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Interview: CBI finance and facilities chief Nigel Hopkins

JOINING a company and then being told to ‘move on’ the day after might seem an unusual set of circumstances. But for the CBI’s finance and facilities chief, Nigel Hopkins, it wasn’t a surprise at all – it was well trailed and had formed a key part of his interview for the job. The ‘moving on’ wasn’t aimed at Hopkins directly – however, CBI’s departure from the iconic Centrepoint building in London’s West End was confirmed the day after he took the role.

“The move had been mooted but they hadn’t had notice to leave Centrepoint. It was received and we had six months to find new premises and move,” explains Hopkins, whose official title is resource director.

The CBI’s move was a result of its landlords looking to redevelop the property into flats. The approval from Camden Council “was not a great surprise”. But with the challenge of moving came a number of strategic opportunities.

There was a great deal of navel-gazing at the organisation, a consideration of its raison d’être. As a lobby group it represents some 190,000 businesses, equating to a third of the UK’s private sector workforce. As an organisation, its staff work on a myriad of projects. But CBI’s Centrepoint setup was, in many ways, hindering that process. At one point in the late 1990s the CBI held 98,000 square feet of space in the building.

The office space was “old, siloed”, says Hopkins. And, for a group looking to drive collaboration between its staff, the space just wasn’t effective. The CBI needed to move, and needed to create a change in culture. The direction, albeit clear, wasn’t going to be easy. The directors had six months to move the business. Hopkins was a good fit to help drive the project towards a successful conclusion.

During the interview process, it became clear that pushing the move through, as well as creating a new environment that would change the way the CBI operates, would be key deliverables for the resources director.

“I was delighted with the opportunity,” says Hopkins. “To create a new culture, it would only be available in the new building … I added strong values and a recognition that cultural change was important probably enhanced the interview process.”
Hopkins, ICAEW-qualified in 1982, had spent the previous nine years as FD for Remploy, the organisation tasked with helping the disabled find work.

During this time he became increasingly aware of the importance of culture and values to an organisation, particularly when it went through a controversial and emotional upheaval of its business model – to find employers for the disabled, rather than employ them itself: “So when looking for a new role I had to be sure the organisation met those culture and value needs.”

He also had financial and operational negotiation experience, helping to manage Remploy’s exit from government control of its manufacturing and service operations.

“The challenge in the CBI was to work out that the change could only happen ‘by location’. The values are set, but the physical setup wouldn’t allow the collaboration we wanted,” he explains. “The move gives you one office, one culture; you avoid emails and have conversations in ad-hoc groups.”

The cultural aspect
It’s clear that the cultural and people aspect of change management is of great interest to Hopkins, as it dominated the first part of Financial Director’s discussion with him and as his non-exec role at not-for-profit housebuilder Places for People Group shows.

But Hopkins is in no way disconnected from the more commercial, and rigorous, aspects of managing finance and projects. From day two of his job, he had to help find a new location and arrange a lease. Hopkins was involved in the property search, then led lease negotiations with the landlord, while interacting with lawyers and bankers with regards to the covenants to be put in place.

The lease needed to be signed by 10 December 2013 for the CBI to be able to move in by March, which was achieved four days early. To move speedily, Hopkins tried to eschew email communication, which he believed would be complicated between several parties and might slow down the process: “We had regular face-to-face meetings rather than emails – they don’t work in a fast-track implementation.”

Hopkins views his background in finance as vital to providing high-quality support to facilitate a move, assess it, and make it a success. The myriad factors that go towards making a decision to move must be weighed up against each other. So Hopkins was able to help manage the cost/benefit, analysing the period of the lease against break periods and contributions by a future landlord.

Having been around the block, he also brought “a certain gravitas” by his title and experience to the proceedings, which he thinks was also beneficial. With Hopkins running the move and change programme, and the HR director focusing on cultural aspects and delivery of the new building, they had just over three months to move. Relocation advisers were called in to run a risk analysis, and timings were razor-sharp.

“We were up against it,” admits Hopkins. “Our initial plan gave us one day spare in the programme, which is pretty much where we ended up.”

While Hopkins points to the furniture as perhaps requiring more of a focus, which may suggest some of it is not to his taste, he says that “we’ve nailed what we set out to achieve” in terms of the office build and cultural delivery. And the CBI now has a very smart, open-plan office in one of London’s most vibrant and growing business communities, slap-bang on Cannon Street Station. The new space is still sparsely occupied, but the CBI is to be joined by law firm CMS Cameron McKenna.

A post-move staff survey is being compiled, but Hopkins points out there have been “virtually no complaints” following the switch. “People have been very excited about the move,” he points out.

The thorny issue, beyond a staff survey, is trying to gauge the success of such a physical upheaval. Has the culture changed, and by how much? What is the impact upon the organisation? A reduction in staff turnover will be a measure, Hopkins points out, but he admits other KPIs are harder to define. The move has seen increased sentiment towards the CBI from its members, he notes.

A modern space impresses upon members that the CBI is aiming to provide them with a valued service. It certainly shows they mean business. While it is still early days in gauging the success of the move, Hopkins expects evidence will emerge that proves the relocation to be the right decision.

Making sense of it all
The issue of setting an objective – with a series of qualitative and non-qualitative, financial and non-financial data – and expecting finance to make sense of it all resonates with Hopkins. In September 2013, the CBI moved to Dynamics CRM for its membership management, and another Dynamics finance product, GP. The next challenge from a data point of view, whether for finance or IT, is how it gathers and utilises its business knowledge – be it policy information or survey resources.
“Lots of them are static documents and not easy to get to – unless someone can remember where they are,” says Hopkins.

And while he is in charge of delivering this knowledge management programme, the policy team manages the direction of travel.

“I’m keen that the customer manages its own systems – that comes from my experience. If you’re the back-office provider in charge of the decisions, you second-guess and guess wrongly about what the needs are,” he explains. “Finance and IT have the back-end responsibility – that it’s working – but the front-end needs to sit with the user.”

The CBI’s board looks to Hopkins for strategic input on “big issues” such as funding, pensions and people management. But Hopkins looks to his managers to deliver on the ground, on a day-to-day basis. “My style is for them to develop and deliver their own brief,” he explains.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing, and Hopkins realised that the finance function wasn’t working as well as it should. However, a senior internal recruit helped to improve its culture, openness and “customer friendliness” to the rest of the business.

There have been other nitty-gritty issues for Hopkins to deal with. The CBI struggled to produce an overdue debtors list upon his request when he joined. “If it’s difficult, then it’s probably not being managed,” says Hopkins knowingly. So you’re also unlikely to know why they’re failing to pay, he surmises: “The dreaded four-letter-word ‘cash’ got bandied around by me.”

Some 70% of its members join in January, the time at which CBI “needs to focus on cash, pure and simple”. This message is much easier for an FD to get across than talking finance terminology.

“Making a business commercial – a lot of that is about keeping it simple, and people can relate to cash … it allows easy access for non-financial people to understand the business,” he says.

For what Hopkins describes as a “relatively simple business” with £25m in revenues, financial management had been an “unduly complex” process. Under his remit, budget responsibilities have been devolved, and an identification of key priorities outlined for the upcoming year – “So we can make qualitative decisions about what we want to do based on financial input. Invest in upgrading the CRM? More policy spend? Better comms? That’s the commercial piece,” explains Hopkins.

Hopkins describes himself as a “simple person by nature”. In terms of finance, this manifests itself in reducing cost centres and departments, as examples. Rather than a 30-page monthly pack, it’s now two – one page of narrative and the second page with figures – with more information available online if required.

With all the change going on, you might expect a completely new CBI, but Hopkins doesn’t see it that way. For him, the fundamentals of providing high-quality lobbying services and support to its members remains the same. It’s just trying to do it better, providing quality services and more value.

“The better we can mine members’ needs and concerns, and mine our own information to help develop our lobbying approach, so when we go to government or other bodies, the information we provide is much more relevant and meaningful – we’ll be a more focused organisation,” he says. ?

CBI's Nigel HopkinsIN BLACK AND WHITE

2013 – present Resource director, CBI
2004 – 2013 Executive board director (finance & strategy), Remploy
2000 – 2004 CFO, Comau (Fiat Group)
1998 – 2000 International FD, Fosroc Construction (Burmah Castrol)
1994 – 1998 CFO, Laporte

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