2017: Private Infrastructure Investment Forum hosted by Pottinger and LTIA. Photos by Sean Davey.

The combination of creativity and commerce lies at the heart of corporate success. John Sheehy, CEO of Sydney and New York-based global advisory firm Pottinger, and winner of Business Worldwide Magazine’s Growth Strategy and Corporate Advisory CEO of the Year for Australia, tells us why.

When not advising clients on corporate strategy or transactions, you’ll find John Sheehy travelling with family and friends, discovering new restaurants and cocktail bars, skiing mountains around the world, painting abstract paintings or escaping to the cinema.    

The organisation he leads is similarly diverse. ‘The one thing about Pottinger is that it is not one thing,’ says John. The company combines strategic, financial and transaction perspectives to deliver practical and complete commercial advice. ‘Our clients tell us that we don’t just understand the big picture, we also understand the commercial reality.’  With everyone from large corporates to early stage companies and governments facing new extremes of uncertainty, this approach is more relevant than ever.  

Without doubt, delivering relevant and timely insight and advice on strategy and M&A in an increasingly complex world requires dynamic, innovative leadership.  With John at the helm of Pottinger’s multi-disciplinary team of industry experts, this multi award-winning consulting and investment banking organisation is recognised for many distinctive qualities. Describing himself as ‘a mixture of executive, consultant, banker and lawyer,’ John’s personal blend of creativity and commerce, and his insistence that people will always come first, embodies much about what makes Pottinger unique. Here he tells us about his career journey, highlights what he loves about Pottinger’s advisory model and shares what drives him as CEO.

You’ve acquired a host of skills and qualifications along the path to becoming CEO of Pottinger.  From your early days practising law at Clayton Utz and Linklaters, did you always have a clearly defined view of your future profession?

Not at all. When I finished studying law, I didn’t see that profession as a bridge to either consulting or banking, let alone both. But I did love the way legal practice offered a framework on which businesses could operate, grow or transform. I suppose that commercial focus was my overriding interest, and one which definitely influenced the direction of my career. 

Your advisory career has seen you living and working in Sydney, London, Moscow and New York. Do you have a favourite?    

That’s tough – they have all been a real home for me at different times. I’m fortunate to have experienced these great cities first hand, and they’ve definitely fed my interest in cross-border growth strategy and M&A. But if I really had to pick one, it would be hard to go past New York. It’s the centre of so much activity in business, finance, government, philanthropy and the arts. It’s also where I proposed to my wife, so it holds many great personal and professional memories for me.

As an Australian-qualified, English-trained, New York-practising lawyer, you returned to Australia to pursue a new path at Pottinger.  Why?

It started at 2am one morning in New York when I wrote a list of all the things I liked about professional services – and all the things that I did not. After doing this I formed the view that  I might be better suited as a strategy consultant or investment banker, but I couldn’t decide which was the right move for me. Pottinger emerged as a place where I didn’t have to make that choice, because of its model of one integrated team. I wrote to the founders, Cassandra Kelly AM and Nigel Lake and, as luck or fate would have it, Pottinger was actively looking to expand internationally.  So there was an immediate opportunity for me to contribute my interest in cross-border work in particular. After a few years with the team based in my home town of Sydney, I was slightly shocked, but thrilled, to be appointed CEO.

You are known for having a down-to-earth, common sense and thoroughly commercial manner. No doubt this has helped Pottinger to secure and advise a growing list of blue-chip clients. Could you outline the services the organisation offers and how it differentiates itself in the market?   

Our assignments vary enormously, from helping large companies to develop destination-led strategies to full service domestic and cross-border M&A advice.  We also work with a variety of governments and inter-governmental organisations on public policy, infrastructure and asset sales.  

There are a few important threads that tie all this together.  Probably the most important aspect of the business is our philosophy not to think in siloes. While our industry and subject matter expertise is deep, all our advisors are trained to think in a much more dynamic, more complete way. This translates into strategic advice for mid to large companies that is backed up with the quantitative rigour you would expect from an investment bank, and transactional advice that is supported by robust strategic analysis – which one client recently described to me as ‘bringing the business, not just the brains.’ We take a global perspective on every assignment – this is as much about the DNA of the team as anything else, as we collectively have lived and worked in most of the world’s top 30 economies. 

We’re also committed to high ethical standards and being a place where people want to work because we offer something culturally different. This is extremely important to me as I chose to join Pottinger because I wanted an alternative feel for my advisory career. We hope to attract and retain employees who also want to help clients in a more personalised way while being committed to providing first class strategy and transactional advice. 

Does Pottinger focus on particular sectors?

We are fortunate to have particularly strong capability across technology, financial services, infrastructure, energy, healthcare, retail, food and agriculture and property. Increasingly we are seeing both opportunity and risk for our clients lie in the interconnections between sectors – a challenge we relish. 

What is the one thing that drives you most in your role?

I want to be the person who clients and colleagues call when they have a tough problem to solve or when they’re trying to figure out how to realise a great opportunity. First on the speed dial. 

You have won the Business Worldwide Magazine’s CEO of the Year Award for both Growth Strategy and Corporate Advisory in Australia. So which is it? Are you more creative or commercial?

Don’t make me choose! I am genuinely honoured to receive both awards but if people in business or government take one thing away from my unusual journey and our great organisation, it is that the best advice needs both of those things.   Further information on Pottinger, including its people, services and select experience, can be found at Pottinger.com