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Stretch targets: Gymshark’s CFO on growth, mindset and strategy

12 February 2020: after a career in general practice, Philip Daw joined Gymshark, one of the UK’s most exciting brands, as CFO. He tells ICAEW Insights about the transition from practice to industry, dealing with the generation gap, and what his experience brings to the company.

After more than 30 years in general practice, 28 of which spent as a senior partner, you could have forgiven Philip Daw for starting to make retirement plans. Instead, in March 2019 the chartered accountant decided to cut his practice ties and jump on board as chief financial officer (CFO) of one of the world’s fastest growing gymwear brands, Gymshark.

For many Millennials and “Gen Zs”, Gymshark is as important a brand as Adidas or Nike. Founded while at university by Ben Francis, from a standing start in 2012 the Solihull-based company now boasts turnover of more than £240m, with 45% coming from the US market.

Targeting a customer base of 16-24-year olds, Gymshark drives interest in its product through social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. It was also one of the first firms to tap into the burgeoning “influencer” market with key people in the fitness industry being paid to promote the brand to their online followers.

So what prompted Daw’s switch from practice to industry, and how has he found the transition? He spoke to ICAEW Insights about the generation gap, company culture, and what his experience has brought to the young business.

In my own words…

“It was a big decision to walk away, having been a founder and one of the senior partners at a firm for 28 years. A big decision but not a difficult decision. My previous firm, Daw White Murrall, got involved with Gymshark in 2015 when the business was turning over £9m a year.

Gymshark was taking on more experienced people to help their business grow and wanted our advice. I said to them: ‘we’re a four-partner general practice in Wolverhampton, we know our market dealing with SMEs, but there will come a stage if the business continues to expand that you’ll outgrow us’. You’ve got to realise your own limitations as a practice.

The business continued to grow, and by 2018 it had turnover in excess of £100m. We started the process of looking for a larger firm and eventually Mazars took over as auditors with PwC and Deloitte also providing Gymshark with advice in other areas. That’s when I was approached to join as the full-time CFO: an impossible offer to turn down!

I’ve always been interested in the strategic aspect of accountancy. It was exciting, helping to grow such a fast-expanding company, and I knew I could offer experience gained through years of working with numerous different businesses.

One of the many things experience in general practice gives you is calmness – the ability to say ‘let’s not panic’ when things don’t go to plan.

The average age of employees here is 28, and let’s say I’m nowhere near that. Ben Francis is 27 years old: I’ve got children older than that!

I’ve found working with younger people really enjoyable. My finance team is young, but they don’t just accept things as is – they’re more than happy to challenge. It’s a ‘best idea wins’ culture, and my view is if that’s the best way to do things, that’s how we’ll do it.

It’s almost a change of career going from practice to within one company. However, issues within different functions of the business are much the same. You’re still gathering information, interpreting it and then communicating the results, often to non-accountants – much the same as in general practice. I meet with heads of the various functions in the business, going through management advice, rather than as before with clients.

I’d say ‘a new lease of life’ is the wrong phrase because I was enjoying the work I was doing at the firm. However, the new role has been enlightening and challenging. Having done general practice for so long there was little that surprised me, but I’ve learned a great deal over the past 12 months.

The experience has really taught me to embrace the challenge, and hammered home to me the need to challenge yourself every day.”