many of my colleagues in this industry, I have formal qualifications in accountancy. I have benefited from 18 years working in the retail industry and this has taught me a lot about branding and marketing. I am continuing to invest in education and learning has been a key feature of my career and I am currently undertaking a course on leadership management and organisational change at INSEAD in Singapore.

Can you take us through any highlights in your career?

Early on in my career I made the decision to develop a specialisation within the retail sector. This is a dynamic sector that has been forced to evolve continually due to changing consumer preferences, technology and competition.

On many of the retail jobs I have worked on throughout my career, I have had the pleasure to work with leading retail executives and hardworking retail employees. Going into a new business and identifying the issues and developing solutions never gets old.

Some milestone assignments for me have included the restructure and sale of Sportsgirl, Harris Scarfe, Australian Discount Retail and the Colorado Group. They were big businesses that employed thousands of people. I am also the lead partner on the Dick Smith receivership and Topshop administrations.

Have you had any mentors during your career?

Working for a partnership, there is always a network of fellow partners to bounce ideas off and to seek guidance and support.

I have been lucky to have three mentors in my life all at different stages. Two of them were partners of the firm and one of them is a close friend who has worked in the retail industry for 45 years. Each of them have provided me with invaluable counsel and wisdom over the years.

 

How does CEDA help the company understand and meet the challenges and opportunities you or your clients face?

In business it is important to have a broad network of contacts. CEDA assists in introducing us to a range of business and government contacts, as well as exposing us to high quality speakers to stimulate thought and debate.

CEDA has a large number of events that focus on key sectors of interest to Ferrier Hodgson and Azurium. It is always important to stay up to date on industry developments through engaging with contacts who either work in that industry, or have relationships and exposure to that industry.