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Insight interview – Keeping finance in Focus.

Sue Hele joined Focus Solutions Group, a provider of software and e-commerce tools for the financial services industry, in September 2000.

Initially, she was financial controller, but she joined with a view to taking over the reins from then finance director Bob Hull. This she duly did in April.

She says the move from AT&T, where she spent four years as mergers and acquisitions manager, has been fascinating, perhaps most notably because of the dramatic change in materiality levels. “When you were used to dealing in millions, and those millions didn’t even impact on the US results, to suddenly have to come down to pounds is quite a shock,” she says. “I actually look after my pennies as well.”

Another key difference is the ease of decision-making within Focus. “In the AT&T environment there was a very defined structure that you had to work in,” she says. “Things were very constrained in that we had to go to a business board meeting to get deals approved. That was very frustrating because you might be negotiating with a buyer who wanted an answer tomorrow, but you still had to go through all that red tape. In contrast, at Focus you can get your decisions made quickly. The directors sit in an office together – we have our desks next to each other – and if you need a decision on something you can yell at the MD and say, ‘Oy, what do you think about this?'”

Hele also notes the difference in the type of work she gets involved in. “In AT&T I was in a very specialised area and you had peers who you could bounce ideas off,” she says. “There were also people there who did the mundane work. When you come to a small environment you have to roll your sleeves up.” For example, she has been reacquainting herself with the niceties of double-entry bookkeeping.

One of the challenges of Hele’s new role is to manage the company’s finances while Focus is growing at a rate of 300%. The experience is not totally new territory, however. Hele was at one time FD of the Firefox Group, a communications software company. “They were also going through rapid change, expanding and moving into new offices,” she says.

“One of my major roles here is to try and introduce structure, but without constraining the entrepreneurialism,” Hele says. “The company is adding something like seven heads a month to its payroll. It has gone through the entrepreneurial stage; so we are trying to put in processes that will safeguard the assets of the company and ensure its continued growth.” For example, she is trying to push budgeting processes further down the management line.

Growth is also causing new challenges in terms of keeping the growing headcount (86 at the end of April) informed. “In the past, communication has always been quite informal,” Hele says. “With a handful of people, you can quickly get them into a room and give updates. But now that’s difficult. Your communication has to become a lot more formal.”

External communication is important, too. When interviewed, Hele was shortly to give her first analyst presentation. Since Focus joined AIM in March 2000 its share price has done the tech-stock bounce – reaching a high around the 240p mark last year, but now languishing around 80p.

“The problem on the AIM market is that you don’t have constant buying and selling,” says Hele. “It’s terribly depressing when you feel you are doing quite well performance-wise, but because your fellows in the dotcom environment are dropping like stones, you have to follow suit.”

Despite such frustrations, Hele is relishing her environment, including the increased responsibility she has for the company’s success. “The buck stops here, whereas at AT&T it could wander around at various levels and around various people,” she says.

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