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Editor’s letter: Lasting impressions

I have had the honour and privilege of editing this magazine for almost half
of its quarter century. There are two great pleasures I derive from toiling away
on this title. One comes from the razor-sharp wit of everyone on the team as we
try to concoct a stunningly brilliant headline ­ – we’ve always been gluttons
for puns on this desk. The other comes from meeting FDs, whether in a formal
interview, out on the conference circuit, or over a drink.

The one question I’ve been asked most often during my tenure here is, “Who is
the most impressive FD you’ve ever met?” I’ve never been able to answer that
question, certainly not to my inquisitors’ satisfaction, nor mine. But don’t get
your hopes up. Today will be no different.

When I consider the answer, I don’t think of one FD, but many. I remember
Xerox Europe FD Patrick Ponchon whose tale about turning sales and marketing
people into finance staff spoke volumes about the need for FDs to communicate. I
remember asking Douglas Flint at HSBC how it was possible to get his head around
the sheer scale of the numbers in a bank with a balance sheet worth the thick
end of a trillion dollars: do you ignore the last six zeroes, we asked.
“Absolutely not,” he replied. “You ignore the first six zeros: you look after
the pounds and then the hundreds and the thousands take care of themselves.”

I remember John Coombe at GlaxoSmithKline kicking the whole ‘changing role of
the FD/beancounter’ question into touch when he said that accountants were
playing a strategic role when he started out 30 years previously ­ – “and it was
a stupid question 30 years ago”. Ken Lever at Tomkins impressed us with his
mission to bring clarity to financial reporting: “The value created in business
is all about the future. It isn’t actually about the past,” he told us.

It was remarkable how Tony Conophy at Computacenter seemed so relaxed,
running a business with anorexic net margins consistently around 1% to 2% – a
level that would keep most FDs awake at night. The stories that Eric Tracey
tells about his time at Amey kept us enthralled ­ – especially the part where he
announced on his second day in the job that the board had to cancel its promised
dividend. Malcolm Wyman told us how SABMiller derisks its expansion into
emerging markets, while Stacey Cartwright told us how she derisks Burberry’s
expansion into Missouri.

So many FDs, so many stories to tell, and so many lessons to share with
readers. If there’s one thing they and countless others have in common ­ – and
if there’s one abiding memory we take away from it all ­ – it’s the passion that
the best FDs bring to the job and their vision about the role they play in
business.

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