From Finance to Filmmaking: Palma Pictures Hires Paul Abrey as MD
In the ever evolving, increasingly competitive creative marketplace, Palma Pictures hires a seasoned business leader to help navigate them through the many challenges that lie ahead. After a longstanding relationship with the Spanish production services company, Abrey is stepping into the business as Managing Director. Former Barclays Global Strategy Director turned British Consul to Spain, he has spent the last three-and-a-half years heading up the regulatory department of a major Canadian bank. Here he reveals what enticed him from the finance sector into a creative production role after almost 20 years.
LBB> You started your career in banking – was that always your ambition?
PA> Like many young people beginning their career, I didn’t always know that I wanted to do, but I did an economics degree which was quite broad. I started off in a bank training program at Barclays in the early nineties, as they were looking for people who would become business leaders, and the idea of that attracted me. I was there for 14 superb years, undertaking many different roles. During this time, I gained my banking degree and an MBA from London Business School which were great educational experiences.
I did classic banking in my early career - working in branches and managing client relationships - but I also had the opportunity to undertake business management roles. These were (far from the perception of banking) about building things, developing strategy and driving a turnaround in underperforming businesses as required.
So I really consider myself a business guy, not just a banker. I would set up, turn around or build businesses, working in the role of a CEO or COO in the bank. So I wasn’t necessarily a true ‘banker’ in that sense – I was normally asked to run a department rather than to sell mutual funds!
LBB> So how did you make the move from banking to British Consul in Spain?
PA> I’d always harboured a desire to do something in public service. I’m a scholarship boy and was the lucky recipient of government financial support throughout my education. This was the catalyst for wanting to give something back to the UK.
During my time in Barclays there was a wonderful guy, Sir Peter Middleton, who was Chairman but later became CEO. He had previously held a very senior role at the Treasury (permanent secretary) and due to this background and connections, Barclays, like many banks, had a relationship with the government. They would frequently reach out and ask whether Barclays had anyone who might be suitable to run certain projects. I happened to be a lucky recipient of the ‘Sir Peter call’ asking if I would fancy three months in the Treasury.
It was a fascinating experience as it was during the Blair and Brown years. It was actually a consequence of this role that, a few years later an opportunity to join the Foreign Office arose. Having enjoyed my three months at the Treasury, I thought it would be fun to work at the Foreign Office but I didn’t want to change one banking office in Canary Wharf for a different office in Whitehall. I wanted to understand the business from the front line, so was excited when they offered me the extremely busy post in Mallorca, as well as a role helping shape their strategy at HQ.
I could speak passable Spanish - thanks to my wife who is Mallorcan. As she hadn’t been back to her family home since she was 11 years old, being based in Spain worked well for us as a family.
What was supposed to be a two-year “serve your country in the public sector” thing turned into six years based in Spain (with a lot of international travel)! It was an enriching experience running the posts and working across many countries including Spain, Portugal, Italy and Malta.
LBB> How did you first meet Palma Pictures?
PA> When I was Consul, we organised a whole host of new initiatives but the British communities we had been reaching out to in the past were generally only in the charitable sector. We felt it wasn’t truly representative of the whole community, so we wanted to invite more people from the business sector, which included Mike and Trent in 2007/8. They invited me to Palma Pictures and Mike offered me the opportunity of spending a few days with them, giving them some observations - just exploring things from a business perspective. That relationship built over the years and we kept in touch even when we moved to Toronto.
LBB> What brought you back to Spain and Palma
PA> After three wonderful years in Canada, we felt a little homesick and started to think - if we stay here another couple of years, the kids will have to finish school in Canada (in the “frozen north”!) which will be another 5-10 years, and is that what we want to do as a family, or are our hearts really in Europe? Unsurprisingly, the answer for us was clear.
So we reached out to a few folks. The banking sector in London had been calling for me to come back, but having talked to Mike I decided to take a new direction. We knew it would be much more fun. Palma Pictures has a real team feel as well as huge commitment and dedication to their work - and I wanted to be a part of that. I turned down Canary Wharf and swapped minus 25 degrees in Toronto for a very different business challenge in sunny Spain!
LBB> Do you think such varied travel and work experience gives you a better global overview?
PA> Absolutely. It’s enriching. My early career was working within UK businesses, so to gain so much international business experience as my career progressed has been great. Before I really started my banking career, my dad was an architect in Africa, where I was fortunate to help run a small business there in my gap year. I’ve worked in a number of countries in different continents from Asia to the Americas, learning and experiencing cultural and business diversity, which is fascinating to me.
LBB> How are you finding the change of work culture?
PA> Great. My typical day in finance would be to get in very early and have a bunch of (heavily analytical!) business meetings, interspersed with working through hundreds of emails. It was very structured and scheduled – meetings didn’t ever run over as everyone had the next meeting to go to. Everything had an agenda, stats and data. You could look at the next two to three months and know exactly what was coming up, what you had to do and what your objectives were. I’m a structured guy by nature so I’m comfortable in an organised environment but sometimes it doesn’t allow as much creativity as you’d like. I’m a strong believer in encouraging as much creativity as possible, especially when you are building strategic options. In my experience that requires a far more relaxed and open environment.
I feel Palma Pictures has that relaxed atmosphere and a desire to reflect on the business. Media is clearly a much more creative area, but there’s a lot of hard, well organised work that goes into production – you can’t be halfway up a mountain then say ‘I should have brought that light with me’. It has to run like clockwork and requires a lot of detailed preparation, for example, knowing tens of thousands of locations and how they could fit the requirements of the briefs. There is a nice blend of creativity and structured, organised delivery in this firm and I love to see how much of that creativity and ideas we bring to help the client optimise the shoot.
LBB> What have you found to be the most challenging thing since moving industry?
PA> I’ve worked in a lot of industries and each has their own lexicon. I joke to Trent about “peeling the onion” every day, learning more terms and expressions, so I’ve been picking up the ‘production dictionary’!
The other challenge is the level of analysis to go into: as in any industry, there are hard solid facts and also a level of interpretation or industry knowledge. It is always a balancing act between the two. I am learning where the right balance for this industry is so that we build meaningful plans for the future.
LBB> Why do you think now is the right time for Palma Pictures to bring in someone from an outside industry?
PA> I am probably the wrong person to ask! But I would make a couple of observations: We’ve seen the evolution in production services, from one person with a mobile phone and a car with a bunch of contacts, to what we have today - large-scale production teams running shoots for countless different formats and channels across the globe.
With technology moving at the rate it is, businesses in all sectors are having to look at analytics with a level of laser focus we haven’t seen before. Certainly many aspects of advertising throughout the process are much more driven by analysis now - although I would still say there is no loss of creativity!
I’m effectively here to give an outsiders’ perspective on the business and tether my experience in strategy and business analytics to an industry that is becoming ever-more strategic analytics conscious.
We’ve got super guys here at Palma Pictures; Mike, Trent, Ramon, … they’re open to objective challenge and new perspectives. It’s a time where there seems to be a lot of opportunity; there’s growth around the world from a marketing perspective and I’m here to make sure we’re capturing as much of that as possible.
LBB> From a financial perspective, what do you foresee for production and the future of the industry?
PA> There have been some significant shifts in various markets but it’s still a very strong place to be for production companies. It’s an interesting market because of the significant global growth and global servicing. I think it’s ballooned as an industry for many reasons, but there’s still margin in it. I think there’s still a very strong relationship between the decision makers and the brands, agencies and production companies. The margins and price points are probably more competitive than it’s ever been but I think the industry will still be around in 20 years and still be just as attractive. However, like many other industries, it’ll have to be smarter, more cost-effective and efficient to survive.
Genre: People , Scenic , Strategy/Insight