Darren Leigh, CEO, Unipart Group: the journey from a YTS apprenticeship

Darren Leigh, CEO, Unipart Group: the journey from a YTS apprenticeship

In an interview with Odgers Interim’s Ross Gordon, who in 2020 placed him at Unipart                         as CFO, Darren Leigh talks about his rise from working class roots and the twists and turns of an impressive career pathway that began aged 16 with a YTS apprenticeship.

Unipart Group works with leading brands to make their supply chains more efficient, resilient and sustainable. Darren Leigh became the third ever CEO in the privately-owned Group’s 50-year history in 2022 after joining in 2020 as CFO and later the same year also taking on the mantle of Chief Risk Officer. His journey to the top is both interesting and inspirational, given that his career started in the late 1980s with a Youth Training Scheme apprenticeship after leaving school at 16.

In 2023, his first full year following promotion to CEO, turnover broke the £1 billion barrier after an uplift of over £100 million, and profits almost doubled. Darren has led refining the strategy through a new roadmap for growth, The Unipart Way Forward plan. The name pays homage to The Unipart Way, Unipart’s proprietary system which is demonstrated in the way colleagues think, work and behave. The Unipart Way empowers more than 12,000 colleagues across operations in the UK and 20 international markets with a continuous improvement mindset, delivering operational excellence and added value for customers, every day.

Clearly, Darren is a highly capable and successful CEO. However, he is also a shining example of the stellar business heights that can be achieved by talent that comes up through the apprenticeship route. Apprenticeships can and do change lives, and they have enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade with the advent of more rigorous, industry designed standards. According to Government figures, over 750,000 people were participating in apprenticeships last year – a step change from a participation level of under half a million in 2009/10. 

“I did okay in school, but I was ready to leave,” says Darren, who grew up in a working class home in Derbyshire. “I was looking to get into business but I had no real clarity on what it was that I wanted to do, other than a drive to start work.”

Darren wrote directly to local employers and applied for training schemes.  In doing so, he found out about the YTS scheme and joined a local manufacturing company in the textiles field that offered it. He started in May 1988, having turned 16 the previous month, and was still so young that he needed some time off work in his first few weeks to go back into school to finish his exams!

The apprenticeship included day release to study for a BTEC in Business & Finance at South East Derbyshire College, a balance that suited Darren down to the ground. “It felt like the best of both worlds. I didn't have to go to college full time, but going one day a week I could get the equivalent of an A level. I could walk to work, I got a small amount of money, and I was getting the experience that I was looking for. That's how it all started.”

Initially, Darren spent 3 months in the sales department, doing entry level tasks such as answering phones, filing and making tea with the notion that he might pursue a sales career. That fell by the wayside when a vacancy came up in the sales ledger department and he was asked if he would like to take it on. Take it on he did, like a duck to water, quickly discovering that he enjoyed working on accounts receivable, sending and chasing invoices, collecting cash and doing the reconciliations. The week before his 17th birthday, he was approached by the Finance Director and asked if he would be interested in taking over from the purchase ledger supervisor who was leaving. He accepted and took charge of a team of four accounts payable clerks. In other words, he became a manager before he was even an adult.

Darren, it turned out, had a flair for Finance transformation – although back then, when processes were still predominantly manual, it was simply talked about as making the department more efficient. He put in place batch processing and a three-way matching process: “find the order, find the goods received note, now match it to the invoice and then sign it off, so you don't have to keep walking around the factory looking for people to sign things off for you.” Figuring out better ways of doing things, he made an important contribution to the business.

By the time he finished his BTEC, Darren was sure that he wanted a career in accountancy. He began studying for a CIMA qualification, again one day a week. After three and a half years with his first employer he moved to another textiles company which again offered him the opportunity to develop his transformation skills (while continuing his CIMA studies), helping configure a new accounting IT system. A stint at Northern Foods in a management and cost accounting role followed.

There were times, early in his career, when Darren felt like he was pushing against a closed door. Some colleagues and contemporaries indicated they felt he would be unable to rise to the top without a university degree. He certainly proved those doubters wrong.

The picture is somewhat different these days, given that the improvement in apprenticeship standards has opened new doors and changed the attitudes and expectations of many employers. Government data indicates that almost 70% of occupations can now be entered via an apprenticeship. A university degree no longer necessarily offers the best pathway into a business career. Many business leaders of the future are likely apprentices right now.

It should not be forgotten, however, that youth unemployment has been a big social problem in the UK for decades. While lower than after the financial crash of 2008, the number of unemployed young people exceeds that of many comparable economies.  According to PwC/Connectr research, the UK’s youth employment performance ranks 22nd  out of 38 OECD economies, and although the UK performs well with regards to its youth employment rate, its overall score is dragged down by the high proportion (34%) of young people undertaking part-time work, which is significantly higher than the OECD average (29%).

This means young people in the UK are often likely to have on average lower job security compared to their peers in Europe, though this may reflect the increasing number of students working part-time alongside full-time study due to cost of living pressures. Perhaps another compelling argument for high quality apprenticeships.

But let’s jump back to Darren’s story and a time when apprenticeships were viewed differently. Frustrated at the lack of opportunity to progress, he left Northern Foods after a year for Coats, then part of Coats Viyella, taking on the Finance Manager role for a newly acquired, Midlands-based label manufacturing business with a remit to implement an accounting and costing system so that it could operate as a standalone business. Again, he delivered a successful transformation and promotion followed, leading to a year based in the UK head-office supporting the UK FD, then a year based in Germany in a pan-European Finance Business Partner role, working closely with the European CEO.

Still only in his mid-20s, he and his wife decided to come home to the UK and Darren took up an interim Finance Manager role at Rolls-Royce before moving on in 1999 to become Finance Director of Marconi’s Northern European Services business, at the age of 27. “At that time, Telecommunications was going through the roof with the internet and the dotcom boom. It seemed like a very exciting place. In my first two years, the business was growing exponentially and that brought some really interesting challenges, such as maintaining control over pricing and resourcing.”

Thereafter, Darren was offered the opportunity to take over as Finance Director for Marconi’s global supply chain, a move that more or less coincided with the crash. Suddenly, it was a different picture. A new leadership team was appointed internally and there was firefighting to be done in a climate where many customers were struggling. Darren was suddenly confronted with a huge restructuring programme, helping remove hundreds of millions of pounds in costs out of the supply chain and supporting a small team under then CFO Steve Hare, preparing the business for refinancing. Darren cites Steve as one of his role models.

Six years with Marconi were followed by another six years with Inchcape, where he spent time in Eastern Europe as Regional Managing Director and Chief Financial Officer for Finland and the Baltic States. Three further interesting and challenging jobs followed before he made the move to Unipart.

First, as CFO for logistics business Freightliner Group there was a “complex stakeholder management” situation to navigate, with a DB pension scheme in deficit and a private equity owner experiencing some financial difficulties. But Darren, as part of a small tight-knit team, presented the business in an attractive way and oversaw a successful sale to a listed US buyer, following bids from six different parties.

“I would describe it as an extremely well managed and very disciplined sale process,” says Darren. “Due to my inexperience of running a large transaction for a PE owner, I wanted to make sure that everything was done in the right way. I wanted to demonstrate to the PE owners that we followed a process. But also from my perspective I wanted to gain that experience of running the process.”

Then, at Sage, he had an important role as Executive Vice President of Commercial Finance and led a global financial transformation, before returning to the PE-backed space as Deputy CFO at Finastra, which builds and deploys innovative financial software solutions for the global banking and financial services sector.

It has been an amazing career – and is obviously far from over as he gets his teeth into fresh challenges at Unipart. So, what advice would Darren give to those looking to follow in his footsteps?

“First of all, you’ve got to work hard. There's no getting around the fact that you have to put in the effort. You have to work really hard to understand yourself and what the business expects from you, so that you can deliver against that expectation. I always think it's better to over-deliver against what the company expects from you. You need to make an impact - if you over-deliver, you'll always be presented with further opportunities     .”

Without question, Darren demonstrated his qualities and ability to deliver – indeed, over-deliver – once again as CFO at Unipart. After two and a half years in that role, he was promoted to CEO in September 2022.

All such transitions are notable, but this one particularly so as he succeeded John Neill as CEO, who had been leading Unipart for decades, having joined the business in 1974 and led its management buyout from Rover Group in 1987. John remains actively involved as Executive Chairman and the two work closely together.

Many CFOs struggle with making the transition to CEO. Was this also the case for Darren? Perhaps all the more so with such big shoes to fill?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’. Darren had already accrued substantial broader business leadership experience in previous roles and in his time as Unipart CFO, which began at the start of the pandemic, he worked closely with John to tackle a wide range of issues.

“We had supply chain issues due to a huge problem with semiconductor shortages around the world that had a big impact on automotive manufacturing, which affected some of our sites, and we had a huge issue in terms of Network Rail cutting infrastructure spend which had a big impact on some of our rail businesses. Issues in the Suez Canal had an impact on supply chains and logistics of products around the world. All of these things had an effect on Unipart. John and I worked closely together, controlling the business, controlling our operations, reprioritising, working with our pension schemes, working with our banks.”

The transition “felt a natural progression” because “as a CFO that's been involved in lots of different companies, multiple sectors, lots of finance transformation, significant turnarounds and business transformation, several economic cycles, and all of the different business cycles that you can imagine, it was really quite easy to make that transition and just apply my experience and knowledge in an executive leadership capacity.”

However, Darren concedes, it was a challenge to overcome people's perceptions of him as a CFO rather than a business leader. He has addressed that through communication and demonstrating how he is adding value to the Group, developing a clear strategy for growth.

When all is said and done, it is Unipart’s people who make the difference and Darren has taken it upon himself to visit as many of the Group’s 84 sites around the world as possible, having just returned from a trip to Asia Pacific. As for the future talent pipeline, the company runs a graduate scheme, has a big commitment to apprenticeships and invests in learning, development and growth for all its employees. Darren knows as well as anyone the high calibre of talent that can emerge through this route and he is determined to encourage it.


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