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Editor’s letter: The skills to pay the bills

FDs, I was told, are dry; they love numbers, obviously; they sit in a darkened office and count the money. They do not, I was informed, come out of that office very much and they don’t really know what business does outside of a spreadsheet. I even came up with my own term for this creature: the ‘abacus botherer’ (I’ve resisted using it tongue-in-cheek somewhere in the magazine just in case no one got the joke).

Well, folks, I tell you, they lie. I’ve met many, many FDs in my time so far, FDs at the very top of the pile, running FTSE-100 companies and sprawling, multinational finance functions, those running SME-sized businesses with big aspirations and smaller budgets, and everything in between. There may have been one or two individuals in that bunch who came across as the type to enjoy a late night soirée with a spreadsheet.

As you’ll doubtful know, in this day and age there are few FDs that can afford to hole themselves up in their office with their figures: the more time I’ve spent talking with them, the more evident it is that not only do FDs get out among their businesses more than ever and have deep involvement in overall business strategy, they also enjoy and understand why they must do so. No man (or woman) can afford to be an island in any corner of business.

That is never more true for FDs than right now when so many businesses are struggling (those that have not gone kaput already) to survive this recession and the credit drought ­ not likely to end any time soon now that the banks are required to up their capital bases and, if you read the financial press, some think they’re using this as an excuse for continuing not to lend in many cases.

Having a firm grasp of the numbers is a skill worth its weight in gold now; the FD brings this and many have been thrust to the forefront of their businesses by virtue of this fact. Many have also been put on a steep learning curve in terms of how to communicate with various stakeholders as it has become more important for them to have the numbers explained by the people who understand ­ and as we’ve learned in recent months, you can’t always be sure that those who you would expect to know what they are talking about, actually have the foggiest.

So if you’re a numbers geek and you’re a strategy architect, too ­ and you’ve strengthened your communications skills amid the crunch to extol what you know ­ then you’re a valuable person. If you have not already warmed up your best contacts and the top headhunters to see about leveraging yourself for your next big challenge, then you should be doing it now.

There are examples of those who have done this amid the recession. Tesco’s former FD Andy Higginson, who we interviewed in 2008, since became CEO of Tesco Personal Finance ­ a sort of sideways-but-upwards move into a business the grocer has big plans for and Andy was smart to manoeuvre into that role at the right time. Likewise Nathan Bostock, Abbey’s former FD who an old friend, one Stephen Hester ­ CEO at Royal Bank of Scotland ­ stole away as his new head of restructuring and risk, a job that involves Bostock annexing assets that are dragging the bank down as it seeks to exit government ownership.

As we approach the end of 2009, it’s a good time to give real thought to where you want to be this time next year ­ when the economy may be on the up.

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