Trailer Episode

Beyond the Badge: Lessons from the Automotive Industry with Verge Motorcycles CFO Mark Wilson

In this episode, Mark Wilson, former CFO of iconic automotive brands McLaren and Aston Martin, reveals the keys to enduring success in an ever-changing industry. Now CFO at Verge, an electric motorbike company, he shares with us his strategy to marry cutting-edge performance innovations with an authentic human experience.

We discuss the fundamental values of financial management, especially in fast-paced environments. Mark emphasizes the importance of discipline, rigor, and transparency in all financial decisions. We also talk about the power of partnerships built on mutual goals, where the sum or parts is far more valuable, while also highlighting strategies he’s used for avoiding one-sided deals.

Listen in as we revel in Mark’s experiences at Aston Martin, where he successfully propelled the storied brand into the modern era—navigating great deals while also supporting legacy relationships, like that of the storied James Bond franchise

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Please note that the transcript is AI-generated and may contain errors. The content in the podcast is not intended as investment advice, and is meant for informational and entertainment purposes only:

[00:00:09] Andrew Seski: Hello, and welcome back to another exciting episode of The Modern CFO podcast. As always, I'm your host, Andrew Seski. Today we have a guest who knows the auto world intimately, having worked at renowned brands like McLaren. Aston Martin, even Lotus. We'll dive into the world of high-performance vehicles, financing, the luxury transportation sector, and of course, discuss an innovative new electric motorcycle company called Verge. Today's guest, Mark Wilson. Mark, thank you so much for joining me today.

[00:00:38] Mark Wilson: Pleasure, Andrew. It's good to be here.

[00:00:40] Andrew Seski: Mark, in recent years, Formula One has taken just a remarkable surge in popularity with thrilling races and superstar drivers. And for most people, this is a new phenomenon - but I'm curious to know where the origin of your passion for this industry came from.

[00:00:57] Mark Wilson: Yeah, it's interesting. It's fascinating. I mean, you think about the global viewing audience - and it is by far and away the world's largest sport in that respect. I think - you'll correct me if I'm wrong post production, I'm sure - but I think it's something like 23 races annually, attracting a Super Bowl level of viewing figures for every race.

[00:01:18] Andrew Seski: Wow.

[00:01:18] Mark Wilson: So, the global reach of Formula One is staggering. I grew up watching drivers like Nigel Mansell, Alan Prost, Ayrton Senna, racing their naturally aspirated V10s, V12s around the track; incredibly thrilling and, and real daredevil stuff. And I was just captivated by watching that, on   qualifying on a Saturday, the race on a Sunday - that they were kind of things you scheduled your teenage day around very much.

[00:01:48] Mark Wilson: And I had a group of friends who I grew up with who were equally enthused by F1. So it was kind of talking stuff on the school bus on a Monday. And - in a weird way, I as a Brit - Nigel Mansell was the guy of that era. He was the man to follow. But I didn't follow Mansell. I was captivated by the red and white McLarens of Prost and Senna. I remember seeing an in-car shot of Senna driving his Lotus some years before around Monaco, when obviously this kind of in-car footage was pretty nascent stuff. So the quality wasn't superb. But what struck me, and this is in the era of manual shift gearboxes, none of these paddles behind the steering wheels, right? Two hands on the wheel. So he's got one hand on the top of the wheel, and one hand somewhere ferreting about for a gear stick. And this thing's going at absolute warp speed, and it was jaw dropping to watch the skill. So that's kind of where it came from for me.

[00:02:48] Andrew Seski: Well, I'd love to talk about your early career a little bit before we go into explaining the electric motorcycle space and what you're doing with Verge today. What were some of the early career decisions that you felt that you made that informed an ability to be able to be a value add in a space that you were really passionate about?

[00:03:06] Mark Wilson: Yes, interesting. My background is, I studied law as a major at college. And so I wasn't particularly engineering focused. I wasn't [a] particularly good engineer. And I think my wife would tell you, I can't put a set of shelves up straight. So it was never going to be that route for me. But when I left college, I ended up on a very forward-thinking graduate program in one of the big public utilities in the UK. So not cars at all, but I always had one eye on cars. And it was always reasonably - I was always reasonably focused on trying to get to do something in the car industry. And so after a few years of doing the graduate training program and doing my professional qualification, so on. I'm seeing the qualified Chartered Institute of Management Accountants - after a few years of getting that under my belt, the opportunity came with the business I was, with AWG, to move out to a place in the UK called Norwich.

[00:04:05] Mark Wilson: Just so happened, my wife - who I'd met some years ago, she wasn't my wife then - had gone to do her master's degree out there. Also happens that Norwich is the home of Lotus. That's where that company was. So I could see as I headed out there, not necessarily with a particular plan in mind, but I'm going out there to, to be where my girlfriend is based. We're in our 20s. It's a great time of life. No real commitments, Norwich is a great city, and there is Lotus parked just outside of Norwich. So I went there, and six months later an opportunity came up, and put my hat in the ring, and suddenly there I am, project accountant at Lotus, doing what I love on a car program. Funnily enough, the first thing I ever worked on as a very junior accountant at Lotus was a ride and handling program that Lotus Engineering - so an outward facing, not the car building part of the business, the outsourced engineering part of the company - that Lotus Engineering was working on for none other than Aston Martin.

[00:05:05] Mark Wilson: I ended up working on the early series Vanquish 1. I was the project accountant. Project Bolton, it was called and doing right and handling and lightweight structures for that particular program, which, of course, Lotus was great at. Lotus Colin Chapman’s monicker was, “If in doubt, just add lightness”. I think I think I bastardize what he said there, but it was it was kind of off that hill. So Lotus, well-known for ride and handling and really, chassis design development and driver feel, and that's the end of that. So I was overjoyed to be on that program - not for long though, because it was a pretty tough gig, I have to say. You come to realize in the car industry that delivering vehicle programs, it's just hard. It's just hard. There isn't much more complex [work] you can do than I think work in automotive, the things that have to come together in the sequence, they have to come together [in a] complex and uncertain [way]. So that's where it started in the auto industry and then into Lotus.

[00:06:05] Andrew Seski: I was super curious as to unpack some of the non-obvious finance functions and actually pick apart some of the different verticals of financing, innovation, hardware, software. What are some of the non-obvious implications for a finance person in the auto world that maybe the public just wouldn't have access to understanding?

[00:06:28] Mark Wilson: I'll say this and I will instantly be pilloried by my engineering colleagues, right? Which there are many, and several - many over 25 years sort of at this, or 20 years at this. But the first thing you have to realize as a finance guy is that the engineers just don't think like you - and programs in the car industry, they're run by designers and engineers and technical people because out of necessity, they have to be. And there's a sort of TQC-type approach: time, quality and cost. That's how engineers think about programs. Okay, deliver it on time, deliver something which is high quality and then kind of a distant last, there's the cost bit. And there's meant to be a neat triangulation between those two things, sort of a yin and yang that keeps all the three in harmony. Well, the truth is there isn't. Given a choice, engineers will deliver something to extraordinarily high-quality, possibly over-engineered, right?

[00:07:29] Mark Wilson: And then there'll be time pressure, because there'll be a program director leaning over their shoulder saying, hey, release that part. Or, we need to get these many hours of development testing done and you're behind, right? So time will come next, and the infinite variable in an engineer's mind - this is a horrid generalization, by the way, but this was my learning early - is cost. Hey, it's going to cost what it's going to cost guys. We're delivering, we're engineering beauty and elegance and brilliance here. And we've got to do it by next Tuesday. It's going to cost what it costs, buddy. So actually, as a finance guy in auto, you've got to develop a pretty thick skin quickly. And you've got to develop a bit of technical competence, if you don't have it already. There's no point as the bean counter going and talking to engineers if you don't know what you're talking about. So you've got to learn some complex stuff quickly and you've got to learn the thing you're responsible for - over and above anything else - delivering to cost is their least favorite topic to discuss when the pressure's on. So [that’s] one thing.

[00:08:35] Andrew Seski: I'm curious. I'm thinking right now about CFOs have to be great communicators. And it seems like you mentioned, you have to develop technical abilities to be able to communicate effectively. In the world of AI today, a bunch of investors, shareholders, stakeholders of companies are really pressuring CEOs and CFOs to leverage AI tools. And I'm thinking that you've been through iterations over the last 20 years of different market cycles, different technology cycles. How have you successfully navigated communicating technically to other types of stakeholders, whether it's aligning with the board or shareholders? What’s a strategy that you have deployed that you find successful that maybe others can leverage?

[00:09:18] Mark Wilson: Yeah, look, it's all about relationships at the end of the day. I mean, this is as old as the hills, this topic, but a finance guy who is a genius with a spreadsheet, a finance guy who does great things with tax and treasury, a finance guy who knows the accounting standard rulebook from back to front: that guy is great, but that's 25% of the job. 75% of the job is influencing, and persuading, and steering, and suggesting, and provoking, and all of those things. And you can only do that with great relationship skills, which I don't profess to have by the way. But I have learned a lot along the route, and I've learned a lot by making a lot of mistakes on route. But the one thing I know, and this is again, going back to that engineering analogy: get to know what's important to the people you're working with. Get to know a bit about them, get to really empathize. And you can only do that by assimilating technical knowledge. Then you've got a good chance of understanding their perspective, where they're coming from. And having done that, you bought some credibility and you bought the door opening to be able to influence. So it's all about relationships. It's all about that.

[00:10:41] Andrew Seski: I’m curious as we talk about communication skills and relationships, I'm interested in learning more about how you marry some of the, kind of, grandfathered-in legacy of the brands that you work with, where the public has a picture of McLaren is, what Aston Martin is to people. How do you communicate effectively and marry some of the heritage of investing in some of the legacy versus investing in innovation? And how do you effectively communicate that from a finance function of just purely investment?

[00:11:15] Mark Wilson: Yeah, look, when you're making the play as to why people should invest - and I find myself doing this a lot at Aston Martin, McLaren - you're almost trying to, once you've got serious investors in the door and you're talking to them, you're saying, “Look, forget the beautiful badge, forget the heritage. Don't get carried away by the glamour of it. We want to convince you on the solid financial merits of why this works and why you should invest.” And when I got to Aston Martin, it had a lot of legacy high-yield debt. We were about 18 months out of being refired about $600 million of quite complicated instruments. And I sort of embarked on a charm offensive with the debt capital markets. Obviously, it's publicly traded debt. We weren't listed at that point, but it's publicly traded debt. And really what we wanted to do was reassure those guys in advance of coming to refinance that there [were] fundamentally sound principles at play. What the brand, the heritage, the history, all that great stuff away. So I think, getting yourself back to basics and getting people to understand this is: take the badge away. It's engineering and manufacturing. Now what the badge does is it gives you leverage in respect to pricing. It gives you leverage in respect to volumes.

[00:12:44] Mark Wilson: It gives you uplift that allows you to play in that space where others can't. But fundamentally beneath it, it's got to knit together in a sensible way. So I was always focused on getting people to think about the real fundamentals of what was going on in those brilliant, driven, very successful and wonderful brands.

[00:13:07] Andrew Seski: You mentioned that the brand itself has basically pricing power. I'm curious if there are things that you invested in; marketing or in sponsoring events or in visibility, that worked really well. Maybe other CFOs are thinking, how can I establish myself in a marketplace as effectively? And it's clearly, there is a luxury item or luxury badge associated with status and class. And there's just a million different things that come with that, like pricing power. But I'm curious if there are any lessons for CFOs who are trying to establish themselves in a marketplace as effectively as you've supported your teams.

[00:13:46] Mark Wilson: Yeah, and I think for particularly for Aston and McLaren, that those partnerships were more inbound than outbound. So we had many, many more offers of people who wanted to work with us, for the reach and the touch of our brand than we did the others. However, when you're doing something like a brand-new product portfolio that we were doing at Aston Martin, you needed to change the narrative a little bit as well. Aston is a phenomenal brand - always was, and always will be. But we want to kind of change the narrative a little bit and update it and give it more contemporary relevance, given there was going to be a big new product push from sort of 2016 onwards. So we found ourselves at that point, and this particularly, we had a very visionary marketing director at that time: my CEO, Andy Palmer. He'd been around Formula One as well with Red Bull when he was at Infiniti.

[00:14:43] Mark Wilson: And so we took a view that actually the people we wanted to work with were people that had the same values that we had and the brands that were enhancing for Aston Martin in in the same way we would be for them. So we looked for mutually beneficial partnerships. And I think, one great legacy partnership for Aston that endures to this day is the Bond franchise, [the] James Bond franchise with Aston Martin. And it's a great example of two phenomenally well-known brands working in sort of beautiful harmony with each other. And the sum of the two of them is greater than the individual parts, great though those parts are. So you always looked for brand affinities and brand partnerships where there was mutual benefit.

[00:15:37] Mark Wilson: Where it was simply to the benefit of one party, we tended to steer away from that - even if that was in our interests - where we said, “Well, what's the other side getting out of this? How do they really, truly, deeply benefit from being associated with what we are?” At McLaren, it was a different proposition because McLaren was a young, charging automotive brand. a storied Formula One brand, steeped in a lot of history and a huge amount of success, but a very young automotive brand. And beyond Tesla, you can count on two fingers the number of new automotive brands that have come out of nowhere, really. I mean, you can look at Infinity. You can look at Lexus.

[00:16:20] Mark Wilson: I mean, they are the product of massive OEMs. McLaren was tiny in many respects. And Tesla was nonexistent. So, it shows you how how hard it is to sort of build those things from zero. Whereas at McLaren, we weren't really focused on partnerships because the Formula One team had partnerships that by osmosis, in many respects, were available to the car company. But we were very focused on what the McLaren automotive brand was of itself. And that was hugely product-led. It was hugely technology-led. So we didn't really seek out partnerships in that way or other brands in the way we did with Aston, where we were trying to take a brand, a car brand that stood for very many good things, and add to those good things by making it a bit more contemporary. So it's a mutual benefit, is the cornerstone of that - the answer to that question, I think.

[00:17:11] Andrew Seski: Excellent. That's a really good point. You've been in the auto industry for over 20 years. I'm curious as how you measure your personal success at this point in your career, whether you're being just purely a financial value-add, whether it's like you mentioned these strategic partnerships and making sure there's mutual benefit. How do you piece together your framework of success for your career?

[00:17:31] Mark Wilson: Yeah. That's a really good question. And it's only with the benefit of hindsight that you can kind of look back and say: well this is what I really got out of it. This is what I put into it as well. I think at the time it just felt like a massive fight to do anything. Everyone thinks growth or turnaround at McLaren - and a bit of turnaround at Aston, where we got there and we had to really reinvigorate it - and everybody thinks those things are, “Our growth is fantastic!” It's high fives. It's champagne Fridays. It's just a joyous experience. Well, do you know what? It isn't. It's the hardest thing you can imagine.

[00:18:12] Mark Wilson: It's constant bleeding out your eyeballs and broken knuckles and fending off the next chaotic failure. Nobody sees during growth the things you fail at because you shut the door on quick, they just see the successful path you appear to have threaded. Well, huge amount of failure on the way, but fail fast, right? Understand it, fail fast, don't linger. How have I measured success? Well, I've measured success - I think having been part of those two particular brands - having been in the thick and the start of something new and being able to demonstrate there was influence beyond the spreadsheet. In all of those things, and longevity as well, I was at McLaren 8 and a half years, I was at Aston 5 and a bit years. You don't survive in those roles if it ain't working out. So yeah, I think probably having been in early and been part of the team that said, here's some tangible stuff we did, and did well. And it wasn't always that way - there was some very public failures as well, but you take those equally with the great stuff. And I think if you can point to a list of things you've been part of, things you're proud of, things that have been publicly recognized. I think you can say there's been a measure of success there.

[00:19:30] Andrew Seski: That's a great answer. Continued growth is a really interesting comment. I'm just thinking about how you think of focus and drive in a world that has so many distractions. Like you mentioned, the badge brings a lot of celebrity and attention and media. I'm curious as to how you think through, focus on continued growth within that level of distraction.

[00:19:56] Mark Wilson: Yeah, and I'd add another thing to that as well as celebrity. What it also brings, those brands, they attract the greatest people: the greatest technical people, the best engineers, the best designers, the best manufacturing people, people on top of their game in sales and marketing. And by the way, those people are not easy to deal with because they're usually smart and they bring a level of success. So, working with great people has a tax as well: not easy. So there's that to consider. The distractions are legion, right? I think what you have to do, first and foremost, is have a plan - and as the CFO, actually, you get a great opportunity to lead that. A lot of CEOs like to lead the plan, but a lot more like it if the CFO does it and they can articulate the vision and leave the CFO to get on with the wiring diagram.

[00:20:44] Mark Wilson: So I think starting out with a great plan. And do you know what? The plan doesn't have to be right, which is kind of crazy thing for a finance guy to say. It just has to be credible, and you have to be able to rally the organization behind it. And there has to be belief in the plan - and not that these are crazy aspirations that I'm just going to get bent on as an engineer to deliver and there's no hope. So you've got to craft the plan that way, but having a plan then allows you as the CFO to be the kind of conscience on the shoulder of the organization saying, “Okay, everyone, we've got completely carried away by the massive success of, insert new vehicle in square brackets, whatever it is.”

[00:21:31] Mark Wilson: But let's just focus over here for a minute, because the plan says this, and we've only just climbed the smaller foothills of the Himalayas, and there's Mount Everest ahead, and we need to focus on Mount Everest. I think having a plan that the organization believes in, that you can use as a touchstone, that you can use as your rallying cry, is really helpful. There's the other problem, of course: through and through, I'm a car guy. So, I have possibly the best job and the worst job - because a lot of the time, whilst you want to say to some of the more visionary guys in your organization, “Wow, that's a great idea. I love it. I love what you've done”, the rational human in you says. “Yeah, but it's either too great a risk, or we haven't got the cash, or the timing's not right”. So, that kind of discipline always keeps your feet on the ground, because if you’re the CFO, you're a cheerleader too. The organization isn't far away from a car crash, I think. And so you've constantly got to - you, if nobody else. is being the conscience on the shoulder - then you should always look as the CFO to do that. So that's kind of how you keep the distractions away. And every now and again, of course, you have to open the door and let yourself into the garden of delights and just enjoy it.

[00:22:58] Andrew Seski: I have to ask, what's an example of a garden of delight for you? Or does it ever go away, after 20 years?

[00:23:07] Mark Wilson: No, it never does. And I remember one of the great things was just access to an extraordinary range of brilliant things to drive all the time. I rationalize that. I'm absolutely aware of how this is going to sound, but it's the truth. I'd rationalize that as: Look, I'm a CFO of this business. I need to know how these cars perform, because if I don't, how do I know if I'm getting the wool pulled over my eyes? That's the way I used to post-rationalize saying, right, I'm taking, I'm taking a VP car this weekend, or I'm taking this for a 200 mile drive and I want to drive in it. Actually, the initial motivation for doing that is I wanna drive some cool new stuff and I just wanna do it because I’m a car guy. And so I post-rationalized it on the basis of, ah, but I've got to know. So there's truth in both in reality, because you do have to know. Y ou can't sit around the board table and not know what people are talking about when they're talking about spring rates, and dampers, and ride, and drive, and noise, vibration, and harshness, if you haven't intimately experienced it yourself.

[00:24:09] Mark Wilson: And how can you have a view on the state of development of a car if you haven't driven it for 300 miles in the hosing rain, and really put some mileage accumulation? How do you make good decisions about where to invest significant amounts of money when stuff's going wrong if you haven't lived it? But the great thing was, it was a constant garden of delights. The other thing that, that particularly this is great for supercar manufacturers, there's this thing called competitor benchmarking. Which is the engineer's version of what I've just described, where they go, “We need to go buy one of everything our competition are doing so that we can intimately understand attributes, targets.” So at McLaren, at any given point in time, there was always a sort of a small range, but nevertheless a range of Ferraris and Lambos, and I remember even a Rolls Royce Phantom once because it was held up to be the Naples Ultra in terms of ride and handling and spring rates and damping. And so there was always something to stick your head out the back door and go, “Ooh, can I go and drive that?”

[00:25:15] Mark Wilson: So that was always great fun, but you always tempered it with the fact there was a real job to do here. And, if you were being seen to be spinning off in all the cool stuff as the CFO, well, that gave license to everybody to do that. And, where did that all end?

[00:25:29] Andrew Seski: I'm curious as to how you benchmark yourself. I mean, you obviously have a really competitive peer group. Are you close in other CFO networks in different auto industries? One of the things that I've loved in doing this podcast is creating a community of CFOs who can then connect with each other. I'm curious as to how you benchmark yourself in performance. Is it strictly other CFOs in the auto world? Are you actively connecting to CFOs in different industries to learn from them?

[00:25:58] Mark Wilson: That's a really good question. My peer group at the time - I mean, I left Aston in 2020, so that's, in automotive terms, like, years ago. So yeah, I'm connected to my peer group as it was in the day. And it's quite interesting, you see each other at motor shows and you make time and effort to do that. Is there a networking group of automotive CFOs who meet on a regular basis to talk about stuff? No, there isn't. There isn't. And I think that goes to the heart of probably where the competitive nature, particularly in supercars, is. That notwithstanding, one of the things I've hugely enjoyed is putting a team of people around me who are smarter than I am, and now I see that sort of matures into people who I've given opportunity to, I've worked with, they've worked in my teams, they're now CFOs in their own right.

[00:26:47] Mark Wilson: So my network tends to be closer to those sort of people than it does necessarily the peer group. It's a fascinating question. I would tend to do CFO networking events. I'd go and speak at a few things and I'd use those as good opportunities to just network with non-auto CFOs. Because actually there's a bit of an echo chamber to talking to people who are like you in your own industry. And I was always more interested to find people I thought were cool and did cool stuff. And that necessarily wasn't auto. So I would probably badge it that way. It's either I have an esoteric group of people who are non-auto, and then I have a closer group who I've worked with or worked for me who are now running their own companies. And that's a very fulfilling thing to stay close to.

[00:27:36] Andrew Seski: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let's talk a little bit about your current transition and how you came to an electric motorcycle company. The world of EVs is always fascinating to me. I'm super curious as to the latest technologies, measuring the impact on the environment. What is great for investors where, as different countries, we can invest in a greener world and what's really impactful. But also, Verge: this motorcycle company, it's cutting edge. It's a marriage of incredible style and performance from what I know so far. So I'd love to hear your story of how you came to Verge and what excited you about it the most, and maybe a little bit of your view on the electric vehicle space in general.

[00:28:20] Mark Wilson: Sure. Well, consistent with most of my career, I've been largely opportunist. There hasn't been a road map of stuff I needed to do, but I've kind of put myself in positions whereby when opportunity comes, I'm sort of there or thereabouts. And that probably adequately describes the truth is I left 2020. I took a bit of time out, pandemic hit, so that upended everything for everyone. And mid-pandemic, I ended up buying an art business, eight art galleries, two online businesses; my version of perhaps a midlife crisis, having done V8s and V12s for two decades previously, that wasn't really a route.

[00:29:03] Mark Wilson: And I still own that business today - and wasn't really necessarily looking - but a mutual acquaintance in private equity got in touch with me and said, look, we're looking at this. A company called Verge, a bunch of Scandinavian guys developed this technology. And initially I was quite skeptical. I'm thinking, well, electric motorbikes, what do I know of them? They're kind of heavy. They're very top heavy, very pendulous, not very good range, performance, heat. That's going to have to be interesting. And anyway, as soon as I saw this thing, and you've seen it, right? It's got this extraordinary in-wheel motor. Hubless, in-wheel motor, where there should be something, there's just fresh air, put your arm through the middle of where there should be a hub and spokes holding the thing on.

[00:29:52] Mark Wilson: And it captivated me, and I thought, “Mate.” My initial reaction was, I need to understand this because if this is true, that looks extraordinary. It's game changing because it does a huge amount. And so I got in, I got in touch and had a look at the company with the private equity colleague. And the more I looked into it, the more intrigued I became, not least because this is back in January of last year, when I really started to get serious with it. This wasn't a company that had a sheet of paper with some drawings on it, a concept, some renderings, some CAD, some crazy performance figures that are vaporware. It was a company with a real bike, a late-stage prototype, almost production ready, and crucially, homologated for sale in Europe. And I thought, how do I not know about this?

[00:30:44] Mark Wilson: And it's [a] testament to the 4 founders that they've taken a very cautious and conservative approach over the previous 3 and a half years. They've been like a submarine at the bottom of the ocean, just sort of skimming along quietly doing their thing. And developing and maturing the concept of this thing slowly and thoughtfully, and with all their own money. And I stumbled on it and, and as soon as I saw it and got to know it a bit more, I realized it was something quite game changing and introduced [myself] to the founders, and they very kindly invited me to join the board as an advisor, which I did. And through that sort of advisory role, I came to see the development in the first part of this year and through the year. And it very quickly became obvious that the vision and the entrepreneurial spirit of, of those 4 founders, which had got them to an almost impossible position, perhaps wasn't going to be the thing that was going to take them further in scaling and industrializing this business. And so I said, “Look, I'm quite interested to do something more with you and I think you need a CFO.” And they agreed, and I've subsequently brought with me some colleagues and some very smart people from my world: COO, Alan Foster. 40 years in the industry, built the McLaren production center and ran the entire car manufacturing quality operation out of there.

[00:32:21] Mark Wilson: Aidan Baker, who was latterly the VP of advanced projects at Rivian, working with RJ Scavenger there. Because what the founders have realized is the greatness that got them where they were, the skills that got them to where they were, won't be the same skills needed to move further on. And I think you see this quite a lot in businesses that scale and perhaps don't make it: people don't realize what is the right point in time to bring in some calloused hands and broken bones and some of the gray hair of experience. It wouldn't have been the right time to start because they'd never have this. I'd have killed this project from day 1. Someone who brought me this and said, Hey, we're going to invent a rim motor, right? Which is unlike anything else that exists out there, which has 1200 newtons of torque, charge time of 25 minutes, naught to 60 in two and a half seconds. It completely inverts the weight paradigm of electric bikes, puts everything at the bottom, low center of gravity.

[00:33:17] Mark Wilson: I just said, “Yep, I'm not investing in that. And let me know how you get on.” So, they were entrepreneurial enough and smart enough to not bring people like me in to begin with. but now they're up, they are where they are. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on myself, maybe I would have got carried away with it, but possibly not. A lot of people wouldn't. So, that's how I came to be here at Verge, and we're about to announce shortly a 4th member of that sort of, you won't mind me saying it, “grey hair team”. Not yet, not ready to do that, but his CV knocks mine and Alan's and Aidan’s into the weeds compared to what he's done before. Always work with people who impress you, right? So, we're building a strong team of people at Verge to make this extraordinary bike an industrial reality, I think.

[00:34:11] Andrew Seski: So you mentioned that time flies in the auto world, just that fact that you left McLaren 4 years ago, one of the two. Either way, the concept of time flying is really interesting to me as just a point of this opportunity to have a conversation about what you feel defines a modern CFO, because the differences in being a CFO at a well-established brand, it seems like you have entrepreneurial spirits given the fact that your galleries have taken off and you've tried something new during the pandemic, but what's a definition for you personally of a modern CFO? And what are some of the differences in working with established brands versus having the opportunity to scale from basically ground zero?

[00:34:57] Mark Wilson: Right, the modern CFO, I think first and foremost, you take a technical basis for granted. So [a] modern CFO, you've got to understand the accounting standards. You've got to understand a huge amount about the bases you're covering: tax, treasury, risk. It's a big one for the CFO these days, but crucially above anything, the modern CFO is a people person. The modern CFO is somebody who is capable of recognizing that the people they need in their team are a diverse collection of interesting and often awkward individuals who complement each other. The modern CFO probably doesn't hire in his or her image. They hire people who are great at what they're not.

[00:35:52] Mark Wilson: So the modern CFO, I think, you've got to have a level of humility. You've got to look at yourself and say, “Well, what am I good at? And what do I enjoy? What am I not good at? And what do I not enjoy?” And that's a much harder question to answer. And then when you figure out the answer to those other two questions, you go and find people who are great at the things you're poor at and who love the things you don't enjoy. And you know what? You give them a load of responsibility with some support and then you let them get on with it. I think the modern CFO doesn't try and shape too much. You've got to give people room to breathe in the team, people bring their own styles, their own perspectives, their own unique ways of working. And there's got to be room for that in a finance function. I don't think a deterministic, thou shalt do it my way approach. Command and control, I think is dead in the traditional sense of it. You have to find clever ways of teaching people how to control themselves. It's a bit like they give a man a fish or give him a fishing net analogy.

[00:36:49] Mark Wilson: So the modern CFO recognizes that the businesses need to be able to breathe. [A] modern CFO recognizes that the word no is probably the easiest word to deploy. I mean, I can sit in every meeting I have and say, “No, we're not doing that.” And eventually the company will die through lack of innovation and an overly defensive nature. So you've got to understand intimately risk. I think the modern CFO has a really good grasp of what risk is. Risk is a hugely misunderstood subject, actually, in the same way probability, people wildly misunderstand probability. Risk is the same. Risk is really, I think, understanding what things are going to kill you and having a plan to deal with those things. You can get lost in some really esoteric discussions around risk, but in truth, it's the modern CFO is sort of searching the horizon for those things and looking for those big landmines, and maybe you're less worried about the smaller stuff.

[00:37:59] Andrew Seski: I'm just curious what you're most excited about in the next 12 months versus 3 to 5 years, as you continue to deploy that skill set that you really adequately - and actually, I normally save this for a different part of the episode. But if you want, I would suggest folks, just hit that back 30sec button a couple of times and relisten to that incredible definition of a modern CFO, focusing in our risk and probability, and what will kill you, I think, is one of the more unique answers that we've had. So thanks so much for that. But going in zooming out a little bit for Verge's next 12 months and what do you think in the next 3 to 5 years might be the most exciting iteration as you fend off death and stay alive long enough to get really lucky?

[00:38:39] Mark Wilson: Yeah, well, that's a great definition of its own as well, because if the plan comes off, you owe a lot of it to good decisions - but a lot of it as well to putting your way. putting yourself in the way of good luck. I don't think, luck is not a thing you can control, but the harder you work, the luckier you get, I think, is a fair way to look, to analyze it. Next 12 months, I mean, I'm hugely excited for Verge and scaling. Now the ambition is really industrialized in turning this phenomenal company into a company that's got a global customer base, that's got bikes competing in the important segment, a company that's leading technologically in terms of what it's doing in the electric bike space. I mean, I'm really looking forward to setting the agenda of technological development. And look, we talk about the hub motor and Verge. I mean, that's phenomenal. That really is the game changer. It's the hook for many people who go, “Show me more”, but what we're preparing to do with sensors, software, immersive human-machine interface experience, which sounds like a horrible thing from marketing, doesn't it?

[00:39:53] Mark Wilson: But really, it's about how do you make a bike that's technology-led? How do you improve the digital experience? A bike is a really analog thing. It's visceral, it's noisy, it's smelly. You are connected to the road by a set of forks, two wheels, right? You're out in the open air. In an electric world, one of those things is taken away. I mean, the performance is enhanced by some measure, but the noise and the sound. So how do you deepen the immersion of what people are doing? Heads-up-display helmets and how your bike is sensing what's going on around you and feeding that back to you in real time and taking advantage of software. So all of those things excite me massively. The possibilities there are huge to really sort of redefine the riding experience in the digital age. And, I think as well, coming through the difficult economic times that we have been and continue to be, we have been in and continue to be is, is exciting. I'm excited for what's next economically. I mean, we see the US now tends to lead the way in many respects when people are coming out of difficult times. The US now, a few green shoots, a bit of growth, there's still a lot of uncertainty in the world, but I'm optimistic for where the market in the world is going to be.

[00:41:15] Andrew Seski: Yeah. It's interesting that you mentioned having a global expansion plan. For other CFOs who have a global footprint in terms of risk and probability, what are some lessons that you've learned over time on how to think through some of the more global risk aspects of being a CFO and being defensive?

[00:41:35] Mark Wilson: Yeah, have some good local advisors. When you're trialing into new markets, new countries, find a good local advisor who understands their way around how you set things up and how you get things done is important. So that's really, really important. I think as well, having local knowledge, whether that's through people you're going to employ on the ground and then really listening to them because people know and understand the countries they've lived and worked in. Very easy to go in and say, right, we're going to do it this way. And your cultural experiences is quite different to what's really going on in the country. I think don't rush at it, go at a decent pace. I mean, we've expanded into Europe. We now have a presence in, five or six major countries in Western Europe. We're in the U. S. We have a business in the U. S. which is readying itself up [for] the homologation of the bike later this year, in the U. S. But look: I think, have good local knowledge, invest in good local advisors, and take things at a careful pace. You can overwhelm yourself.

[00:42:43] Andrew Seski: That's really good advice. Yeah, it's always interesting for part of that plan to be the “rest of the world” strategy. But I think you make a really good point of having it be really thoughtful, methodical and part of the overall strategy, and plan, and investing in local advisors is great advice. One of the things I love to do on this show is zoom way out and talk a little bit about something that you feel is personally underestimated in the world today. And I think it's just a fun way to highlight the uniqueness of the perspectives that we have in our guests.

[00:43:13] Mark Wilson: Something that's underestimated? I'm going to give you a slightly more philosophical answer to that. What's underestimated is uncertainty, that the world we live in is sort of continually chaotic and uncertain. And I think your ability to predict what's going to happen 3, 6, 12 months, 5 years hence, you have to be constantly alive to the fact that you're going to be clamorously wrong. So uncertainty. Despite the fact we don't appear to learn from what has happened before, people always assume that there is, I think, some sort of order in the world and we will be shortly returning back to an orderly world. Well, we won't. And I think as a CFO, you've got to be constantly alive to that uncertainty. And that's all about, I think, being fleet of foot and not being too deterministic and having a plan that is capable of having many alternate futures in it. And so, uncertainty is constantly and consistently underestimated.

[00:44:27] Mark Wilson: So that I think is the thing. And I sort of relate in CFO terms. It's when you're doing a 3 or 5 year plan, we've written one with Verge. It's deterministic. It has one answer, right? There's the plan. It has one answer. Well, what you really need to do is stress test that plan and push it around a bit and say, what happens if I tweak this? What happens if I pull this? What happens if I change these things? And having your mind that you're walking down a broad path, not a narrow one. Because I think when the next pandemic hits - whether it will or not, who knows? When Putin next invades wherever he's going to invade, when gas bills and electricity bills and utility bills go through the roof, when global inflation gets out of shape, when interest rates rise at a level unprecedented since the 1980s, then you're in a good position because you're walking down a broad range of futures because you simply cannot anticipate when that will be. You and I could put this podcast to an end shortly, and something could happen that neither of us in our wildest dreams would have predicted. And I think just carrying that attitude with you, you'll be happier as a human being accepting that the world is inherently uncertain.

[00:45:41] Andrew Seski: That's a really interesting answer. Thanks for sharing that. I want to end on kind of a fun, light note in terms of where you go for car stuff - whether it's YouTube, your favorite YouTube channels, or if you've got publications and then the same question with, sort of financial and global news. I'm always interested, putting a podcast out there, where people are curating their newsfeeds or where they're getting their information from.

[00:46:07] Mark Wilson: Yeah. I definitely, I was an avid reader of - these are UK publications, but What Car, Top Gear - I used to, my bedroom was stuffed with these publications growing up and I would read them cover to cover intimately and it's where I got all my background knowledge from, I guess, that gave you a sort of mental map in your head of what was going on in the auto world. And, I do still like a magazine, but I love YouTube. I love the sort of real online people like Mr. J.W.W. Shmi 50, that these are great guys. Carl Wow in the UK. That's always great to see. I probably consume most of my auto content online now. And overwhelmingly there is, there's so much that it's sometimes it's hard to sort of go, I want to see a Hurricane versus an Aventador SVJ drag race up the Bruntingthorpe.

[00:47:05] Mark Wilson: So I'll go on and I'll have a look. And then suddenly, 15 minutes later, you've lost a chunk of your day and you're doing something else. So I tend to get a lot of my auto stuff now, absolutely online. I mean, I'm on platform that used to be known as Twitter: X. And a lot of people I follow on there are car people and auto people. So that will often be an interesting diet of chat and what's going on. Insta as well. But I am a sucker for an old car mag. There's nothing quite like a well-produced, thoughtfully edited, a bit of car journalism. By the way, I don't read car mags online. It doesn't work for me. I'm completely - just the experience. The content might be exactly the same, but the experience just doesn't work. It just doesn't work. So there's nothing like a bit of print. Do like a bit of print. and therefore for the modern stuff, then it's vids. So that's the car world.

[00:48:03] Andrew Seski: Yep. And then we'll end on favorite drive of all time, favorite car of all time. What was the best memory you had? It's a tough one, I know, but is it the car hanging up behind you?

[00:48:16] Mark Wilson: That's the Valkyrie, the Aston Valkyrie. I never drove, I left before we even had drivable prototypes. If I had a regret, it was never getting into that car. I think, probably, my favorite drive of all time, and this is really anodyne. I've been fortunate to drive, oh, every brand everywhere, right? I mean, I've been around a lot, but it's really anodyne. It was the first time I ever got into an MP4 12C. So it was VP 12, it was Papaya, which is a McLaren car, that soft orange, Papaya VP 12 car. And it was the first time I got to drive McLaren's first-ever modern supercar. And I took it for a drive down Woking, where the headquarters are in the UK - down the A320 up to the M25 and just down towards the A3 and some country lanes. But it was a joyous experience. I'll remember the sun was shining brightly or it probably wasn't, but I just remember being so excited that this was the birth of something entirely new and unlike would have gone before it. A bit like Verge is now, in truth, because that 12C when it came out was groundbreaking. 80 kilo carbon chassis, a really innovative engine, mind-blowing performance. Reminds me a bit of what I'm about to do with Verge. So maybe ask me again in a year's time. And I might have a two-wheeled answer for you. So that was my first 12C drive.

[00:49:59] Andrew Seski: Oh, that's incredible. Thanks so much for sharing that story. I always call it the G-force smile. The faster you go, the bigger the grin and yeah. Absolutely. I appreciate that. For those listening, I've had that grin on the entire episode. It's been an absolute pleasure. Mark, where can people find more about you and Verge if they want to get in contact or check out the bikes?

[00:50:17] Mark Wilson: Sure, thank you for that. www.vergemotorcycles.com will tell you everything you need to know. You can find me on LinkedIn. You can probably find me gently hidden on Twitter if you look hard enough. But, go and have a look on the website. It points you in the right direction. I'm delighted to hear from anybody, via LinkedIn as well. That's a great way to get hold of me. And you know what? I’m really happy to reach out and have conversations on there. I'm pretty approachable. So, do that and you might find a new friend.

[00:50:49] Andrew Seski: Excellent. This has been another incredible episode of the Modern CFO Podcast. Mark, thank you so much for being here.

[00:50:55] Mark Wilson: Thanks, Andrew.

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