No challenge is too tough for troubleshooter Rod Sutton of FTI Consulting
Rod Sutton remembers the interview for his first professional job as if it was yesterday. As a fresh graduate, he was all set to follow the standard advice given to anyone who studied accounting or business studies in mid-80s Australia and was applying for roles as a trainee auditor.
Rebuffed by one firm who, for some reason, thought him unsuited, he was nevertheless asked to come back that afternoon and speak to the partner in charge of the restructuring practice.
“I rang from a phone booth to confirm the time and was told: ‘Don’t bother coming in again, we’ll just give you the job’,” says Sutton, who is now the Asia-Pacific chairman of FTI Consulting, overseeing 15 offices and around 550 staff.
Sutton’s boyhood years had been spent in a small country town to the north-west of Melbourne, where his parents ran a successful local business. Before leaving school, going in with them had seemed a logical option, but his father had other ideas.
“He said don’t do anything with your hands - you don’t get paid enough.”
Initially, that meant college in Ballarat which, in due course, let to the life-defining offer to join the firm which later became Ferrier Hodgson.
Soon, though, he was out knocking on doors and collecting debts, an essential way of learning the practical side of restructuring companies facing financial strains and, if at all possible, avoiding bankruptcies.
“The first client I ever won was at the courthouse,” Sutton says. “I had gone there to do a bankruptcy procedure, saw a man loitering around, asked if he was planning to file and suggested that, instead, he should come to the office to see if we could find another arrangement.”
Such initiative was recognised in 1991 with a secondment to Britain and, on his return to Melbourne, involvement with client cases of increasing range and complexity.
He was also called in to deal with the fallout surrounding the delayed opening of a ground-breaking toll road.
“There were definitely a lot of problems. We stayed 12 months instead of the expected three or four, did Y2K testing, brought in full-time employees to take over some of what we were doing, and took the system through to successful tolling.” The experience was invaluable in terms of learning how to implement strategies and improve operational functions. It also stood him in good stead when the chance came to transfer to Hong Kong in 2002 for a role which initially focused on helping banks and other stakeholders restructure their businesses in China.
Subsequently, the work came to include forensic investigations for the Commercial Crime Bureau and the Department of Justice on money laundering cases, with a whole new dimension added when FTI acquired the business in 2009.
“I never imagined I’d be working for an American company,” Sutton says. “It is different, but from the outset, they were very enthusiastic about making us feel part of the organisation. The issue you do face in any large company is explaining why Asia is not like North America, particularly when it comes to dealings between the middle ranks of management. But the people at the top have always been very understanding of our needs, interested in hearing our views and, where necessary, have allowed us to ‘educate’ them.”
Leading by example, he expects staff not simply to present advice, but also to roll their sleeves up, follow through, and ensure the job gets done.
As far as possible, Sutton tries to maintain a clear line between work and outside activities.
“I’ve developed an interest in farming and now have a 3,000-acre property south of Ballarat, which I manage ‘remotely’, growing canola, wheat and barley,” he says. “Average rainfall has gone from 25 inches to 17 inches, and this year is turning out to be quite dry. On balance, though, drought has not affected that part of the country too badly.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Call the troubleshooter.