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Interview: Karen Dicks, CFO, Optegra

THE last 12 months have been eventful for Karen Dicks, both personally and professionally. Brought into specialist eye hospital operator Optegra as part of a triumvirate of executives with a transformational six-year mission, she celebrated the end of March by getting married. Luckily for Optegra, far from becoming distracted by colour schemes and seating plans, the only job she was assigned for her nuptials was attending on the day. With her fiancé handling all of the arrangements, Dicks has been free to focus on a very demanding role. “At the time we decided to get married I’d only been in the job seven months and it’s very important to me that I’m there for the CEO to do the job. Fortunately my husband planned everything,” she beams.

pablo (7)With interests in five geographies – UK, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland and China – the company had previously been run on a country-by-country basis but with the appointment of Dicks, a new CEO and a new marketing chief, Optegra started the firing pistol on a long-term plan of reorganisation and expansion. After presenting a new global strategy to the group’s board last June, Karen and her colleagues have immersed themselves in their mission to successfully deliver the first 12 months of a six-year plan.

No stranger to performing under pressure, Dicks is a great believer in what she calls “the art of the possible”. This was perhaps tested most during a two-and-a-half-year role with ProLogis in the Netherlands, sent in to get the business ready for a restructure and, as it transpired, being sold. “It was a very different piece of work to anything I’d ever done before,” she says, going on to describe the process as “very, very painful”.

The international language of finance

Chief among Dicks’ challenges at Optegra is finding a coherent way to work with the different territories’ finance functions. With the businesses in each country having grown in different ways and the inherent cultural diversity across the group, finding the right level of standardisation is a tricky balancing act – and one that she’s still working on. Indeed, because of the way the business has grown by individual hospitals, Dicks has first focused on standardisation within country, before working on a global plan. As she puts it: “If you try to create a single global standardised finance organisation, how do you know that provides the most sufficient and effective service to the business and the patient?” While embracing the differences, she is also encouraging collaboration by ensuring all the heads of finance of the countries meet regularly and benefit from each other’s experiences.

On a personal level, it has proved to be great challenge to discover the nuances of a new business and sector while simultaneously steering its strategy, or as she puts it: “digging deep in an area where I was learning but needed to deliver something at the same time”.  Explaining how she coped, Dicks says: “You have to go with your gut and rely on your experience. Going into a completely new industry has been tough and I’m just relieved that I work with a very good CEO and the collaboration of the two of us means that after 12 months we’re still 110% convinced the trajectory we’ve set out for the next six years is absolutely the right one.”

So how well is the group performing against its grand six-year plan? After 12 months things seem to be on track, as Dicks discloses: “We’ve got great cash management, which is always a relief and EBITDA is going to hit and hopefully overachieve but revenue is challenged.”

Luckily for Dicks a strong team ethic runs throughout Optegra, with her drawing upon the considerable skills of CEO Roberto Cirillo and the wider team. “I think you reach a stage in your career where you make choices and one of those choices for me is to really enjoy the people I work with and the full executive team in this organisation is a joy to work with,” she enthuses. “We’re in a tough situation and we’ve got some very high deliverables to achieve on the six-year journey. One year in, I’m really pleased with the decision I’ve made.” With a new £12m state-of-the-art eye hospital recently opened just off Harley Street and a global rebrand among the team’s achievements, it would appear they really are an affective unit.

Overcoming adversity

Not that the group has had everything its own way. One struggling north London hospital had almost £2m of impairment charge put against it but with a new strategy focusing on NHS contracts, even that has seen an upturn in fortunes. “It’s a struggling asset in the portfolio that had historical challenges. I had been in the business two months when that was brought to my attention and we took the decision to ensure the records we were basing the future on were solid,” she explains. With the last three quarters all showing steady improvements, however, it would appear that things are changing for the better in that hospital.

And after all of that experience, how has she seen the role of FDs and CFOs change in itself? “We used to talk 20 years ago about the value chain but we, as a finance community, have evolved and now we understand much more about the business value chain and how finance can help pinpoint initiatives and opportunities,” she says. It’s this heightened level of business acumen that Dicks feels allows modern finance chiefs to “play devil’s advocate” with their MDs and CEOs and help to actually drive business performance and shareholder value.

Karen Dicks CV

Present Group Chief Financial Officer, Optegra
September 2012 – January 2015
Chief Financial Officer, Nelsons
August 2010 – September 2012 
First Vice President – Director, Finance & Business Performance, ProLogis
June 2004 – 
July 2010 Group Finance Director, Specsavers
2001 – 2004 
European Finance Director, NOVA Chemicals
1995 – 2001 
Head of Finance – Consumer Business, Georgia Pacific

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