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Leaders Insight - with Matthew Jowett, CFO at Kelling Group

  • Publish Date: Posted 5 months ago

​Welcome to the third instalment our insightful blog series ‘Leaders Insight’ where we continue to delve into the professional lives of these experienced senior-level experts and highlight their multifaceted expertise to inspire the next generation of CFOs.

In this chapter we caught up with Matthew Jowett, CFO at Kelling Group.

Kelling Group is a leading provider in the hire of specialist access equipment, access platforms, welfare unit hire and services to growing infrastructure and associated end markets. Kelling Group also recently won the award of Mid-Market Corporate of The Year in the 2023 The Yorkshires. Business Awards.

  1. What, in your opinion, are the major differentiators between the role of a CFO and a Finance Director?

As a general rule, the role of CFO is more strategic and forward looking than that of a Finance Director. Whereas the Finance Director will spend the majority of their time in the Finance function, ensuring a solid financial foundation for the business and managing the ‘day-to-day’, a CFO typically spends more time in the wider business as well as managing external stakeholders e.g., investors, banks, key customers / suppliers. The reality can be very different, however, and depends on the size and nature of the business concerned; there is often quite a blurred line between the two roles, especially in smaller businesses where scale / complexity may not yet justify the cost of both in the organisation. As CFO, I am in my stride delivering a new banking facility, carrying out due diligence on an acquisition or presenting our 5-year plan to investors, but the thought of reviewing the month end consolidation or VAT return would give me cold sweats!

  1. What do you think future leaders should prioritise or focus on most when they initially make the step up to CFO?

Build a good team around you to ensure you can delegate and focus the necessary time on the more strategic areas. If you don’t have the appropriate resource and expertise in the team, you’ll quickly get sucked down into too much detail and lose sight of the bigger picture.And on that note….

Spend time getting out and about in the business – you’ll need to force yourself to do this, it’s easy to get stuck behind the desk in the office. Speak to your staff root-and-branch and take a genuine interest; it’s amazing what you’ll learn and be able to bring back to the boardroom table. And take the time to learn your products and services inside out. Know your key costings and pricings to the penny; it will help you make better sense of your P&L and KPIs and to make better business decisions.

Your network is increasingly important as you step into a more strategic role. Being able to pick up the phone to a trusted advisory contact or an industry peer to sense check something new or unfamiliar is invaluable.

  1. Reflecting on your first couple of years in the role of CFO what were the pitfalls you wish you had been aware of and would advise future leaders to try and avoid?

Pace yourself! Map out key objectives over a sensible / realistic timeframe and don’t try to do too much too quickly. Identify and execute the quick wins and by all means make your mark but take your time to understand the key dynamics in the business (and the industry, if the new role involves a change in that regard) before making too many strategic / structural changes – you’ll spread yourself too thin and, potentially, cause chaos!

On a related point, never underestimate how reluctant some people can be to change, however small it might seem to you…ensure you engage with the workforce and bring them on a particular journey with you at the earliest opportunity.

Finally, back yourself. You’re in this role for a reason – somebody has recognised your expertise and/or potential and you might well be surprised just how well your prior roles have prepared you for this. Don’t be afraid to ask the daft or obvious questions that no-one else is asking.

  1. What are your opinions about the relationship between a CFO and CEO? What is critically important in building a successful partnership and providing the right support to the CEO?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great CEOs and a healthy relationship is crucial – you’ll spend more time speaking to them than you do your other half!In addition to the official job description, as CFO you’ll need to be the sounding board, voice of reason, agony aunt and many other things to the CEO.My observation is that being the CEO can be quite a lonely existence – ultimately the buck stops with you for everything in the business – so to have a trusted confidant in your CFO, who understands your strategy but who can provide challenge in a ‘closed’ environment, is essential.

  1. What new key skills or attributes do you think the next generation of CFO’s are going to need to develop?

The fundamental skills will always be required – strategic thinking, commercial negotiation etc etc. In terms of specifics, there is a lot of talk around AI at the moment, and it is something we’re looking at in our business. I’m not suggesting that CFOs will need to become experts in the inner workings of this, but they will need to understand its capabilities and consider the impact, both in terms of opportunities (e.g. automating processes) and risk (e.g. more sophisticated fraud attacks etc).But standing back, this is just about being adaptable and embracing change – if you asked the same question to a CFO twenty-five years ago, you could probably replace “AI” in the response, with “the Internet”. Or four years ago it would have been the ability to adapt quickly and steer the business through a pandemic.

  1. When considering a new CFO job opportunity what do you believe are the most important things for candidates to consider when deciding, in order to have the best chance of a successful move?

Do your homework and make sure you find the right business and the right team for you.

We’ve already talked about the crucial relationship with the CEO – do you align with their vision for the future? If not, you could be in for a very uncomfortable journey.

Who are the key stakeholders? Plc world is very different to private company world, for example, and has different demands for a CFO. Which suits you best?

How big is the business and where is it on the maturity curve?

What are the key challenges and aspirations for the business, and does this suit your skillset and ambition?

Is there a transformational event on the horizon and what would this mean for you?

  1. Away from core accounting knowledge, what personality traits have been critical to your success as a CFO? Are these natural or have you worked on developing them?

Be inquisitive, tenacious and challenge the status quo - this is fundamental to driving organisational change and implementing new strategies. I love being told something can’t be done in response to a suggestion that could clearly add-value – so I can prove it can! Don’t get me started on “we’ve always done it this way” …

Also, you spend a huge amount of time dealing with people matters. Strong interpersonal skills are essential, as is the need to adapt for different cohorts of employees across the business. This also plays into the requirement to build strong relationships with external stakeholders.

Attention to detail is paramount; as CFO you’re often dealing with highly analytical counterparties. Likewise, missing something important in the small print of a contract can be very costly down the line.

Whether these are my natural characteristics – perhaps - but all were ingrained / beaten into me (!) before I moved into industry during my years in Corporate Finance, for which (in hindsight) I’m very grateful.

  1. What is the one single best piece of advice you were given early in your career that still holds true today?

The “5 Whys”. I still use this technique today when I want to get to the root cause of a problem. Look it up and use it – so simple and effective!

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