CFOs can drive profitability with an enterprise-wide view,says Fieth

Tuesday, 4 October 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Robin Fieth is Executive Director, Finance and Operations of the Institute Chartered Accountants in England & Wales. He will share his thoughts on “Quest for Balance - CFO: Drive, Support and Comply” at the National Conference of Chartered Accountants – 2011.

The 32nd National Conference of Chartered Accountants to be held from 20 - 22 October 2011 in Colombo offers you a unique opportunity to hear Robin Feith, Executive Director - Finance & Operations, Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales (ICAEW) speak at a compelling session on ‘Quest for Balance – CFO: Drive, Support & Comply.’ Here are excerpts of an interview with Fieth.

Q: Please detail for us the role you play in the ICAEW.

A: I joined ICAEW in 2002 as Finance Director (FD) at a time when our Institute was embarking on a period of significant change. My current role as Executive Director, Finance and Operations, has a wide remit covering finance, IT, property and facilities, marketing and our regional operations. I have recently taken on executive responsibility for the UK, our largest market. As part of our leadership team, I also have the privilege of representing ICAEW at all sorts of forums and events. One of the real pleasures of my role is the fantastic opportunities I have to go out meeting our members, promoting our Institute and, I hope, making some small contribution to the successful future of our great profession. It will be a particular honour and pleasure to return to Sri Lanka this October to take part in your annual conference.

Q: What do you feel are the key professional achievements in your career so far?

A: In my 10 years working at PwC, both in London and Bristol,  the highlights included working on some of the major privatisations of the 1980s, a six month secondment to the firm’s European Technical Department, my first overseas assignment to audit a hospital in the West Bank area of Jerusalem; dealing with the real practical issues of the first days of a corporate failure, being part of the pitch team for the audit and tax work of a major global corporation; and increasingly working with small and mid-market companies on their acquisition strategies, funding needs and eventual IPOs.

When I left PwC in 1996, it was to join a small technology business that had just been through a buy-out.  As FD, I was a central part of the team that floated the business on the main market in London the following spring.  Over the next five or six years we undertook a string of acquisitions, relisted the business on AiM and rode the dot-com bubble.  It was an exhilarating and exhausting time.

Q: How has experience in marketing, financial management, information technology, property and corporate services and strategic and commercial issues helped you carry out your duties? How has it made your perspective/approach different from someone who has purely been in a finance function?

A: From the very start of my career, I have been fascinated by how different businesses in different sectors and countries work.  What is it that makes them tick?  As finance professionals we become accustomed to working with colleagues in all areas of our businesses and organisations.  The great benefit of taking line responsibility for some of those other functions is that you get to see it from the other end of the lens.

Part of the real joy about working in challenging roles and environments is the great opportunities for learning something new every day and working with colleagues from very different backgrounds with very different outlooks and experiences. I have been lucky to work with some exceptionally talented people throughout the past 25 years.  You hope that some of it rubs off and that you come to take a more rounded view in weighing up priorities and in decision making.

Q: How and why did the finance function transform from a back-room function to be at the forefront of strategic decision-making in companies today?

A: Arguably, I think, business has become more scientific over the decades.  Particularly in the public arena, less is done on the basis of hunch or instinct.  The technology revolution has given us all a far greater richness of data and market intelligence on which to base our commercial strategies and decisions. The same revolution has fuelled the demand from shareholders and others for much deeper analysis and much greater transparency in reporting financial and business performance. 

This is not a new phenomenon, but the pace has accelerated almost exponentially in the last 10 or 20 years and, in my view, the transformation of the finance function that you refer to derives some of its impetus from these trends in the way we do business.

Q:  Why has the CFO become such a strategic partner for business?

A: Certainly, in some of the western capital markets, the relationship and partnership between the CEO and the CFO are seen as crucial to an enterprise’s success.

This is perhaps most readily appreciated in the listed company environment, where the huge emphasis on quarterly or half-yearly reporting, meeting the market’s expectations and instilling confidence in — sometimes fickle — stakeholders has become tremendously important to maintaining and building market value.

But I feel it is more than that. On many Boards, in companies of all sizes, the CFO is the only professionally qualified member.  We often hear and talk about the CFO as being the conscience of the board; the individual who will rein in the over-exuberant CEO, or spur on teams that have become too cautious.

One of the great things about being a CFO is that you have a truly enterprise-wide view of the organisation and, if you can keep your head out of the weeds, a real opportunity to see and sustain the big picture.

Q: What in your view is the defining professional experience that has fuelled your knowledge about the topic you will be speaking on at the 32nd National Conference of Chartered Accountants in Sri Lanka?

A: Over the past 25 years I have seen and worked with hundreds of businesses.  I have been the Finance Director or Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for 15 years.

The more you see and the more you experience, the more you appreciate the need to maintain a balance: between work and family life; between the demands for growth and the need to control that growth; long-term development and making the next quarter’s results; and ultimately, the balance between achieving the organisation’s ambitions and targets — and doing the right thing.