When Colin McKinlay became the CFO of Center Parcs, the owner of several high-end forest resorts across the UK, he brought with him an instinct for using all the technology at his disposal.
The business he joined from travel giant Tui in 2017 had a sound finance function, but wasn’t capitalising on all the available means to drive value. “With a business that has grown very successfully, without necessarily a huge investment in data management tools, the challenges are about delivering the the right programme to implement and the right project to implement those tools,” he says.
“We use the Adobe suite of analytical tools to build up the database from which we extract the data to then insure we’re getting the right messages to the right customer cohorts with the right product, at the right price, at the right time,” says McKinlay. “Those analytic capabilities haven’t necessarily been optimised in the business previously, so we’ve now got the tools in place to do that,” he says.
The technologies in place offer the opportunity to be far more reactive in the way in which Center Parcs interacts with customers, says McKinlay. “It enables us to develop a far better picture of a customer, and in doing that, we can tailor our customer content strategy, so that we’re interacting with guests in a far better way,” he adds.
McKinlay is in every sense a CFO comfortable embracing all the tools available to ensure finance can fully support an organisation creating value over the long term. It’s the profile of a modern finance leader described by PwC in its report last year entitled Ascent of Digital.
In the report, PwC says that finance leaders that take the opportunity that digital provides and who seek to embrace the technology shift will reap the rewards – as will their organisations. Operational processes will become increasingly automated over the coming years and we may even get to the “lights out processing” goal that finance teams have set themselves for seemingly decades, says the firm.
The standardisation of processing through the use of emerging cloud technologies means that custom built systems won’t be the norm in the future and robotic process automation (“RPA”) and artificial intelligence (“AI”) will remove the majority of manual tasks from the finance team. We are already seeing leading finance teams adopt these technologies to dramatically reduce time spent sourcing and manipulating data, says PwC.
“In this new business reality, CFOs must capture, measure, report and predict future performance in a much more agile manner to support better decision making and growth. Data quality is critical but so too is ensuring finance teams have the right skills and business understanding to challenge the organisations directions, analyse decision making and help identify future opportunities,” it adds.
The tech mindset
Adam Akbar, managing director of search firm Bronzegate, says the modern CFO in both large and smaller organisations needs to be adaptable and able to understand how to leverage the best utilisation of their organisation’s systems to not only deliver the functional accounting and controls but also the management information that can help drive good decision-making. “Therefore, a primary task, particularly for newly appointed CFOs as well as CFOs who have just implemented new systems, is to fully understand what their system can and cannot deliver and how best to leverage the current system to generate the data that will make key information more accessible.
“It is also imperative that the wider team are given the requisite training and guidance to learn how to get the best out of the current platforms. The ability to generate key data through effective manipulation of a finance system will lead to more insightful management information which in turn will guide planning and decision support. In this way, it can also be argued a tool is only as good as the workman who uses it as understanding how best to use a finance system is business critical for the CFO,” he says.
With the advent of robotics and AI, we are at the start of a journey that is revolutionising the way the finance function will operate in companies, says Akbar. The technology remains nascent and CFOs will increasingly need to familiarise themselves with the latest initiatives and what their peers may be doing within their respective organisations, he adds. “Technological innovation is moving at pace and whilst not all of the advances will be relevant for each organisation, areas such as shared services have already shown that significant leaps in efficiency can be achieved via new technology.
“CFOs need to embrace continuous learning with technology through their own personal research into the area and building relationships with specialist advisers in the field so they can keep abreast of innovation. Having an ear to the outside world is crucial as the world is witnessing a unprecedented change in the way business harnesses technology and CFOs are at the centre of the change,” he says.
Oliver Tant, CFO of tobacco giant Imperial Brands, says a lot of the opportunity to enhance insights is often not about the tool itself but the finance team. “It’s actually about the skills and behaviours of the individuals you’ve got within the function. An awful lot of what they’re focused on is the capabilities that matter, that really drive insights in the key areas that will drive long term performance,” he says.
Whilst a CFO themselves may not have the background in technology, they would be wise to bring in finance team members who can support them with greater personal knowledge in this area, says Bronzegate’s Akbar. “Focusing more on the broader tech skills and awareness during interview and assessment can lead to better selection.
“Building a culture of a tech-minded finance function will reap rewards in terms of efficiencies and accuracy of data which invariably leads to value creation. The CFO should not be the isolated voice in driving tech improvements in finance but rather would benefit hugely by being to delegate and spread the key responsibilities.
“Quite often, it is a tech-savvy Controller underneath the CFO who leads the deployment or improvement of systems. Investing in these people and having a clear vision of the type of tech-friendly culture they wish to create is increasingly more important for CFOs,” he says.