George is Managing Director, responsible for Group marketing, communications and ESG (sustainability) at Accsys Technologies Plc, a fast-growing business, manufacturing ultra-high performance, sustainable wood products. George talks about not working hard enough at university, having to talk about pots of face cream in interviews, to working for Accsys, a unique business where end users include Google, Elon Musk, and Starbucks.
How did you find the transition from school to university?
A bit of a shock. Radley was a fairly regimented existence, every part of the day was planned, always somewhere to be, and something to do. Life at university was very different. I studied French at Bristol and had maybe six hours of lectures a week. So suddenly I had all this free time which I quickly filled with non-academic pursuits.
I was relatively good at French arriving at Bristol, and as such I felt I didn’t need to apply myself. This meant that I didn’t go to many lectures, nor did I work particularly hard. It was a fun time! At the end of my first year, I was given a warning by the faculty: buck up my ideas or leave. It was the wake-up call I needed!
Looking back at it, I can see now that I lacked the personal maturity to apply myself and knuckle down. It wasn’t really until I started in the real world of work that I understood what genuine hard work was.
What was your first job after university?
I had applied to join L’Oréal’s marketing graduate scheme based on a predicted grade and realised that I wasn’t going to get that grade. I was fortunate to secure a summer internship with them and realised that I had to demonstrate to my manager and team how indispensable I was. I went for it with everything I had! Working hard on the internship, coupled with relevant work experience – a year in Paris working in marketing for a consumer goods company – allowed me to transition onto the L’Oréal Graduate Scheme.
At the end of the marketing graduate scheme at L’Oréal you ended up in sales as an Account Manager, how did that come about?
L’Oréal had, at the time, a somewhat binary view of where people fit: either sales or marketing. They have this term called ‘sensitivity to the métier’ which is a French word for ‘the craft’, in this case, your sensitivity to the craft of health & beauty. They also call pie charts camemberts!
At my interview, I remember being shown a pot of face cream with all the branding removed. All I had to do was talk about it – what sort of customer did I think the product was aimed at, what were the functional benefits, the price point, where it might be sold, the sort of shopping environment you might find it in, etc. The purpose was to see how your brain worked and how your understanding of customer behaviour had developed.
In the end, it was determined that my limited sensitivity to the métier would be best served with me working in sales rather than marketing!
Did you enjoy sales?
I did. I liked the competitive, fast-paced environment. I think everyone should work in a sales role at some point as it gives you some grit and crucially teaches you how to handle rejection. I worked on the Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco accounts, the latter of which was famously tough at supplier negotiations. However, working in sales meant that I didn’t get to use my French and I realised that if I wanted to try my hand at marketing, I would most likely have to leave L’Oréal. After 4 ½ years I moved to Diageo (the alcoholic drinks company) where I went on to work in a series of European and global marketing roles.
Some people might say marketing is a ‘fluffy’ industry, what is your response to that?
Marketing is, I think, one of the most misunderstood areas in business. It is strongly associated with advertising, an industry awash with creativity, but not necessarily responsibility for the bottom line of the brands they work with.
The biggest misunderstanding about marketing is that it is just about creativity with no scientific principles or laws. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’re interested in working in marketing, it’s imperative to understand the science and the theory behind it. I was fortunate that working at L’Oréal and Diageo had trained me well in the core discipline, but I didn’t have any formal training in marketing up to that point. Whilst I wouldn’t suggest doing an undergraduate degree in marketing is imperative to having a career in marketing, some formal training at the beginning of your career is indispensable. I didn’t realise this until late into my career.
Have you had any formal training now?
During lockdown, I completed the Marketing Week Mini MBA. It’s run online by the marketing professor, Mark Ritson, a leading voice and teacher in the marketing world. It turned out to be some of the best training I have ever received. It cost under £2000, so compared to a business school it was cheap. More recently I went to INSEAD, spending time at the French and Singapore campuses. Getting time out of the day-to-day job to learn from professors and my INSEAD cohort was hugely valuable for my continued personal growth.
Tell me about Accsys Technologies, where you work now.
Accsys is a fast-growing business with a purpose: ‘Changing wood to change the world’. We combine chemistry, technology and ingenuity to make ultra-high-performance wood products that are extremely durable and stable, opening new opportunities for the built environment. By doing so, we give the world a choice to build sustainably.
We transform fast-growing, certified sustainable wood into a building material with characteristics that match or better those of man-made, intensely resource-depleting and heavily carbon-polluting alternatives.
We take fast growing pine wood that normally rots quickly and convert it to something that lasts longer than teak or mahogany. We’re all about carbon sequestration, extracting as much carbon dioxide as you can out of the atmosphere. Most people don’t know that once a tree reaches maturity, the level of carbon sequestration rapidly decreases. If you look at it from a purely environmental perspective, the best thing to do is grow a tree quickly, cut it down, replace it with a new one, and then lock the carbon in the wood for as long as possible.
The construction and building industries are responsible for a huge percentage of the overall carbon impacts on the planet. Every plank of wood we sell substitutes one of those materials, and has a net positive benefit to the planet. Traditionally, you would have to sacrifice performance for the sake of sustainability; our wood is high performing and sustainable, we offer something unique, no one else in the world does this.
Our wood is used for many applications, including windows, doors, cladding and decking. It is even used for oyster beds in Australia due to the durability of the product.
What are you doing to the wood to make it so robust?
Our proprietary acetylation process boosts the already naturally occurring acetyl content of wood and by doing so, reduces the ability of the wood to absorb water, rendering it more dimensionally stable and, because it is no longer easily digestible, it becomes extremely durable. Another analogy is to think back to when you played conkers and what you did to make the conkers more durable and stronger: soak them in vinegar and put them in the oven. That’s essentially what we’re doing but at a molecular level.
Where is your wood coming from?
Our main feed stock for Accoya production is fast-growing and high-yield pine from New Zealand. Its quick growth cycle helps us meet the rising demand for building materials without compromising on sustainability.
New Zealand’s warm, wet climate means trees grow fast, drawing down carbon from the atmosphere as they do.
What about the shipping aspect, and the carbon emissions associated with that?
Sourcing from New Zealand does increase the distance travelled by our timber, but the extended service life of our products means the overall impact of transport is negligible. Furthermore, there are new regulations being introduced which restrict the speed of ships to reduce carbon emissions which will help.
Which industry trends are you keeping an eye on?
The biggest trend I can see is the rapid increase in consumer understanding of what sustainability means. Armed with this new knowledge consumers are able to hold brands and businesses to account. Companies that were previously able to get away with making unsubstantiated sustainability claims (or greenwashing) are now being called out by savvy consumers that vote with their wallets.
Within the sustainability movement there’s a certification called B Corp. Companies certified B Corp are legally obliged to balance the interests of the environment and society at large with the interests of the shareholders. This really puts the power in the hands of the shopper to understand how they can make informed and responsible choices. For instance, if you shop on Ocado or online with M&S you can filter for products that are B Corp certified. I don’t believe this is a passing fad, but rather something that will continue to gain momentum, forcing brands and businesses to hold themselves to increasingly higher standards.
Is the building industry responding to this trend as well?
The industries that make up the built environment are highly fragmented and slow-moving when it comes to real change. The built environment is responsible (directly and indirectly) for about 40% of global CO2 emissions, far higher than shipping or aviation. However, change is starting to happen, albeit slowly. Companies are wanting to demonstrate their environmental credentials and are taking it upon themselves to specify more sustainable building materials. Some well-known names that have used Accoya (our brand) are Google at their new head office in London, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Marks & Spencer’s, Waitrose, Starbucks, and McDonalds. Recently, I found out that the Colosseum in Rome is due to get a new remote-controlled retractable floor system that has been specified to be made from Accoya!
What advice would you have for current students who want to get into marketing?
Get some formal marketing education and do that early on in your career. Top it up as you go, what’s relevant now might not be relevant in 10 years’ time. You need to be intellectually curious, always be asking why, be interested in consumer behaviour, what motivates people to buy car insurance versus a bottle of wine – one is a very rational decision, the other is often an emotive one.
Experience is a differentiator. In terms of getting your CV to stand out from the rest, getting some relevant experience in marketing before applying to graduate schemes is helpful. If I hadn’t done French at university or had real-life work experience in marketing, I don’t think L’Oréal would have considered me. Getting your foot in the door on an internship or work experience, and demonstrating your worth, is invaluable.
If you hadn’t gone into marketing, what do you think you might have done?
Many of my friends from school and university went on to be lawyers, bankers or management consultants. Two and half years into working at L’Oréal I had a bit of a panic and I went for an interview at Goldman Sachs, in the FX trading department. I didn’t get the job, but it was great experience as I knew I wouldn’t be fulfilled working in that type of environment. You have to work out where you will be happiest, most effective and fulfilled.
Lastly, any stories you would like to share from your time at Radley?
Yes, although it will sound like sour grapes. Mike Hopkins, my Tutor in E Social, said that I was on track to become Head of Social and to be a pup. He told me that the only issue was that my room was constantly untidy, and that I set a bad example to everyone else. I was given the ultimatum to get my act together, and clean up. I failed to take his advice, and consequently, Sam Beardall was made Head of E Social. My parents have never quite forgiven me! I’m still as untidy now as I was then; some habits are hard to break.