The pandemic hastened along many changes to the chief financial officer (CFO) role, many of which were in the pipeline already, with the result that the position has become a much broader one in many companies, moving from simply bean counting to a more strategic function.
“The role has absolutely become broader,” says Alex Moffatt EMEA CFO of JLL Work Dynamics. “I wouldn’t do a job if there wasn’t scope to work outside the finance arena, because now we work within the operations, and are involved in people issues and strategy. Early in my career I worked in AstraZeneca with a great CFO and he insisted that every leadership table had to have a finance person.”
Moffatt points out that CFOs have exactly the skills needed to push a company forward: “We’re experts at reading the data, spotting the trends and understanding connectivity. We are joining the dots and can see the financial consequences of any decisions.”
While many of these trends were already evident well before the pandemic, it did introduce specific issues that required finance directors to go beyond what had been their normal remit.
“We never had a narrow remit, but when we were on furlough for three months, we became involved not just in the admin of it, but also the welfare of the people involved,” says Simon Loveland finance director at M&J Evans Construction Group. “We are at the table for strategy meetings to grow the company in a safe way. We are responsible for digitisation: moving to enterprise resource planning (ERP) means that all systems should be paperless.
“We had to streamline everything as previously people were entering data on separate spreadsheets and there was bound to be human error,” he says. “Now we have one system, one truth and one set of data and we don’t need to waste time in arguing about who is right.”
Increased efficiency is driving the company to grow faster, while issues such as sustainability are having an effect on costs, says Simon.
“We never used to think about it until carbon reporting was introduced into accounts in November 2020,” he says. “But we became interested in it and discovered that debt is cheaper if run in a sustainable way. We are looking at solar panels on roofs now and buying carbon credits to make ourselves carbon neutral.”
Sustainability is so key now that companies will suffer if their CFO does not become involved, according to Roger Barker, director of policy and governance at the Institute of Directors.
“It is a very significant role they must play,” he says. “They have to work out how to achieve a net zero target, which will impact on the company’s strategy, the business model, the type of reporting they do and their very culture.
“The CFO will have to be immersed in that, substantiating it more than most. They will have to add value to a company and they will also see themselves as a key arbiter of what is actually creating value – their attitude is crucial.”
CFO to CEO
The traditional CFO role was as a “fiduciary game keeper”, but the position now is more often viewed as a trusted advisor to the CEO, says David Ziebart, partner in the finance team at recruitment specialists Page Executive, which typically runs more than 200 senior finance searches within the UK every year.
“Another change is that CFOs are now expected to have a higher level of emotional intelligence and will be providing the business dynamic,” he says. “One of the strengths of the new brand of CFO is that they command a visibility and breadth across the organisation.”
According to Ziebart, between 30 and 40 per cent of the companies coming to him to find a CFO are looking for candidates with the potential to succeed the CEO.
“If I find a financial person with a good commercial mindset, that will set them apart,” he says. “There has been a lot of discussion recently about how they can add value to a company and with the growth in private equity firms, the CFO has been absolutely instrumental in working out an exit strategy. And in listed companies, they must also create shareholder value by acquisitions, which is futureproofing an organisation.”
Modern CFOs are involved in all areas of an organisation, confirms Nick Sing, a finance recruiter at Alexander Daniels. “These include sustainability, HR, IT and supply chains. The criteria for choosing them is that they must be operational, driving the business forward, and we always look to see what value an individual can add to the senior leadership team.”