Published in Megabuyte, November 2013. Original article here (£).
The Megabuyte Interview: Nick Bray
“It’s a great place to be” – Nick Bray says this more than once about Sophos. The CFO is excited about the prospects, of pushing forward in the sweet spot of security software for networks and devices, servicing the mid-market. “It feels almost like a fresh start,” says Bray, referring to Sophos’ recent management changes where Steve Munford moved up to Chairman, Kris Hagerman joined as CEO, as well as new heads of marketing and sales. “I think we are taking it to a new level actually, with the team we now have in place. It’s the same strategy, but with a tighter focus.”
We’ve met in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in Sophos’ purpose-built headquarters. It’s one of the hotter days of the late summer, but Bray is in dark jeans and blazer over a subtly embossed white shirt. Walking me through the airy lobby he talks about the building’s green credentials, down to the lily pond out front and how there’s “quite big fish” in the water out back. Bray’s 2010 move to Sophos came after five years at MicroFocus, and while he’s quick to say he enjoys working with shareholders, he also admits it’s liberating to just get on with things in a private company. Not that Apax, which owns 70% of Sophos, doesn’t put pressure on the team, far from it: “They are on the board, but they have different questions to what an analyst or an investor would ask. It really is right into the heart of business, right into exactly what is driving the performance? What is the market doing? What are the customers doing? You have to be on your toes.” And this goes to the heart of what makes a good CFO as well, says Bray, listing it off: “Is he driving strategies? Is getting more engaged in the operations? But the heart of it … the numbers.” He stresses it: “You have to be in top of your numbers.”
So the stereotype of the CEO bringing the charisma and the CFO being the dry one with the calculator, is that true? I ask this hoping Bray will laugh, and he does: “Hah! I think CFOs can sometimes come across that way. But I don’t’ think I’m dry! But it’s the numbers, upside down, back to front, inside out. That’s for the seat at the table.” But, he adds, a bit of charisma is necessary too, because that’s how you get people to want to follow you. “I love being a CFO, it’s in my DNA. One of the things I pride myself in is knowing what I’m really good at, and knowing what other people can do better,” says Bray. “When I joined, Steve and I structured a great relationship which remains today. I also have that with Kris. Whether it’s a public or a private company, investors want a strong leadership team. I’m a big believer that a great CEO and a great CFO make a hugely powerful team. That´s what I enjoy doing: being in the CFO in the formula.”
After hearing this I don’t ask Bray if he wants to be CEO, but he tells me anyway: “It´s like saying to, let’s say Rio Ferdinand in his time: ‘Rio, do you want to become a great striker?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I’m one of the best defenders in the world, so why would I want to be a striker?’ The CEO is the striker but I think really great CFOs are the best midfielders in the world.”
A network of gadgets
Bray lives an hour’s drive away from the Abingdon site but spends a fair amount of time on the road; Sophos is a global operation employing 1650 people, with major outposts in Boston, Vancouver, Sydney and Tokyo, as well as a new office in Silicon Valley. Is that where this is headed then, I ask, to sunny Santa Clara? After all, the assumption that Sophos will float on Nasdaq is so widespread it’s hard to tell whether it’s a rumour or part of the plan. At first, Bray evades the question: “Who knows what’s around the corner?” But he can’t help but follow the logic through; the private equity owners will one day seek an exit, and that will mean either an IPO or a trade sale. “Personally I would love to float the company, as would the senior team and the employees. It’s probably more natural to go to the US to float, if that happens. […] But look, it´s down to us to keep control of our destiny. If we perform as a team, we’ll have a whole range of options.”
Regarding performance, Sophos is seeing good results especially in the UTM (Unified Threat Management) area, where the company has invested heavily over the last few years. The technical side of Sophos gets complicated fast, which is also part of Sophos’ selling point: to take something complex and deal with it on behalf of mid-sized companies who may have limited in-house resources. Sophos started out as a anti-virus company covering computers, before expanding to secure mobile devices. UTM security for networks is the latest addition, joining everything up: “We see in ourselves as really unique now. We can deal with both [mobile] end-user security and network security. There are plenty of companies that do either one, but there’s only us that do both.”
The network focus is a trend for the industry as a whole, as illustrated when Cisco bought network specialist Sourcefire earlier this year. Cisco and BT also published a study showing only 36% of companies have a BYOD (bring your own device) policy, representing a security headache as the word of work is moving away from being device-specific, to user-specific. Bray, a speedy talker at the best of times, picks up the pace when BYOD comes up: “How many devices do you have?” The gadgets in my bag provide a handy case study, as my smartphone and mini-laptop are constantly used via unsecured networks, accessing data stored mostly remotely. “In a corporate world, people now may have a desktop, a laptop, an iPad, an Android phone. We secure the user and the devices they use, rather than worrying about securing the individual laptop.”
The rise of BYOD
Bray believes IT security will soon become a core element for company boards to consider, along with corporate governance and the general risk register: “Any board, audit committee chair, or non exec who isn’t thinking about IT security really isn’t fulfilling their fiduciary duties. It’s that important now.” A company may have a plan for what happens if the electricity goes out, but if the website is hacked or customer data stolen, this could cause equally serious damage to the brand or customers’ trust.
But if allowing BYOD sounds like a prospect best avoided, Bray points out that it’s also a brilliant way to liberate company staff. Allowing for remote working is one thing, but also, a hugely popular initiative among Sophos employees is that they choose which gadgets they want for work, and the company provides them. “It has to be sensible and the right framework, but the more we liberate and empower staff to make good decisions, the better we all are.”
This ties in with fostering a culture where everyone is pulling in the same direction, as well as allowing people to learn from mistakes and do better next time. This applies to Bray himself too; he brings up his second marriage as an example: “Absolutely got it right this time!” He laughs. “Then there are things that went exceptionally well the first time: my kids.” Bray, 48, has four teenagers, making for an active family life along with two big dogs and a passion for the Basingstoke Bisons ice hockey club. Bray doesn’t play himself, but his wife Angela used to: “She is quite fit and feisty. A great skater.” Bray used to cycle to work at MicroFocus, but the roundtrip to Abingdon is a bit much, even for a cycling-nut like Bray who covers 60 miles most weekends. “I’m really pleased that Sophos takes part in the Prince’s Trust ‘Palace to Palace’ bike ride; last year we had 60 racers and this year we should have more,” says Bray, who joins in with this relatively leisurely ride, only 45 miles long.
Building a powerhouse
On the topic of MicroFocus, Bray is proud of the company tripling revenues during his tenure there, when the market capitalisation rose from £200m to over £1bn. “MicroFocus was a huge success. That was five years of organic growth, seven acquisitions. But more importantly, we turned around a company that was really staid, didn’t believe. It didn’t believe it could be a powerhouse, back when I joined with Stephen Kelly and Kevin Loosemore. It´s completely different now.”
So how does he feel about the way things ended at MicroFocus, I ask; Bray left shortly after Kelly’s surprising departure amidst some speculation about the goings-on. “Look, there was a bit of turbulence when Stephen and I left. Then Kevin took the reins, and absolutely full credits to Kevin and the team who stabilised the company. It’s back to a powerhouse it was.” Clearly having been quizzed on this before, Bray asserts things could not have worked out better in terms of his own career, as “the stars aligned” with the new opportunity opening at Sophos.
After all, for Bray there’s nothing more fulfilling than taking on a challenge and getting through to the other side. “The ultimate thing at MicroFocus wasn’t just the size of the company, but growing a company from 450 to 1500 people. That’s fun! That´s what drives me. How do you build great companies? How do you deliver great value? Ultimately that allows you to do the nice things in life. We can do the ‘Palace to Palace’, we can help, we can hire great people and give them a great career. […] I feel more positive about this company every single day. Sophos is the right company, in the right industry, on the right way forward. They are a great place to be.”