I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert King, Chief Executive Officer of Acuity Knowledge Partners, a leading research, analytics and business intelligence consultant to the financial services sector. He joined the business in 2017 as CEO and is based in London. Prior to Acuity, he worked for Moody’s Corporation for 20 years, in a variety of roles including Global Sales, Customer Services and Marketing. Before Moody’s, he worked in the private banking division of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As the son of a teacher, I grew up planning to follow suit and become a teacher myself. I pursued both undergraduate and master’s degrees in history and then had a place to train as a teacher. But before jumping into the teaching career path, I decided to work in temporary jobs for a year, and I ended up working for a bank during that time and here I am, 23 years later, continuing down the financial services path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Given this is a media interview, a story that springs to mind is actually when I inadvertently got press coverage early in my career. A journalist rang me up when I was a young salesman for Moody’s Corporation, and I ended up giving him my opinions on the future of the global insurance market, which were then published in a renowned insurance industry publication. I was quickly summoned to the senior partner’s office to explain why and how I was featured in the publication!
A key takeaway from that experience has remained relevant throughout my career: be careful when speaking to journalists!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I read a fair number of autobiographies and business books and try to take away little nuggets from each of them. I recently read a book about Warren Buffett, and of the many things I learned from that book, the most valuable takeaway was that Warren Buffet always sticks to what he calls his “sphere of competence”. He’s missed out on participating in investing in many trends and industries, most notably the rise of technology. But he simply explains that’s because it was not an area or sphere of his own competence. As he didn’t understand it, he wouldn’t invest there. I feel that focusing and remaining true to your expertise is often great advice.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At Acuity Knowledge Partners, we’re working on numerous exciting initiatives to both deepen our domain expertise and broaden the services we offer our financial services customers. For some time, we’ve been working very intently on applying the latest technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to our business. Informed by these technologies, we’re developing new capabilities to complement our existing array of services. The goal is to help clients perform to the best of their ability by constantly evolving and transforming as their businesses and needs do.
These innovations improve not only our delivery to our clients but also the quality of work for our analysts, saving them time and reducing repetitive tasks. Our analysts are our greatest asset, so this is really important.
Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I’m a great believer in incorporating our purpose into all areas of our business. Our focus is to best serve our clients and to be the number one partner in research and analytics to the financial services industry. I’m very committed to ensuring we stay on that path and focus on being the best we can be within our sphere of competence and for our customers. We prioritize strong communication channels to understand the needs of our clients and to provide employees with the resources they need to fulfil this purpose. Our complementary goal is to be a great company to work for. If we are great to work for, we’ll attract and retain the best talent.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Focus. I truly believe that narrowing the scope and empowering employees to focus on selected business areas, specific customers or certain tasks enable Acuity Knowledge Partners to deliver the best results it can. When employees can fully focus and reach their full potential, the business is in a better place to handle all the ups and downs that come with life in financial services.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Lead generation is an area that’s evolved greatly recently, particularly with the rise of the internet and its role as the prime research tool for anybody looking at any new product or service. We’ve had to greatly increase our investment in our online presence and marketing in order to source leads. I’ve seen research showing that over 60% of the buying decision is now taken prior to contacting a service provider. And that research is conducted online. So, we’ve had to be strategic in the ways we’ve emphasized our online presence.
We are extremely proud of our domain expertise. Our lead-generation strategy is designed around creating meaningful conversation with potential customers through bespoke content and thought leadership. We leverage the power of technology through omni-channel marketing and social media to offer a personalized experience to our future customers. Our content-led marketing initiatives help our clients pick the right solutions and technology. It also supports them on various methods, means and benefits of engaging with Acuity Knowledge Partners. Our website, blogs, social media channels as well as our online and offline events offer a truly personalized platform for our future customers to engage with our domain experts.
If a fellow CEO would ask you for advice about whether to bootstrap or to look for VC capital, how would you help them weigh the pros and cons of that decision?
I’d have to sit down and hash out some questions with my fellow CEO before I could provide some educated advice. I’d ask: How’s your current business funded, and where are you in your funding cycle? What’s your growth been? What’s your likelihood of paying back the funding?
Every CEO has to look at a number of variables to determine the right source of funding for their business. They need to consider where they stand at present and where they see their business going. At different stages in the business lifecycle, different sources of funding make more sense than others.
What measure do you use to determine the value of a company? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to get an optimal evaluation of their business?
As an established 18-year-old firm in our sector, we look at earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) as a basis for determining valuations. But that method needs to be tempered and adjusted, depending on the business one is looking at. Variables like a business’s maturity or the nature of the service it provides come into consideration. Looking at a specific product-based business, it could have a very low EBITDA, but in its outlook could reveal the business plan is successful. And, therefore, you would pay a much higher multiple. However, in a service-based business, that’s less likely and, therefore, you’d probably have a much more conservative view on the multiple. However, we must recognize there are so many factors that determine value, so I’d ask other business leaders about the sector and industry they are in and what characteristics drive value, and where they are in their business cycle.
What would you advise to a founder who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
That’s an unfortunate and difficult place to be. My advice would be to avoid getting stuck in that situation by constantly dedicating time to new growth initiatives and focusing on the customer. That could include improving a current product or service or developing something new that may even have the potential to disrupt what a company currently does.
I think one always has to have a good grasp of both what the customer needs and how best to meet those needs. Indeed, at Acuity Knowledge Partners, some of the development we are undertaking will disrupt our existing business model. But we feel it’s the best way forward, as opposed to standing still. I read the other day that you need the wisdom to honor the past, but also the bravery to adapt to the future.
What are the most common finance mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
There are so many mistakes, but one common mistake we often see in businesses is underinvestment in their future. For example, a business could lack investment in sales and marketing, which is necessary to ensure they have a long-term growth path. Similarly, a business could lack investment in product and service development, which is necessary to ensure valuable products both for today and tomorrow. It’s somewhat easy to have short-term margin expansion and growth, but it’s dangerous when it comes at the cost of long-term growth.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern finance industry? Please share a story or an example for each.
I believe the modern financial services industry model is changing and evolving rapidly with the advent of modern technology. But I think there are core, timeless principles that can serve businesses both now and in the future.
First, focus on your customers and solve a problem your customers have. Try to develop a cost-effective, efficient and modern solution to develop a relevant business.
Second, dedicate time to providing strategic and empathetic leadership. CEOs of businesses need to stay connected to their staff and stay authentic in their leadership style. Staff will be more motivated working alongside a leader with clear direction and who doesn’t overcomplicate the day-to-day.
Third, keep your business goals focused, rather than trying to be a jack of all trades. At Acuity Knowledge Partners, we always want to be considered the very best in what we do. We prefer to be the best at a few selected things, rather than average at a multitude of things.
Fourth, focus on maintaining clear communication with stakeholders. It’s important to understand customer needs, their views on the company and, most importantly, the problems they have. Since these aspects are always evolving, it’s important to be proactive in getting feedback.
Lastly, try to incorporate aspects of a flat organizational structure, rather than relying solely on hierarchy. As a CEO, be a leader who knows what’s happening on the shop floor and understand how the business is truly working day-to-day. I try to incorporate this even into the office experience at Acuity Knowledge Partners. I don’t sit in a separate office; instead, I opt for an open-plan environment, sitting side-by-side with the sales group in London, using my office only for meetings. In normal circumstances, I travel to our offices around the world on a very regular basis to interact with staff and make sure there’s space for their talent to flourish.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Focus on things you’re passionate about, in and out of work. It also helps to complement your business life with a fulfilling personal life. If you find a way for the two to work together, you’ll always have the motivation to keep moving forward.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’ve been alarmed by much of what I’ve seen on the news in recent years. Like so many people, I’d like us to live in a more tolerant world, where all people are heard, not just the loudest voices. I’d love to see a world where people are judged purely on their contribution, rather than any distinguishing feature like gender, race, religion, et cetera. For the future of us all, I believe equality and tolerance need to be key focus areas in the wider society. Diverse voices are the way forward, for better business and a better world.
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