Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top: Rowan Baker, McCarthy & Stone CFO

I didn’t have CFO on my list of ultimate end goals. I think it’s fair to say if you’d spoken to me at various points early in my career I wasn’t thinking four steps ahead, it was more like thinking one or two steps ahead.

At school maths and music were my things. I loved them and could have spent my whole life doing those two things. I went to Cambridge University to do a degree in maths with a music scholarship- as I was developing as a choral singer.

I got a bit disillusioned with maths. I thought it was a bit geeky. I switched to law because I realised I could bring in the logic side of maths in terms of how you actually problem solve and get to an answer. On leaving university I had an obvious career path of going straight into law and undertook interviews for legal positions. I was definitely considering that as my first choice option.

But I threw in an application to music college, as it was still an important part of my life. My singing as a soprano had been going well in the choir I was in at Cambridge- we did recordings, tours, plenty of concerts including operas where I would be the soloist. There was lots of really vibrant activity going on. I was accepted for the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music to be a singer and I thought this would be my career from then on.

In music you have to communicate. You’re listening to others and responding in the moment. There’s also the teamwork aspect of singing in a choir or an orchestra as well. It’s the sum of the parts as you can produce so much more than the individual. You also have to work with some difficult people in music, especially conductors. If you can handle them, you can generally handle anyone.

I started singing professionally at weekends while working as a singing teacher during the week. It was hugely rewarding because you’ve got pupils saying ‘I’m not sure I want to do this because I’m not very good at it’-but you are able to overcome that. The confidence boost that people can have through being taught something and giving a performance afterwards is huge. But then I realised I was still needing to find time to practice in the week, to get good enough to do the concerts. So I thought I could replace the work element and still keep the weekend singing going.

Missing my academic life I weighed up my options and gravitated to tax, which combined my maths and law elements. I was hired five years late as a graduate trainee by PwC, who saw the positives in what I’d done in terms of professionalism, presentation and attention to detail. You are standing up there giving a performance so you absolutely have got to do your homework. But I was certainly the old maid of the graduate trainee programme.

To get a more general view I moved to a smaller accountancy firm. At that point I saw myself moving to a partner role in more of a general practice type firm because I felt I wanted to see the whole picture and make a difference- I didn’t want to just be in a specialist box. I enjoyed problem solving and being one of the perceived good guys- who save people money rather than being the auditor where everybody tuts when you walk in the room. One of the things that spurred me on was working on quite a lot of charity audits, an area that had a good purpose to it- which taps into underlying element within me.

I started at Barclays the Monday after Northern Rock collapsed, so the atmosphere was weird. I joined the bank to widen my experience before becoming a partner. I didn’t know what to expect, which I think is probably true of a lot of people that start out in practice. I realised financial services wasn’t for me, as it’s a sector that is full of jargon. I would ask questions and people didn’t know the answers to how things worked. I felt that unless I spent another five years there I wouldn’t understand very much about what was going on.

I arrived at McCarthy & Stone on a short term contract as group tax manager after moving back into practice for another three years at a firm that was just 10 minutes walk from my house, which was handy as I had had three children by then. At McCarthy & Stone I met the CFO who I eventually succeeded, who I thought had the most amazing plans for the business.