Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Assura CFO on building a medical centre portfolio

When a friend put forward Jayne Cottam for the top finance position at Assura, a FTSE-250 builder and developer of buildings for medical practices, she initially baulked at the idea.

For although she had developed a career across public and private companies, building a strong skill set in companies such as coach company Shearings and housebuilder Morris Homes, Cottam had nagging doubts.

The job description called for someone ideally with Big Four training and City experience. “I thought, I haven’t got a hope in hell of getting this job,” says Cottam, who describes herself as coming from a “socially deprived background.”

But in 2017 Cottam was hired by Assura, continuing a career journey that seemed initially impossible after gaining one A level. Yet a career journey that began with taking an HND and then a degree in business administration at Bolton Institute of Higher Education, was followed by a series of roles in the plc and private company arena.

Drawn by the “vision and passion” of CEO Jonathan Murphy, Cottam took on the CFO role at Assura running the finance function and supporting the firm’s expansion strategy that has resulted in it owning 560 properties with an average value of £4m, giving the group a market value of nearly £2bn.

Assura’s mission, says Cottam, is to “provide good quality buildings in which medical professionals can administer their care to patients.” The group has been acquiring and upgrading buildings and building new sites across the UK.

“Some of our largest medical centres are in some of the most deprived areas, because those are the areas of higher health need,. We’ve got some great buildings where GPs provide a great service to their local community,” says Cottam.

Her arrival came halfway through a five year growth spurt, in which the number of buildings under Assura’s ownership has more than doubled and the value of the portfolio has more than tripled. It tacked away from a disastrous diversification programme into provision of staff and a pharmacy business before the financial crisis, which then saw the group’s share price collapse from a high of around 220p.

The group’s share price has recovered to roughly a third of that high-water mark in a set of twists and turns that has included an emergency rights issue, the management team being replaced, and conversion to a REIT (Real estate Investment Trust) structure in 2015.

Now the path ahead looks like it will provide plenty of opportunity, as Assura continues the development programme of its portfolio of properties, where NHS intermediaries ensure rents paid by medical professionals are “fair and equitable, and good value to the taxpayer,” says Cottam.

“There are 9,000 medical centres in the UK, of which we own 560, and the Naylor Review of NHS Estate said that around a third of those buildings aren’t fit for purpose- that’s where we come in,” she adds.

Building a career

Cottam says she knew she wanted to be an accountant, but couldn’t get a graduate job because she didn’t have A levels, so took a temporary job with the NHS, where she began CIMA training in night school at Wigan Technical College. “They wouldn’t pay for my studies, so I paid for it myself,” she says.

But within a year, the coach travel group Shearings hired Cottam to be an assistant management accountant in its hotels division, paying for her training. Her role was more of an analyst, capturing weekly data from hotels, in the private equity-owned group.

Cottam says Shearings asked its employees to be innovative and find ways to change the business,an environment in which she flourished and in her mid-20s took charge of the finance team, just as she was about to sit her final exams. “It was a bit of a shock, as I was very green at the time,” she admits.

Given that the ownership structure limited her promotion chances and recognising the need to add financial accountancy skills to her management accounting background, Cottam headed for furniture group Homestyle.

An assistant financial controller role at the group owning brands such as Bensons for Beds, Harveys and Rosebys, offered a chance for a more rounded technical knowledge, but Cottam found the role too removed from the business. The retailer endured tough trading periods when “the business just fell off a cliff,” and she then worked with the Global Restructuring Group at RBS.

It was a period she describes as “pretty horrible on one side, but fantastic on another because I had to work on hourly cashflow management.” But eventually shareholders replaced the group’s board, and when South African group  Steinhoff International took over, Cottam returned to Shearings as it was merging with rival Wallace Arnold as group financial controller, developing relationships with banks, auditors, and other external players.

“We refinanced and rebanked the business twice in two years, did a sale and leaseback of all our hotels, and integrated Wallace Arnold. It was a fabulous experience,” says Cottam. But a combination of personal circumstances and a desire to enter a new field saw her move to EMR (European Metal Recycling), a global £3.5bn global business based in nearby Warrington as group finance manager with new areas such as foreign exchange to master.

In eight years at the family-owned firm, Cottam was made group financial controller and finance director for Europe, setting up offices in Italy, Spain and Sweden. Although the travel might have been daunting for the by now mother of two, she says CFO Michael Hughes was very supportive. “He said I’m not bothered what hours you work, as long as you get the job done. That was so refreshing. As a result, he always got 110% from me,” says Cottam.

With an eye on adding further experiences, Cottam was hired by housebuilder Morris Homes as its northern region financial director, a business she could relate to as her father was a builder. She arrived at a time when the firm was growing again after the financial crisis, but realised she could add value by streamlining information on margins and profitability, becoming FD for group operations. “I was out on site every week, got involved in marketing, and had to commercially value every site,” says Cottam.

 Top finance role

But Cottam craved a group FD role, knowing she had the skill set required for a lead finance position. In the two years she has been on board her range of competences has been fully utilised by a finance function supporting am acquisitive, fast-growing business.

She that she has been helped by the fact that the finance function she inherited was in good shape, allowing her to concentrate on building a business partnering approach to best serve the needs of the operational side of the group.

“I’ve taken members off the finance team and I’ve dropped them into the operational parts of the business, so they can actually see the development of the strategy and be part of it. That’s for their development but it also adds value to the business, because we get more vision in terms of what is going on,” says Cottam.

It’s an approach inherited from her time at Morris Homes. “My role as a divisional FD was very much to get involved with the operations of the business, and sometimes people are quite sceptical of that because they think we are bean counters, book-keepers or spies, and just want to keep tabs on everyone.

“But once you get in there and show them what you can do, how you can help them with their decision-making, through providing them with information or keeping them up to date, anticipating things you can see with your experience and knowledge, coming down the track, and help them with their aims and their budgets, targets.

“I’ve seen that to positive effect at Morris Homes, so therefore have brought some of that to Assura, which is a slightly different business, but where ultimately finance can add a lot to a business. That means helping in in terms of data analytics, also making the divisions understand what the pressures are on finance, in terms of capitalising the business,” she says.

Cottam describes her management style as very collaborative. “I like to empower my team. I don’t like a blame culture, as we all make mistakes. I take the view that people aren’t coming to work to purposely make an error, and therefore they’re generally quite mortified when they do make an error, so let’s see what the problem is, let’s review and see how we can stop it from happening again. I feel that’s much more proactive and helpful than pointing the finger at people,” she says.

There’s been plenty of nuancing of that management style over time, as the environment has changed, says Cottam. A direct approach that was appropriate in owner managed-businesses has been finessed for Assura, “where there is probably more regulation, and many more stakeholders, so you have to nuance how you behave and how you deal with the team,” she says. “It’s a softer culture at Assura so I had to adopt that almost harsher persona, as that attitude doesn’t always work. However, I don’t change the way I am,” she adds.

As a female leader, Cottam says it’s important to support diversity at senior levels, including flexible working for men and women. “I was very fortunate to have someone who supported me in my career and that helped so much for me to continue to develop. I can also be a mum and as family comes first, its been great to have that balance,” she says.

“There’s been a lot said in the listed company space such as the Hampton-Alexander Review. Large companies seem to be getting it right or making inroads into it, but there are so many smaller businesses that we have to be able to support well in order to drive this through,” says Cottam.

 

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