Aston 50th Anniversary: Matthew Crummack Q&A

50 Aston Greats - Matthew Crummack

Matthew Crummack

Having lived all over the world, it is probably quite fitting that Matthew Crummack is a Member of the Strategic Advisory Committee of the online travel and leisure retailer lastminute.com, having been their CEO from 2011 to 2015. Matthew also sits as a Non-Executive Director on the Board of National Express plc and previously worked at Expedia, Nestle, and Proctor & Gamble. Now based back in the UK, his work has taken him all over the world, including the US, Asia, and the Middle East.  

On coming back to Aston University Matthew says “It’s been a real pleasure to be reassociated back with Aston, there has been a number of years where I was busy inbetween, I think I’ve realised how much I’ve got from my university experience and how much it set me up for.” 

An Aston 1993 International Business and Modern Languages (IBML) graduate, here he talks of getting a bad mark for a leverage buy-out model which is now used today, subscribing to The Economist aged 17 and his top tips for today’s students. 

What is your fondest memory of Aston?

The diversity of the non-curricular experiences. It probably manifested itself most for me when walking from ballroom dancing practice to American football practice, and realising what an extraordinary difference in experience each of them was and that I really enjoyed it. Ballroom dancing still happens today at Aston, but the American Football Society closed down after a series of very unsuccessful teams, including the one I was in!  

I lived in the US for many years and was so able to use my American football skills there to play with friends in the park, which was quite useful. I occasionally show off a little bit with friends and family with my ballroom dancing, but I haven’t competed for a while. Although I did compete in the South of England when I first started work, in my first job at Proctor & Gamble, which was very good fun. It was purely pleasure and a very enjoyable experience.

I was on International Business and Modern Languages (French) course, and spent a year in the EM Strasburg Business School. My most interesting curricular experience was a thesis at the end of my third year on leverage buy outs in France. What I loved about that was that you could get into a subject that was quite niche, quite specialist. You can go and research it. I actually interviewed a specialist buyout company in Paris, specialising in leverage buy outs. It was fascinating to go and research a subject that was quite unique and controversial at that time, as there was a lot of media coverage about the use of debt and leverage. I have lots of fond memories of going to interview that company, using my French skills and then writing it up.    

My friend, Mike, and I also proposed a leverage buy-out model to the Head of Economics at the time, George Jones.  We were laughing about it the other day, as we had built this leverage model, which we got a particularly poor grade for, and this has actually gone on to be the model that people use in business these days! The theory was that you can’t do that because it doesn’t make economic sense. Which of course it doesn’t, but that is what people do now. They use huge amounts of debt to finance very large acquisitions, to be paid off with the cash flow of the company, which is essentially what we built at the time.

There were very interesting themes through the course. It is almost 20 years later when I am working with private equity firms on buying and selling companies, and that I am going argh, that’s what it is all about. Very interesting.

What has your experience at Aston given you? 

There are two things that Aston gave me: 

1 – Going through a University like Aston and studying IBML, which I really enjoyed, gave me a lot of confidence. Meeting lots of people here and in France, and having lots of different experiences, it gave me lots of confidence to go on and do other things in my life, professionally and personally. I really appreciate what that experience gave me.   

2 - One of the things I really loved, was that it gave me perspective. I’d always been fascinated by experiences outside the UK and inside the UK. So looking at the way economies worked, businesses worked and cultures worked, different people from around the world, and how the world turned really. It gave me this incredible different perspective. Going back over the last twenty years, I can think of moments when I won’t have thought about the subject I’d learnt at Aston, for ten to fifteen years, and then I’ll be in a situation and suddenly there is a flashback to some theory I learnt back in the four years I was at Aston and I get additional context and perspective from that. It was lurking inside, and surfaces again and you put the pieces of that puzzle back together. Those university years weren’t a pay back in the year just following graduation, in terms of what does it give you, it’s a pay back across twenty to thirty years. It is really interesting in that way.  

What is the best advice you can give to today's graduates? 

There are three things:

1 – Have some conviction about what you believe in, in a particular subject area or of have conviction your ideas. Speak confidently about them. It is very important to have confidence to express yourself. 

2 – learn by doing real things. Get real experience in life and don’t be afraid to do things more than once, because very often, when you go around an activity, or a job, or an experience, it is not until the second or third cycle that you learn far more than you did the first time. So learn by doing is really important. 

3- don’t be afraid to make mistakes and admit you are wrong. You might have a conviction, you might go and do something, it might go wrong and you go, ok, that didn’t work, fine, that’s ok. You can evolve what you are thinking and then move on. But try it. Don’t get too worked up about it. One of the great things to come out of the digital revolution is the acceptability of people trying new ideas and then not feeling like a failure when they don’t work. There are so many ideas out there, and you try something and it might not work, so you think OK what have I learnt and then try something else. I think the world of start-ups today and social media mean that you have every right to learn and make mistakes and go and try something else.

What advice would you give to our students to make the most of their University experience? 

The one thing that struck me most of all was that the world is such a diverse and varied place and universities are a microcosm of that, that don’t just judge others based on where you have come from. Or based from your previous experiences. Use the university, use  the campus, use the environment to genuinely understand where people are coming from and the back ground and culture they have grown up in that makes people act the way they do. And accept tolerance and acceptability in that. University is a great place for that. 

What do you think Aston's greatest achievement is? 

I would say that Aston’s generated really strong loyalty from alumni who really valued Aston’s ability to connect theory and practice into something quite strong. It’s recognition from the example I’ve given you where you are 10-15 years into your career and you are still remembering back what you did and it’s still relevant.  There aren’t many university graduates that I know that can look back and think the X degree at Y university help me still now or I think about it in that respect. Aston’s got a real heritage in that. It’s outstanding in Aston particularly

What are the biggest lessons you have learnt in your career?

If I were to pick out three: 

1 – Being direct with people. I talk about this in a context in experiences I’ve had globally in the US, Asia, in Europe, Middle East and Africa where you are trying to communicate an idea to somebody who is from a very different cultural environment. You have to learn in those types of environment to be very clear and direct in what you are saying. I had particular experiences when I lived in the US and had to learn that very quickly because the Americans are very direct. This noble sense of British diplomacy in finding circuitous was to express oneself might be phenomenal in a domestic environment in the UK but actually finding ways to say the same thing in a way that is direct and concise but respectful way. I learnt that very quickly. 

2 – Not doing something or not deciding something is the same as doing something or making a decision. Inaction is taking action. I think hesitation or 'I’ll do it later' is generally a bad idea. When I’ve said to myself, 'I’ll handle that later, it will be fine' I've found it generally comes back to bite me later on. Do now is better!

3 – Be prepared to take some risk. Anybody who goes to a British university and is well educated has a benefit of a job, is taking limited risk when taking business decisions. You are not taking life risks. Pushing oneself in your perception of the risk and how you might think about something is very important, particularly when you go around the world and look at other business cultures particularly in Asia, their concept of business risk is very different to ours. That is based on their background and their tolerance to risk which they are willing to take. It’s important to take measured risk and be daring and be bold about it.

What is the best thing about working for lastminute.com? 

Basically, it’s a cool brand. You can work for different businesses and different brands but really there are certain brands that have attributes that allow you to have fun, diverse, differentiated things or activities. Other brands have attributes that don’t allow you to do that because of the character of the brand. 

To give you an example, yesterday we were promoting the fact on our site you can book different activities throughout London. So we sponsored a Daily Mail journalist to dress up as James Bond. We photographed him with a Daniel Craig look alike and then drove him around London for the day in an Aston Martin, photographing him and filming him doing James Bond things in London, such as having a martini in Scotts, scuba diving with sharks in London Aquarium, going on a speed boat on the Thames.  We can do this with our brand because it allows you to because it’s fun.

There is a lot of competition for companies like lastminute.com. How do you stay ahead of the game?

The ability for companies in today’s environment to find genuine and sustainable competitive advantages through today’s technology is very challenging. Technology is so easily copied, that, technical execution and speed alone, you can’t expect to stay ahead of the game. In our business there are always companies that can spend more. So really you need great engaging content which you can leverage through digital channels, whether it’s through social media, direct marketing, YouTube, website, or email. Content that genuinely has the customer wanting to come back to the site and wanting to engage with us as a brand. Then, when the customer is wanting to make a purchase, part of the test, is whether we are at the front of their mind.

How do brands gain public awareness so quickly?

I’ve been looking a lot at that recently and a brand can be a person as well as a company, of course. The definition of brand can be quite broad. YouTube has created many many brands, very quickly in the last two to three years. People, groups of people or companies, where there has been incredible affinity by users worldwide to a person or a company because of the content and the story. What that story is, is genuine and authentic. The incredible thing about today’s world is that people can smell a corporate story a mile off and therefore they are not interested, but they can also detect authenticity and a real story of somebody doing what they love, or businesses doing what they enjoy and they will give brand / company / person incredible support on that basis. 

At Lastminute.com, Martha Lane-Fox and Brent Huberman are the original founders of the business, who are friends of the business still, and they were poster children of that generation. In that they were out of university, one or two jobs into their career and they were taking risk, and being bold and being creative, and doing something new, at the front of the dot com boom. On that basis, they even had their picture in the Tate gallery at one of being the representatives of that incredible movement which was changing the UK as a country.  Today, YouTube would do that in fraction of the time. They are a great example of an authentic story. Brent’s story was that he was looking for a gift for potential partners / girlfriend at the time and he couldn’t find what he was looking for. So he created it himself. People buy authenticity with these stories.

What did you see yourself doing when you were a child?

My father used to travel a lot on aeroplanes, so I wanted to build and design aeroplanes and be an aeronautical engineer. I was convinced that is what I wanted to do. I realised at school, that although in later life I became quite good at maths, I was not initially very good at it. 

So I then decided economics might be a better route! I subscribed to the Economist when I was 17. I just really enjoyed it. I did an economics A level and I was quite engaged and inspired by how countries work. I have always been interested in the way that countries and companies operated in a macro level with supply and demand and things like that. I think those concepts that are so incredibly relevant still, and the relationship between one another. Whether you are talking about the suppliers of something being virtual or real.