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Q&A: Alan Burns, group CFO, Photobox

1. Rise early or work late?

I’m happy to do either (or, when it’s busy, both!). I like getting in early as I find it easier to concentrate; means I get ahead of myself before the day starts in earnest. This also allows me to synchronise with France where part of my team is based. On the other hand, the office is quiet in the evening, so that’s often a very productive time as well. I do like to have some time to unwind though, so early or late is what I strive for.

 

2. Training preferences: on the job or formal?

Both are important. There’s definitely a place for formal training, especially in our profession and even after qualification. In particular, I’d highlight technical training and soft skills development (for example, presentation skills). However I genuinely believe that the most critical knowledge is gained by actually doing. Experience is an amazing teacher.

3. What’s your management style?

I like my team to feel empowered and involved, so I try and delegate effectively… which doesn’t always come easy I must say! I foster a culture of open and honest communication which is something we take great pride in within the company. I try to make myself as available and approachable as possible, so the team are able to use me as a sounding board.

 

4. Does delegation come easy?

It’s a skill which I have had to work on during my career; apparently I used to be a bit of a control freak… some say! I have come to realize that good delegation is absolutely critical in order to succeed. However I think that a lot of people are not natural delegators, so it’s something which often has to be learned. And of course delegation only works if the individuals to whom you delegate are strong.

5. Who do you rely on most?

The team. Success does not lie in one person – everyone plays a critical role, but no single person carries the team. I mentioned above the importance of a strong team. It’s my primary focus. Of course, a supportive CEO and board are also critical in enabling the CFO to fully add value, and more generally for teams to feel empowered and part of the company’s success.

 

6. Boardroom or restaurant?

For focused discussions, analysis and decision-making, it has to be the boardroom. However I learn a lot from colleagues and other business contacts in less formal settings – and of course the food is better in the restaurant than it tends to be in the boardroom.

7. What technology would you never be without?

I’m glued to my iPhone. But I marvel constantly at what a powerful tool Excel is. I really don’t know how mankind managed without it (I asked my dad – a retired accountant – and he mentioned something about slide-rulers and ledger books). There is rarely a day that goes by without some time spent in Excel. I love it.

8. Are you an FD for life?

I am. I love the career path I have chosen, and it’s allowed me to work for some of the best companies around. Finance people are in a privileged position in any business, they have a view across the whole operation, and can add significant value to all areas by applying data-driven decision making, strong controls and solid governance.

9. What keeps you awake at night?

Positive thoughts. I’m part of an amazing journey; in the space of a few years, we’ve grown to 700 employees (back in 2006, we were only 100), a group of four strong brands – PhotoBox, Moonpig, PaperShaker and Sticky9 and a global presence in 20 countries. When I do lie awake at night, I think about how we can continue to grow and innovate along a path that’s already been hugely exciting.

 

10. Critical advice to aspiring FDs?

Remember that it doesn’t always go according to plan – take positives away from situations that have not gone well. See yourself as a linguist, speaking both finance and business fluently! You’re there to draw meaningful insights from data that will help drive the business in the right direction. Ensure you have the best possible people in your team. Keep yourself fit and healthy. And remember to take some time for yourself and your family.

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