The reason that the MBA has traditionally been taught through case studies is that it provides an opportunity for executives to learn from real world situations without the risk.
FEI’s first growth series event of 2018 provided a similar opportunity, allowing attendees to learn from seasoned finance professionals the secrets to their success and the pain points to navigate.
Brad Soller, CFO of Metcash; Sara Watts, board director, and former CFO of IBM and the University of Sydney; Ausgrid CFO Michael Bradburn; and, Nick Hughes, COO of UBS all shared their insights.
While each have quite different career paths and sectoral experience, top of mind for all four was the need for honesty and integrity at all times, whether dealing with the board, shareholders, investors or staff.
That honesty is essential to ensure clarity and trust as Brad Soller revealed. With a business that had seen declining sales for a number of year because of intense competition, Soller has had to rebuild trust with investors by ensuring they were fully appraised of the situation facing Metcash and the plans in place to address the challanges.
With the share price languishing below $1, declining revenues and around $800 million of debt the company’s was challenged and a number of investors questioned its sustainable future. But as Soller said; “Just tell [investors] the truth. Explain the challenges and the plans to address the challenges and then be prepared to be measured against those in an honest manner.”
An acceptance of the competitive reality and the need to strengthen the balance sheet were the background to some tough decisions, including a $640 million writedown, a focus on cutting costs with a target of $120m of savings over three years, the need to sell off a key business that required significant further capital investment all need to be clearly explained to key stakeholders to ensure the we could continue to build trust with Metcash stakeholders, Soller said.
The need to be clear with people is critical according to Ausgrid’s Michael Bradburn who largely rebuilt the organisation’s finance team after he was appointed. In some teams within finance, a large number of new people came into the organization, and likewise a larger number of people exited the business as part of the transformation.
But getting the right team in place is critical to success he said. “When it comes time to tell someone it’s time to go, the conversation needs to be frank and succinct.”
He said that besides getting the team right, successful CFOs need to be curious and bold.
Curiosity is also a marker of the boards and audit committees that CFOs will necessarily deal with.
Sara Watts acknowledged that CFOs sometimes found dealing with audit committee inquiries frustrating. But she stressed the importance of the role to the success of the enterprise and explained how the audit committee could become a key ally of the CFO particularly if the CFO was prepared to hold other C-suite executives to account for their impact on company finances.
“Audit committees are responsible for the integrity and transparency of financial reporting – ensuring that the internal controls systems are in place and working well, that risk management processes are working well and internal and external audit are working well.”
Nick Hughes, COO of UBS, also reminded attendees about the importance of other relationships. In the finance sector that included building trust with consumers. Hughes said that if business leaders saw a red flag in the organisation they needed to be prepared to call it out, and also to engage fully with transformation efforts that simplified the business, and injected efficiencies.
“Change isn’t easy – but you have to embrace it – intelligent change,” he said, quipping that “Whoever tells you it’s easy to change things is a liar, a management consultant – or both.”