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Year ahead Q&A: Paul Venables, CFO, Hays

What have been the biggest challenges for your business over the past year, and what role did finance play in addressing them?

We have seen a strong improvement in market conditions and activity levels in many of the 33 countries in which we operate in the world. Thus, being a people business, one of our main challenges in 2014 has been which countries, sectors and cities we should prioritise both our existing highly skilled managers and consultants – especially those who are mobile with transferable language skills – and also incremental investment in our own consultant base.

Hays’ FDs have played a key role in helping to determine this, based on our business intelligence and data as well as likely future trends, which are the best markets for us to place our largest revenue investment bets and ensure that we drive not just sales growth, but also profits around the world.

What are the key political and economic risks/opportunities you face in the year ahead?

Will the recent gradual slowdown in economic activity in Europe and especially Germany and France be a short-term correction, and thus easily manageable, or will it lead to a more prolonged downturn, which would be more painful?

What impact will the UK election have on client and candidate confidence as we move into 2015, and especially Q2, and will the impact be temporary or more permanent? While this is a risk we face whenever an election occurs anywhere in the world, I cannot remember ever being six months away from a key election in which any outcome could happen – and where these possible outcomes included more than one election.

As we exit 2014, we have strong growth in most of our businesses across the world, so in the absence of any meaningful impact from the points mentioned above, we expect 2015 to be a very successful year for Hays following on from a very strong performance in 2014.

We are the largest specialist recruitment business in Australia by a country mile. How strong a rebound will we have there in 2015? The past six months have seen us move quickly from subdued trading to strong growth, and if that continues into 2015, it will have a material positive impact on the group’s trading.

What business-friendly policies do we want the next government to undertake to improve the environment for UK corporates?

While the current government has certainly made the UK a better and more competitive place for companies to do business – with the reduction in the headline corporation tax and support for investment in certain industries – my main hope is that, whatever the political persuasion of the next government, they remember that it is business and not government that creates jobs and wealth for the country.

All government can do is to help create the environment for business to be able to take calculated investment risks. In many respects, I would much prefer the next government to do as little as possible and let business help accelerate and broaden the already clear economic recovery in the UK. My fear is that the next government may actively interfere with business and thus risk strangling the recovery.

Advice for other FDs for the coming year?

The same as always: ensure that your results are accurate, your forecasts credible, your debts are collected, and remember that a key part of your role is to support your key business operators in making better and faster decisions to drive your business forward. And if in doubt, take profits and cash ahead of pure sales, as you can spend and invest cash.

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