Allan Tait

Alistair Bell

Tell us a little about your career path

I left university without knowing what I really wanted to do and after a couple of years decided on becoming a chartered accountant. That led to a relatively long career in three tranches and two countries (England & Australia) with PwC, during which time I became a partner in corporate finance. I finally left PwC to try different roles and sectors and became the CEO at a leading law firm and then the head of commercialisation at the University of Melbourne. I became the CFO at the University in 2009 and my role has expanded since then to encompass HR, property, sustainability and digital & data.   

And your education?

I went to school in Manchester and university in Birmingham, where I did a degree in economic and social history. I then became a chartered accountant while working for PwC in England. Since then I’ve undertaken a number of executive programs, including some to refresh my core technical skills and others to build other competencies such as leadership, awareness and innovation.

Any lows?

With hindsight, my decision to take on the CEO role at a major law firm was not my best career move. Individually lawyers are terrific people but as a group they are difficult to lead (and I feel I’m qualified to say this as my daughter is now a barrister).

What particular challenges are posed for a CFO of a tertiary institution compared to corporates?

I don’t think that people are aware of the scale and complexity of universities like Melbourne. For example, we have around 50,000 students, some 7,500 employees, a turnover of $2.5bn (35 per cent of which comes from government), a $2+ billion investment portfolio, issued a $250 million medium term note and a $275 million US private placement with a credit rating of AA+, and a capital program of $3 billion. We are a large scale business with a mission to make a distinctive contribution to society through providing current and future generations with education and research equal to the best in the world. This brings with it a number of challenges such as: ensuring that our stakeholders appreciate the value economically and socially of the University; planning in an uncertain Commonwealth government policy and funding environment; providing the resources to underpin remaining a highly ranked global institution; and ensuring that high quality professionals (i.e., non-academics) see the University as a legitimate step on their career path, not as stepping out of the corporate sector   

How far out can a CFO plan, given the pace of change at present?

I think that you can only plan with certainty one year out but this has to be in the context of a three year cycle and a longer term vision over say 5-10 years.

And what are the implications of that planning horizon?

You need to be able to provide the resources to deliver core activities and invest in strategic goals, while ensuring adequate agility to manage short term shocks and longer term structural change.

Why do you mentor?

I had terrific support and advice from senior people when I was developing my career at PwC and I realise how important that can be, so now that I’m in a position to do so I want to try to provide the same sort of guidance to others.

What was the best advice you ever received?

You’ll never be a pilot or professional sportsperson! On a more serious note, to be authentic and to realise that everyone has areas in which they can improve, no matter what role they are in.

How do you switch off?

My partner is a folk musician so I’m a roadie in my spare time.

What would you say is the best business book ever read, and why?

While it may not technically be classified as a business book, Thirteen Days (by Robert F Kennedy) is a fascinating insight into leadership in a crisis, focusing on John F Kennedy’s approach to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Can you share a personal productivity tip?

If I had the answer to time management I’d write that ultimate business book. Poor meeting management is a great time waster so three things I try to do are, start on time, finish before time and don’t go over what’s already been discussed for those who are late.

Interested? Learn more about our Mentoring Program.

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