Flying high with Mitchel Simpson

May 03, 2019
Mitchel Simpson is CFO of FPG Amentum, a leading full-service global aircraft lessor and asset manager. Mitchel recounts his fascinating career journey, from qualifying as an accountant to the heights of his current position. Indeed, he has much to discuss: Mitchel opened an office for a global transportation lender in Dublin, co-led a management buy-out and partnered with one of the largest tax equity arrangers in Japan.  

Mitchel Simpson would be the first to admit that he lacked career clarity during his college years. While a career in financial services was always an option, Mitchel was involved in several small-scale ventures that would ultimately set him up well to spot opportunities as he progressed in his career. “Lessons learnt during this time, albeit on a small scale, certainly helped me with decision-making on much larger projects in the future,” he said.

Mitchel followed the well-trodden path of his BComm colleagues into a Chartered Accountancy training contract but rather than join one of the Big 4, he joined a mid-sized firm where he garnered hands-on experience in a number of sectors. Mitchel subsequently joined the Bank of San Francisco, before returning to Ireland once again to take up a position in the leasing subsidiary of Rabobank, De Lage Landen, where he ultimately rose to the position of Head of Structured Asset Finance. “It was a great learning environment,” he said. “Career development was encouraged, and I had the benefit of working with tremendous people who helped me see things from a different perspective.”

The early years

During his time in Rabobank, Mitchel was offered the opportunity to head up the bank’s office in Edinburgh. “It gave me a huge amount of confidence and the lure of gaining experience outside Ireland was immediately appealing,” he said. The move didn’t come to pass, however, as an opportunity arose with a start-up captive aircraft lessor – an opportunity that would eventually fulfil Mitchel’s entrepreneurial interest. “The more I looked into aviation, the more interesting it became,” he said. “At that time, aircraft leasing was at a reasonably early stage of development in Dublin and there were opportunities for senior people. I took the plunge; it proved to be a great time to enter the sector and I haven’t looked back.”

Amentum was then owned by a German state bank, HSH Nordbank, which was a prominent global transportation bank at the time. The company quickly grew as it supported the bank’s expanding aviation business into the operating lease sector. According to Mitchel, it was the launchpad that enabled Amentum to establish itself as one of the leading third-party asset managers in the market, supporting numerous aircraft equity investors – including its main shareholder.

Following the financial collapse, however, HSH Nordbank was required to deleverage its balance sheet and divest certain sectors – including aviation. “Following a beauty parade in front of established players in the industry, it was clear that any trade sale for the business would be at distressed levels. The opportunity to acquire the company through a management buyout (MBO) quickly followed,” he said. “It will forever be that sliding door moment in my career where the MBO question changed from ‘why would we?’ to ‘why wouldn’t we?’”

Building the team

The new management team gave itself 24 months to steady the ship and find the right capital partner. Securing the team during a downturn was paramount. “The time and money required to invest in highly specialised people in a high turnover industry demands that you get it right and keep the team in focus. Uncertainty can be very demotivating, so the need for openness and transparency is huge.”

Financial Products Group (FPG) – a Tokyo-listed equity arranger – was soon after unveiled as Amentum’s capital partner. Having started as a minority shareholder, FPG now owns 75% of the business but gives the local team the freedom to operate independently. “We were extremely lucky in many ways to find FPG. The personal fit between the two was very strong from day one,” said Mitchel. “FPG has a very progressive and innovative ethos emanating from its founder, and those key values permeate the organisation. Trust is an absolute prerequisite for any relationship, as it should be, and especially so for a new Japanese partner. Once the parties got to experience working with each other, the independence and the operational freedom quickly followed.”

Indeed, this focus on trust and autonomy is synonymous with Amentum’s culture. “From day one, we built a team we directed but didn’t necessarily manage,” said Mitchel. “We operate a flat organisational structure where everyone is encouraged to take ownership and responsibility within their specific competencies. In our team, you’ll never be micromanaged and equally, you won’t walk the plank for a bad decision.”

Life lessons

Now an established player in Ireland’s booming aviation industry, Mitchel is quick to point out that his good career fortune is due in large part to having an excellent mentor in his younger years.

“I have been very fortunate to have had a number of excellent mentors who took a genuine interest in my career. Those mentors are now good friends and I continue to seek their counsel whenever possible,” he said. “In turn, I now make a conscious effort to help or mentor people developing their careers. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I certainly know the questions that they should be asking.”

Mitchel does sound a cautionary note for people building their careers, however. “Our business is truly global and people must be willing to travel extensively and even relocate abroad for periods during their career. Any reluctance to travel, in my view, can significantly limit future career opportunities – not to mention the intangibles of experiencing different cultures.”

Mitchel also learned some very valuable lessons during his career, particularly with regard to decision-making. “When opportunities present themselves, don’t be afraid to make decisions,” he said. “As Chartered Accountants, we are trained to identify the risks in any opportunity and this can make us overly conservative and indecisive when confronted with major decisions. Such decisions may involve a business or career opportunity.”

And his final piece of advice for his fellow Chartered Accountants? “Take the leap, all day long. Life is far too short to worry about it.”

You can read more articles from business leaders in the second issue of Vision, a publication from Accountancy Ireland for members in business, supported by FK International.