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How I became a CFO with a history degree by way of investment banking

Charlie was just 28 when he became a vice-president: he explains how his career in finance has developed since he graduated with a history degree.
I am more impressed by someone who has done a part-time job throughout university than someone who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro because they were told it would look good on a CV.

When I mentor friends’ kids (and my own) I encourage them to find a company with a well-established, broad training programme, but to balance that with finding work in a growth industry. When I started in investment banking it was growing and when I moved to work in media and telecoms it was growing. I think graduates need a game plan – not worked out to the nth degree, but it should at least have a general sense of direction.

A finance career with a maths A level

Moving from a history degree to a finance career may seem odd, but what I liked about finance was that if you understand the financial side of a business you can take that knowledge into any industry. Back then I didn’t want to limit any of my career options. I just knew that I wanted to start in a blue-chip company because of the training provided.

A friend in the year above me was working at J.P. Morgan and suggested I join. I didn’t even go through the milkround – I just had an interview – but I doubt that would happen now. I hadn’t done any maths since A level, but that didn’t unnerve me. The graduate programme was like a four-month MBA. It was vital for gaining those basic skills you need at that point in your career.

European dealings

I left the bank after three years. I was in mergers and acquisition and at that point it was a little quiet. I remember helping a colleague with their application to join the space programme! I hadn’t taken a year out previously and left in order to travel. When I got back, I had a job offer from Morgan Stanley, but the 1990 recession hit and it was rescinded.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) was the only bank hiring. The Berlin Wall had just come down and there were new opportunities in Eastern Europe of the sort that you wouldn’t normally see. I was employee number four and we set up all of the processes. We made the first ever investment in what was then Czechoslovakia. I was 24 and sat on the board of directors of that company. It was exciting. It is unusual to have that level of responsibility at that age, but when you are young you don’t question it.

Becoming an expert

When I moved to Goldman Sachs there was a sense that ‘this was the place to be’. I was 28 when I was made vice-president and I could have hung out at the bank for longer – I’m not saying that I was the in-house expert on the media, mobile and cable industry, but I was the lead. However, I wasn’t sure if I’d progress further and it’s OK to be restless. United Pan Europe Communications approached me. I liked the company’s entrepreneurial spirit.

A role of two halves

My current role is split into two broad halves. As chief financial officer, I am involved in the investment aspects of the organisation: financing acquisitions, ensuring we are tax efficient and taking a top-level view of financial performance. I have key lieutenants and manage them, and also interact with banks and the companies we are looking to acquire. However, recently I have also been involved with growing our subsidiaries and have taken an operational role: diving deeper into the workings of organisations, for example, by reviewing spending decisions and strategies, managing risk and compliance, and overseeing procurement.

I’ve tried to create standard processes and a clearer understanding of measures and expectations. My management style is energetic. I’ve never been one to accept the status quo. I am known for innovating, but I’ve had to learn not to rush things and to ensure that I’ve built consensus.

People power

Across Liberty, we are investing strongly in our people and ensuring that all of our subsidiaries have equally strong graduate programmes. Our UK schemes, such as those at Virgin Media, are particularly well developed and I want to share good practice among all of our operating countries. I interact with our graduates as much as possible. I’ve pulled the management of our finance graduates into the finance function to oversee their development. I also visit each of the subsidiaries I am responsible for and hold a lunch for all of the graduates.

I’m impressed by graduates who have a ‘point of view’ – those who are thoughtful and take the time to know their stuff. It is important that they have done something outside of their studies in order to have developed this perspective. Some workplace experience is essential, but it doesn’t have to be an internship. I am more impressed by someone who has done a part-time job throughout university than someone who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro because they were told it would look good on a CV.

Career lessons from a CFO who started working at J. P. Morgan
Charlie Bracken
Job title: 
Executive vice-president and chief financial officer (CFO) for Liberty Global, the parent company of Virgin Media

1987 Graduated with a BA in history from the University of Cambridge and joined J.P. Morgan.
1989–1990 Left J.P. Morgan and took time off to travel.
1990–1994 Worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
1994–1999 Worked for Goldman Sachs, eventually becoming executive director for communications, media and technology clients.
1999 Joined United Pan Europe Communications as finance chief.
2004 Became joint finance chief of the company’s parent group UnitedGlobalCom.
2004–2016 Became co-CFO of Liberty Global (created by a merger between Liberty Media International and UnitedGlobalCom).
2016 Appointed sole CFO of Liberty Global.

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