The Balancing Act of a UK Finance Director – the Fulcrum of a Successful Business


Laura Paterson blog, Qualified Finance, client...

Business transformation and recession recovery have catapulted the finance director from ‘bean counter’ to strategic business leader. In this blog, we have spoken to a cross-section of finance directors to garner their thoughts on the daily challenges they face and understand what it is really like to be an FD in today’s market.

Typical days are atypical

Chris Filer, UK finance director at Kao Brands, explains that the typical day, is in fact, atypical. “Frequently your plan for the week disappears by 9.30am… there are no standard days.”  The variability of what he can get involved in is one of the highlights of his role “you get to play in everyone else’s sandpits and either build them up or knock them down dependant on what is the right decision for the business.”

The fact that there is no such thing as a typical day seems to be an overriding theme. Caroline Cookson, regional finance director at Brown Forman agreed that there is no standard daily routine in her role. “It will heavily depend on the current company strategy, how our brands are performing or even the time of year. In any typical day I could be doing anything from budgeting and forecasting, to developing my team, to chairing brand innovation meetings with senior marketing executives.”

The balancing act

Although the multifaceted and unpredictable nature of the finance director role means that it is exciting and rewarding, it also means there are many challenges to face. One common challenge expressed by the finance directors we spoke to was how to balance the pressures placed on them. Each business has its own agenda but with financials now at the forefront of strategy, the finance director is now the only person with all the answers.

Ms Cookson highlighted her biggest challenge as keeping all internal stakeholders happy. “It is difficult to make an executive decision about what projects to keep, delay or drop whilst trying to keep both the senior management and brand teams happy”.

Jey Jeyeratnam, international finance director at Orange Business Services agreed, stating in relation to cost control, one of the biggest challenges in his role was “getting business teams, who are focused on growth, to fully buy into the process of taking cost out”.

The Finance Director acts as the fulcrum

Managing their daily tasks and developing their finance teams whilst also managing key business decisions can prove difficult for today’s FD.

Matthieu Plessis, CFO at Efront, identified the fast pace of the role as a key challenge, explaining that “keeping things moving fast whilst not losing control is difficult”.

Paul Fowler, COO at Nicole Farhi, explains further “whilst you always have a priority list when certain things need doing, you never really know what is coming day to day. You can’t plan for accidents or emergencies, the finance director needs to be flexible and switch their time to where it’s most needed”.

The finance director must intuitively know which tasks, projects or business initiatives should take president over others. With many projects having the same level of importance, this can be a tough balancing act. Much like a seesaw, the finance director acts as the fulcrum of the business, which by definition is a structure that acts as a hinge and support to allow movement to happen easily.

If you have observed people on a seesaw, you may have noticed that the heavier person must sit closer to the fulcrum to allow things to happen. The finance director must intuitively position themselves closer to the more pressing issue to elevate a project’s importance whilst simultaneously lowering the priorities of others, in some cases removing them completely. To ensure an effective equilibrium is kept, the finance director must be flexible and able to adapt quickly and fundamentally make the right decisions to build and enforce a cohesive and successful strategy at the right time.

Simple physics mean that a lot of pressure needs to be applied to the fulcrum in order for it to work, which makes difficult situations and tough decision making an integral part of the FD’s role.