Nick Watson is the Head of Tax at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG). Boasting an 18-year career at IHG, Nick made a cross over from Tax into Global Finance Transformation, before moving back and becoming Deputy Head of Tax in 2015 and promoted to Head of Tax for IHG in 2019.
What is great about working for IHG?
I’ve worked for IHG for 18 years, since leaving Arthur Andersen in Birmingham. IHG has a fantastic culture which supports its people really well – this is probably not surprising given we are in the hospitality business and therefore have a natural affinity with providing great service to people.
You were promoted to Head of Tax earlier this year. How are you finding this new challenge?
So far so good, although I fully appreciate I have some big boots to fill from my predecessor. One of the biggest challenges is managing teams across five time zones and trying to put my emails away when at home as a result.
You have had an impressive career boasting some 18 years at InterContinental Hotels Group (“IHG”) with a variety of roles. Most interestingly you made a cross over from Tax into Global Finance Transformation (before moving back to Tax) – this must have been quite a challenge, can you talk us through why you did this and the challenges that you faced?
Yes, around 12 years ago I had actually agreed to take up a Head of Tax position for a FTSE250 company. Disastrously the company I was moving to announced it was undertaking a merger (after I’d signed the paperwork!) and so my new job disappeared. Following a subsequent discussion with IHG’s Head of Tax and Group CFO, I was offered a role in IHG’s newly formed Global Finance Transformation (“GFT”) team. In that role, I was responsible for working with IHG’s Finance Leadership Team to set the overall strategy for our Global Finance function (approx. 1,000 colleagues worldwide). I also ran the programme management for key Finance projects, organised Global Finance conferences and led Global Finance Communications.
I remember the transition out of tax at the time being quite scary in as much that I found myself in a totally new world, trying to learn as fast as I could on topics (e.g. budgeting systems, planning processes) that I was not that familiar with. I also realised that my network was nowhere near as wide as I thought it was when I was in Tax! I took away two key learnings from this experience – firstly, NEVER leave a job/employer on negative terms as you don’t know what the future may hold and, secondly, you CAN survive the unknown!
So what made you move back to Tax?
In 2013, at one of the Global Finance conferences that I organised, our Group Chairman was talking about his career and I picked up on a comment about not being scared to go for a higher position even if you doubted your ability to succeed. He made the point that if you didn’t feel scared about a new position, then you were probably not taking on the best move. With this in mind, I thought that with the skills I had accumulated outside of Tax, together with a tax-focused development plan, I could be a credible successor at some point in the future for the Head of Tax role. Once again, IHG were supportive of my ambition and enabled me to transition back into the tax team over a couple of years, before becoming Deputy Head of Tax in October 2015. Adjusting back to life in Tax wasn’t as hard as I had imagined, although this was largely because I re-joined at a time when the whole tax world that I had previously known was changing, and I was afforded the opportunity to pick up with the (then) new areas of BEPS, tax transparency and responsible tax practices. The hardest aspects have been catching up on internal transactions that I didn’t work on during my time in GFT.
In your opinion has the role of the “in-house tax professional” changed much over the years and if so, what is the biggest change?
The fundamentals of the role have largely remained the same, but at the same time, there have been some quite substantial changes in recent years. Firstly, we have seen a move to outsource our UK corporate tax compliance over the last 10 years or so, in order to free up time of our team members (who very often have group responsibilities as well as project work). Tax professionals need to now be much better at communicating tax to key stakeholders in their respective businesses, particularly at the more senior levels. Stakeholders do not need to know all of the technical details (and especially not section numbers from the tax legislation!), but instead, need to know the high-level tax risks that arise in their areas. Finally, there is now a lot more regulation that tax teams have to deal with. Not only a raft of new legislation (e.g. US tax reform, CCO rules etc.) but also ensuring that adequate controls are in place, as well as the right level of supporting documentation.
Can you talk us through the structure of your team? Given IHG are based in 100+ countries the tax team must be quite complex?
We have a team of approximately 60 tax professionals in our team worldwide, with around half of the team focusing on indirect taxes (VAT, US Sales Tax, GST etc) and the remainder on direct taxes (global corporate taxes and European employment taxes). Our teams are based in Burton upon Trent, Atlanta, Gurgaon (near Delhi), Shanghai, Singapore and Sydney.
What do you look for when someone applies for a role within your team?
Personality. Always. It’s no good being the smartest person on the planet if you cannot interact well at a human level. I therefore look for a good balance of IQ and EQ. Being a FTSE100 Group with a base in the Midlands, we usually have a good range of applications for new roles.
How would your team describe you?
Hopefully as someone who is calm and approachable.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I wish I had invested in Apple and Microsoft 25 years ago instead of a load of useless dotcom companies that didn’t survive! Other than that, my advice would be to enjoy being young and take whatever opportunities come your way.
What challenges, personally or professionally, do you think the next generation will face?
On a personal level, I feel for young people who are trying to get their feet onto the property ladder – it must be incredibly difficult. Professionally, and particularly with the incredible pace of technological change, I can see even more candidates chasing the same job opportunities.
What do you do to unwind outside of work?
I am an avid Leicester City football fan and also manage my 8-year-old son’s under-9 football team. When I’m not doing either of these things, I’m probably out watching my 13 and 16-year-old sons playing for their football teams!
Thanks for your time Nick, as a little treat for all of our readers…do you have any guilty pleasures you can share with us?
Hmm… well don’t try and book time in my diary at 9.30 on a Friday morning as I will be tucking into a good old English breakfast at the office.