Every GFC role is defined in a slightly different way and has varying degrees of sponsorship. However, to find out more about the reality of the role, the opportunities it presents, the impact individuals can have in post and the learnings it offers we have spoken to several individuals who have first-hand knowledge. This includes those currently in a seat covering the GFC remit who have come up through commercial finance, as well as group CFOs who rotated into the position on their way to the top job.
What are their takeaways from their experience? How has it positioned them? Would they recommend the GFC role as a career option?
The true breadth of the role
Few roles are as all-encompassing as the GFC and it is a role that offers a view across the entirety of the organisation.
Laura Carr, formerly the GFC at FTSE20 Compass Plc, before becoming group CFO of Dunelm Plc and now operating partner at Bain Capital, points to the sheer breadth of responsibilities that GFCs shoulder on a daily basis. “The exposure you get is really broad,” she explained. “You are involved in many different areas across the business. This means that the role can really help you to understand who you are as a finance professional, what strengths you have and where you need to build your skills.”
Mani Sharma, SVP group controller and global finance services at AstraZeneca Plc, agrees on the span of the role. “There is nothing going on within the organisation that you are not aware of,” he said. “You may have small deals that are being done, you may have inventory that needs to be accounted for or provisions made, there are restructuring programmes and the GFC is always a part of these determinations; you get a sense of the entire finance function”. He uses a footballing analogy to best describe how the role operates. “I see the GFC as a goalkeeper – the most specialised player in the team. As a goalkeeper, you ensure there are no goals being scored and for a GFC, the ultimate objective is to ensure that every dimension of risk, accounting and controls is done in a way that is seamless; you’re the person who has a view of the entire pitch and where everyone sits within it.”
It is also about building relationships with your teammates and potential supporters. For example, the GFC works closely with members of the executive leadership team and the board, as well as external auditors, lenders and funders.
Duncan Cooper, former director of group finance at Sainsburys Plc and now in the top finance job at FTSE 250 Crest Nicholson Plc, points to this as a key benefit: “You can start to fast track some of the relationship building with the external advisors – this is really, really key,” he said. “As a solely commercial finance director, you’re unlikely to be getting regular exposure to your brokers, your lending banks, your PR advisor or even your corporate law firm.”
On the road to CFO
For many people working in finance, the ultimate goal is to become a group CFO. Through our conversations, it became clear that experiencing the GFC’s range of responsibilities and pressures can serve as an ideal training ground for anyone seeking promotion to the top job.
For example, Sally Johnson, formerly the deputy CFO and now group CFO of FTSE 100 Pearson Plc, says that working as a GFC was crucial in her development because “I got a real understanding of what the CFO role involves and what helps success,” she said. “I also gained direct experience of things difficult to see from other finance roles such as tax, treasury and IR, along with regular board exposure.”
Emma Harris, the former group finance director and now FD of Food, Property & Retail at Marks & Spencer Plc, agrees. “If you want to be a CFO, then the GFC role is invaluable,” she said. “I was one of the only non-committee members to attend every audit committee meeting. If I take on a CFO role now, managing that audit committee position – which is a key part of your CFO remit – means I’m much better equipped.”
It is not just about building key relationships internally, Duncan Cooper believes that those formed with external stakeholders can put aspiring CFO candidates in good stead as well. “External advisors are part of the referencing and sponsorship process in recognising when you’re ready,” he said. “When you go for that CFO job your chair is going to pick up the phone to people in the city you’ve had exposure to and ask what they think. So through the GFC role on a variety of things – reporting events, corporate planning, M&A, financing arrangements – you have the opportunity for a massively turbocharged interaction with a set of key relationship holders.”
Bhavesh Mistry, CFO of FTSE 100 British Land Plc, agrees that working as Tesco’s deputy CFO softened his landing when he stepped up to his current role. “It gave me a real perspective on things I have to be all over now, in terms of my external accounts, my reporting, what I’m saying to the city, the dialogue with the audit partner,” he said. “It’s just a completely different lens through which to look at the business, outside in and inside out.”
Boring? No, not at all
Perhaps the most persistent misconception about the GFC position is that it lacks a certain spark. Important, yes, but also rather worthy and missing the excitement that other roles entail. Talking this through with former and current GFCs, who have come up through commercial finance, shines an important light on what the job is actually like – and ‘boring’ it is not.
“There is definitely nothing boring about sitting in the GFC’s seat,” said Mani Sharma, firmly.
The role offers significant intellectual challenge, according to Srinivas Phatak. The former CFO of Hindustan Unilever, the c. $60bn market cap listed subsidiary, who is now deputy CFO at Unilever Plc, says that a big learning upon taking the role was the challenge of managing the complexities which stem from business operations in 100 plus countries. “These included economic environments and exchange rates, both from a technical aspect in terms of what it does to financials, and from risk management” he said.
Although Emma Harris does concede that some aspects of the role could be “quite dry” at times, she is keen to stress that this doesn’t dilute its importance. “Some of the content – like signing off year-end accounts – was not the personal highlight for me but it’s a critical part of the role,” she said. “It has given me much deeper confidence that if I were to become a group CFO I would be much better equipped to sign off Plc accounts. I feel like I’ve got enough in-depth knowledge to be going through some of the more difficult areas; you need to be able to find your way around them. So again, as a stepping stone role to go on and do something bigger I think it’s critical.”
Marie Wall, former deputy CFO of FTSE30 Imperial Brands Plc, also admits to having held similar reservations before taking on GFC within her remit, but was pleasantly surprised by what she discovered.
“The perception can be that the GFC role is simply about producing accounts and managing the audit and controls,” she said. “However, it is so much more strategic than that. There really is no opportunity to be bored. The role is accountable for data and insight going into the executive team to drive discussions and decisions at the highest level, engaging with the board to bring visibility to the tough calls. There is autonomy to set the agenda and to bring a real sense of urgency to the issues that matter, to significantly improve the quality of decision making around the organisation.”
And Sally Johnson is even firmer: “It's absolutely not boring,” she said. “Every day is different. You have an opportunity to impact every area of the business well beyond the finance remit.”
Another perceived drawback to the GFC role can be that it doesn’t incorporate enough commercial elements and is instead more like a head of external reporting position. While ensuring the accounts are accurate certainly looms large in any GFC job description, this doesn’t mean that commercial aspects fall by the wayside. Recalling his time at Tesco, Bhavesh Mistry says that the GFC role involves not just accounting judgement, but commercial judgement too.
“I remember having a discussion about capital allocation and whether we wanted to deploy capital from one part of the estate to another,” he said. “What helped me drive change was support from the CEO who said ‘I have the deputy CFO here telling you, with fact and reason, why this is a sensible thing to do’. So I felt I had influence at executive level and visibility at the board.”
The role also bridges different aspects of a company’s operations, including responsibility for overseeing regulatory requirements that have the potential to uproot commercial ambitions – a fact which Fiona Ryder, GFC at FTSE 100 Convatec Plc, is all too aware.
“The GFC is responsible for a huge amount of spend, the way the audit is conducted, the amount of consultants used to deliver regulatory requirements, and the fact those regulatory requirements are your licence to operate” she said.
“If you lose a sales licence you’ve lost revenue, but if you get on the Financial Reporting Council’s naughty step then that’s going to damage your reputation and investor proposition so much more. In this role you get access to such a critical part of how the company works and fundamentally how you drive that investor proposition, which you may do as a commercial FD as well, but in that role you are focusing on the commercial outcome, rather than the positioning of that commercial outcome with the external investors.”
Marie Wall also believes that the GFC can influence the commercial performance of a business, such as when setting the framework for decision-making on credit terms. “You can really play a role by working with the commercial teams to identify the pros and cons of running different levels of risk within the business, as well as how best to manage and mitigate that risk whilst still empowering the teams” she said. “It’s about how you use the tools that are at your discretion to influence how people might look at or hit their numbers whilst being aware of all the behavioural and value-based consequences of those decisions.”
Emma Harris points out that when controls work well, they allow the business to go faster. “If you’ve got controls that work and are efficient and effective, then you can make decisions more quickly and everyone is clear who the decision maker is and what the control is,” she said. “I enjoyed marrying up the control and commercial conversation; we were able to get stronger cultural cut through on controls because we shared it into the business with a more commercial lens.”
Next stop GFC?
The question, then, for aspiring CFOs who have a divisional finance director background is whether they should take steps to ensure that the GFC role is in their career history. Will missing out potentially leave them less-well-equipped to tackle the myriad of responsibilities that shape the daily life of CFOs?
The consensus from the senior leaders we spoke to is that working as a GFC is a crucial building block for any finance leader, one that can only strengthen an individual’s chances of taking the step into a group CFO job. Bhavesh Mistry, for example, points out that there are experiences that individuals only gain by doing the GFC role – all of which you have to get right when serving as CFO.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “Dialogue with the audit partner, the rigour with which I review the back half of the statements, linking our strategic narrative to the front end of the annual report and accounts, linking the sustainability narrative for our business – these are things I am better equipped to manage having done the role. So I feel pretty strongly that you have do some element of it, maybe not as the controller directly, maybe as number two to the controller, so you’re steeped in the role.”
Fiona Ryder, meanwhile, views her time as GFC as a pivotal learning experience. “Having done the role, I can’t understand how I would do a CFO position effectively without the knowledge gained,” she said. “It has just given me a whole load of unique access and opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Srinivas Phatak and Laura Carr are also in no doubt. “If you need to be a CFO, you need to have an appreciation and understanding of all aspects of your business,” said Srinivas. And Laura added: “If I were hiring a new CFO I would see it as a major plus that they’ve held the GFC role in the past. It shows you have breadth of experience and shows you are willing to try different elements of finance to see the bigger picture.”
Emma Harris is in agreement, pointing out that when it comes to big strategic themes such as finance transformation, time spent as a GFC enables an individual to better understand the evolutionary pace that a business can withstand. “Without that, I think it’s hard to make the judgements sometimes about things like how fast you should be centralising or automating because you hear the barriers from the team but you don’t really understand where the true risks lie,” she said.
Such comments underline the fact that the GFC role can offer far more than what the market can give it credit for. While stereotypes still linger, and not every group CFO will hold the position, the reality is that the role represents a considerable developmental avenue for anyone seeking the top job. For group CFOs it will be important for them to consider how they could structure and sponsor the role in order to develop the talent they might want to be their successor.
With huge thanks to:
Bhavesh Mistry, Chief Financial Officer, British Land Plc
Duncan Cooper, Group Finance Director, Crest Nicholson Plc
- Laura Carr, Operating Partner at Bain Capital
- Emma Harris, Finance Director, Food, Property & Retail, Marks & Spencer Plc
- Fiona Ryder, Group Financial Controller, Convatec Plc
Mani Sharma, Senior Vice President, Group Controller and Global Finance Services, AstraZeneca Plc
Marie Wall, former Deputy CFO, Imperial Brands Plc
- Sally Johnson, Chief Financial Officer, Pearson Plc
- Srinivas Phatak, Deputy CFO and Controller, Unilever Plc