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A forensic approach to workplace diversity


Published: 02 Aug 2022

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Sarah Sturt, Deloitte’s Bristol-based transaction services partner, says being rigorous yet thoughtful about diversity is key to making advisory teams of the future. She talks to Marc Mullen about processes, people and being adaptable
Inspired (in part) by her love of TV show Quincy, Sarah Sturt, Deloitte senior transaction services partner, studied natural sciences and pathology at the University of Cambridge. For those too young to remember, Quincy was a US TV medical mystery drama that aired in the 1970s and 80s. The lead character was a determined and ethical medical examiner, with a highly inquisitive mind, who would examine the facts of a case and question conclusions hitherto drawn by the investigators.  

Sturt may not have ended up working in a lab, taking blood samples or dissecting torsos, but some of the qualities of Quincy’s character have certainly stuck with her. 

After graduating in 1993, it was not a career in natural sciences that beckoned, but one in accountancy. Getting the ACA qualification was one of the main attractions. “It’s such a fantastic qualification, which opens up opportunities and gives you options that you don’t have to decide on straight away,” she says. “You’re getting paid and learning the job at the same time. You end up with training that’s incredibly interesting and a qualification that is very marketable.” 

Sturt joined Chantrey Vellacott and trained for her ACA qualification with its audit team. The firm had a broad range of clients, including many big charities and schools, and its City base meant that it carried out a lot of financial services work. It was this variety of sectors and the different sizes of business she experienced that she appreciated most. “With the smaller clients, you really learned how to prepare a set of accounts, which was such a brilliant grounding for ultimately coming into corporate finance. On some assignments, of course, you were a cog in the wheel, but generally I was involved in every single piece of the jigsaw and working closely with the senior finance team. That face-to-face exposure was great to get really early on in my career.” 

Westward bound

After qualifying as an ACA, Sturt worked on “special projects – effectively transaction services – a bit of due diligence, advisory and some financial modelling”. Chantrey Vellacott was very supportive, she says, when she decided she wanted to move out of London and had got a taste for working in mergers and acquisitions.  

The opportunity came up to join Deloitte’s Bristol-based corporate finance team, which at the time covered lead advisory and transaction services; it was exactly what she was looking for.  

She covered all aspects of corporate finance: “Advisory, due diligence, modelling and everything in between. It was a great way to start and I liked all of it. The clients were generally larger, but we focused on the local market – as we still do. It has given me this massive breadth of sector experience, as well as involvement on different types of assignments.”  

There was also great variety in the size of transactions – from £0.5m local deals to £1bn plus international deals – with one of the first deals she worked on being the £820m sale of NCP to US-headquartered Cendant Corporation.  

Increased focus 

Deloitte subsequently split transaction services and lead advisory into two separate service lines and Sturt went with the transaction services team. She has since built her transaction services career advising clients across many sectors, but the consumer and business services sectors have proved to be her specialist areas. 

“I did a lot of milk and cheese in the beginning,” she laughs. “That industry was changing really quickly and some of the biggest deals in the region that I worked on were in the merging of those businesses. I found that sector really interesting – it involves businesses you see around you every day.” 

There’s also an abundance of business services companies in the south west, which are very attractive to private equity, of course, because of the recurring revenues. The region has a significant private equity presence and advising mid-market private equity became another of Sturt’s specialisms, which she says led to her promotion to partner in 2008. However, this brought its own challenges as she was promoted two months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and “transactions just dried up”.  

Sturt says she particularly enjoys following businesses with buy-and-build strategies: “Businesses that are not initially private equity-backed, but take on investment and then grow and go through secondary and tertiary buyouts. Also large consumer deals that can often lead to further carve-out work, be it driven by regulation, or for commercial reasons. Those both mean long-term relationships with clients.” 

Managing the cycle 

During her 14 years as a partner in transaction services and Deloitte’s wider financial advisory practice, the range of services has grown enormously to include such things as forensics, intellectual property, real estate, environmental, social and governance (ESG), performance improvement and post-merger integration. “There’s so much range in what we do now and so there are many more places for people to enjoy a career in transaction services. There’s a need for different skills and approaches and so there’s a bit more balance needed in terms of talent.” 

Just a month before the first lockdown, Sturt took up a position leading Deloitte’s People & Purpose for financial advisory (a practice that has more than 2,000 staff across the UK): “It covers everything to do with wellbeing, inclusion, recruitment, learning and development. There has maybe never been a more important time to take on a role like this. Coming out of lockdown has been just as difficult for some people as lockdown itself. Learning and development plays a big part in making people feel like they’re progressing, and included and important. The group also plays a vital role in ensuring we have the various requisite skills to deliver the range of services.” 

Deloitte is recruiting across the board, she says, particularly in its ESG and digital teams, to grow its transaction services analytics business. “The new recruits are not necessarily classic ACAs – they’re data scientists. It comes back to that diversity of thinking and culture – we’re very alive to what we have to do to change our processes.” 

Before, “we would storm the beaches and then leave”, as Sturt puts it, but today’s approach is far more about having a preferred adviser relationship, “where you’re advising the client much earlier in the process and can offer them what they need from the whole suite of services. It’s about offering strategic, end-to-end M&A advice – everything they need when they need it, rather than waiting for the transaction event.” 

The horizon 

As to the future, Sturt sees two key drivers: there is still a lot of interest in tech and the digital landscape. Private equity has so much available cash. Valuations, meanwhile, will fluctuate depending on the sector and the business, rather than just “come off” she says: “The bigger area of caution is around how fluctuating valuations will impact the likelihood of completion.” 

Work will expand, too: “For wider advisory business, private equity will need help across the whole investment portfolio, corporates will need help with supply chains, and corporates and private equity will need help with their approach to ESG.”  

Post-COVID-19 reboot 

In transaction services in particular, a lot of the legwork was already being done remotely in virtual datarooms before the various COVID-19 lockdowns. “Datarooms allow more control, and help with confidentiality and data protection laws,” says Sturt. “The move to carrying out transaction services online during lockdown wasn’t as significant as some might think.  

“In the UK and overseas, we learned a lot as a firm during COVID-19. And we’re not alone in looking at our ways of working and our working framework going forward. People want a more flexible working environment and that needs to work for everyone. But there’s nothing that beats face-to-face client meetings, so what we’re seeing is a hybrid model. A lot of our clients are back full time, so what is key is that they’re happy with our approach.” 

In 2023, Deloitte’s south west practice will move into a new eco office in the centre of Bristol, bringing together staff from its two offices in the city. The office will accommodate new thinking about how the advisory firm works. Collaboration is key: “We want to encourage people to come in and collaborate and see clients, yet still have that flexibility – that’s the holy grail. It’s a fresh approach.” 

Understanding that different people have different motivations as we emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns is important. “Everyone’s finding their way a little bit, but for us as a firm and for our people, it’s about making sure that our approach works together, with the overriding proviso that it’s all about ensuring the client is satisfied.”  

In your corner

When Sturt was promoted to partner in 2008, she wasn’t the only woman joining the partnership in Bristol that year – but there weren’t many. She says a far higher percentage make it now: “I was very fortunate in that I didn’t have that many challenges beyond those of making partner, per se. Having good mentors is key and I was really lucky to have a couple of very good ones who gave me the confidence to get through the process.” 

Women having more role models helps. “But it’s not just about female partners, it’s everything inclusion-related. We’re focused on levelling the playing field, using promotion and improving retention, by making our promotion processes much more inclusive and clearer.” 

It also starts at entry level to the firm, she says. Gender and ethnicity are a focus for the recruitment process when taking graduates who join transaction services, as well as the wider diversity of skills, thought and background. And, once in, the company monitors the speed at which individuals are progressing to see if there are any anomalies.