William Ham Bevan 20 Jul 2018 11:19am

ACA profile: Greggs FD

As group FD for Greggs, Richard Hutton has helped grow one of Britain’s most recognised brands. He tells William Ham Bevan about his journey, and why social responsibility is at the heart of his corporate mission

Caption: Photography by John Donoghue

For most students, securing a training contract with an accountancy firm is a taxing process. But during the last year of his economics degree at the University of Manchester, Richard Hutton found a more direct route. “KPMG was looking for guinea pigs to train its interviewers for the milk round,” he says. “A few of us went along as volunteers, just to get interview practice. I must have made a good impression, because they came back to me with a job offer. I thought that if I trawled around looking at all the other firms, they’d probably be very similar to KPMG, so I accepted the offer there and then.

“I’d drifted towards accountancy as a way of deferring a decision on what I really wanted to do, although I’d always been comfortable with numbers and problem solving. It seemed a good way of learning relevant commercial skills and finding out how other businesses work.” His instincts proved right. At KPMG – where he qualified as an ACA in 1992 – Hutton amassed a wide range of experience in corporate finance.

After an inter-office transfer from Manchester to Newcastle upon Tyne, he was seconded to a regional development agency for a year. “It was great fun,” he says. “I travelled to the US, Japan and South Korea, working with a diverse set of people trying to create employment in the area.” He decided to seek a more permanent position in a consumer-facing business, and became a financial analyst for Procter & Gamble. He says: “I look back on that as my apprenticeship in commerce. I enjoy that idea of setting out your stall and trying to work out the psychology that makes a consumer buy a product – and how you can persuade them to choose yours over the competition.”

He realised in 1998 that any further promotion at Procter & Gamble would push him into an international role. “That wouldn’t have suited us from a family point of view,” he says. “So when the Greggs job came up, I was immediately tempted. They were recruiting a financial analyst to their head office for the first time. Until then, they’d just had the finance director and two qualified accountants.”

The interview for the job at the company’s Newcastle headquarters soon turned to matters of corporate responsibility – a topic that has gone on to play an important role in Hutton’s working life. He recalls sitting with the then chief executive, Mike Darrington, who spoke at length about the company’s values and asked for his opinions on them. “The culture of Greggs is fundamental to its success,” he says. “Ian Gregg, who grew the company, was a very principled man who wanted to treat people with respect and engage them in sharing in his success. I think that remains true to this day.”

In 2006, Hutton took over from group financial director Malcolm Simpson, who was retiring after 35 years. Joining the board offered the chance to take a greater role in the company’s social responsibility initiatives, including the Greggs Breakfast Club scheme that provides free meals for children at the start of the school day. This work was recognised at the FDs’ Excellence Awards in 2011, when he became the inaugural winner of the ICAEW Sustainable Business Award.

He says: “A couple of us grew that scheme from a single breakfast club at a primary school in 1999 to something that involves around 500 schools today. The chance to do that sort of thing is unusual, and it’s something I’ve always been passionate about. My parents were very community minded and I think that rubbed off on me.” Outside Greggs, Hutton serves as a director of Business in the Community, a charity set up by the Prince of Wales in 1982. He says: “It encourages responsible business practice, helping companies benchmark and rate their progress. The premise is that responsible businesses tend to be more sustainable and more successful. The carrot is always better than the stick. When you go down the legislative route, you find it’s hard to define tightly enough the practices that you want to encourage or discourage. That tends to create a new industry around avoidance. It’s better to create an environment where businesses are encouraged to voluntarily improve their practice. “In fact, public expectation is the most powerful driver.

Recycling coffee cups, for example, has become a big issue; and that has come about because the public are demanding it. With social media, campaigns and public opinion can be moved very quickly. That’s something all of us in consumer-facing industries have to be very conscious of, and responsive to.” And looking to the future, Hutton is unworried about succession – even if his tenure proves to be as long as the 35 years of his predecessor. “I’m fortunate to have a very experienced team behind me,” he says. “And while I can imagine moving into more of a portfolio career, I don’t think I’ll be looking for another executive role beyond Greggs. It’s an organisation I feel very comfortable with. It suits me, and I think I suit it."

The account

I like being an ACA because... It got me my dream job. Imagine being required to taste chocolate eclairs for a living!

I’m happiest when…
We have the whole family back around the meal table.

My favourite book is…
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. It takes me back to a misspent youth in record shops.

The hardest lesson to learn has been… Uncomfortable conversations are often the ones that achieve most.

Love of my life is… My talented, wonderful wife tells me the answer to this is “your bike”.

My worst habit is…
I should compliment my team more often.