Michael Voice studied MSc Shipping, Trade and Finance, 2011 and is now Director of Business Development at Sundrop Farms Ltd. We chatted about setting up a society at Cass, getting into agriculture, and not waiting for that “perfect job”.
Tell me about your time at Cass!
It was good, I came in Fall 2010 and although it was not my first time in London it was my first time living in London. What struck me first about the programme, and in general, is how international the cohort was. The programme was majority European with a nice mix of countries (particularly Greece!) and also good numbers of Americans and individuals from Asia, which was really cool.
The other interesting thing was that prior to coming to Cass I went to the University of Michigan, which is a really big school, with around five thousand people per class – so it was refreshing to be in a much smaller environment. It felt more personal, you got more attention, and you could get to know everybody better.
Do you have a favourite memory?
Hmmmm… Along with two other guys from my course, I founded the Cass Commodities and Shipping Society, and over the year we hosted a number of events with guest speakers, and a Christmas party. It was really cool to put this together and rewarding that often more than 100 students came out for something that was not directly attached to their programme. I’d not had the chance before to lead and organise a group like that.
What did you do next?
I went to work for a company called RJI Capital, a private equity and advisory firm. RJI had a range of different investments but I focused primarily on investment opportunities in natural resources, particularly in former Soviet countries and South East Asia.
It was a great opportunity for me to develop a deeper understanding of corporate finance, understand the investment and transaction process, and travel to some interesting international destinations. I went to places like Kazakhstan, Myanmar, and Malaysia and others, so all in all a very unique experience.
How did you end up at Sundrop?
The time was right to find a new opportunity and Sundrop Farms was in an interesting position. They had just taken a large investment from KKR, and American private equity firm, and were ready to expand outside Australia, where the company’s first big project is. Sundrop is an owner, developer and operator of sustainable greenhouses and grows a range of fresh produce. It was great to get involved at a fairly early stage, and be part of the international expansion. Since joining we have grown to over 200 team members globally, and have greenhouses in three locations.
What is your role?
I am the Director of Business Development and I basically look after growing the business outside Australia. The role is a combination of strategy, development activities, and finance.
For example, as we completed the greenhouse Australia, where our crop is tomatoes, I then did a lot of work to help the company decide where to go next and the product focus in these markets.
This then led to very practical project development work – negotiating with suppliers, land purchase, and planning. Seeing projects come to fruition in Portugal and the USA where we have now completed greenhouses has been really exciting.
If you look at the position achieved in Australia, we have been able to build a one of a kind sustainable greenhouse, deploy more than $150M in capital, and partner with one of the largest supermarkets. I see a similar path in other countries. The Australian market is great but there are only 22 million people – so Europe and USA offer us plenty of runway to develop the business. In these markets, we plan to build more greenhouses, expand into new product categories, and remain opportunistic for new opportunities.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
I think there have been a couple. The first was that my background is corporate finance and analysis; I hadn’t worked in agriculture so to be able to understand some of the fundamentals of agronomy took some time. I had to learn what it means in terms of plant cycles, varieties, growing techniques and then be able to communicate this effectively with potential customers and other partners.
The second is adopting to a role working in a very international business. This was both the travel commitment and often early (late) calls, but also being able to understand and appreciate cultural differences and business practice norms – while none the less ensuring we meet targets and stay on track.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
A couple of the things Sundrop looks for in hiring is being conscientious, an entrepreneurial spirit, and an ability to working hard and achieve commercial outcomes. If you’re willing to put time in, understand the business, and take responsibility, I think there are a lot of opportunities.
There is always that perfect job you imagine but it’s better to take a great role and go forward. Find something you think is interesting and go for it; work hard and prove you are capable. There are so many opportunities in London, but don’t focus on the one that got away.
When you start working, the contacts you make are incredibly important – people will see your capabilities and that will open more doors. I saw some classmates when we were at the end of our course who turned down good opportunities in favour of finding that perfect role, and they ended up delaying the start to their careers – a sort of paralysis by analysis if you will.
Finally, it’s the quick fire question round!
Favourite place in London: Chelsea, actually all of West London
Favourite holiday destination: Sicily
Must-check-every-day website: I like the finance blogger Matt Levine who writes for Bloomberg Views
Dream travel destination: Safari, or sub-Saharan Africa in general
Cheese or chocolate: Cheese, although the real answer is probably neither. Unfortunately I’ve become a bit allergic to cheese, and I’ve never really been a fan of chocolate.