“What’s the lever we don’t see yet that could change the game?”

4th May 20

Few CFOs will have faced times as testing as the coronavirus pandemic. But Tamsin Ashmore has already had her share of finance leadership on the edge. She’s looking at the lockdown as another opportunity to learn about herself, her business – and drawing on the resilience her other tough roles have given her. She talked to Richard Young.

The conversation turned immediately to the Coronavirus lockdown. After all, every finance leader was preoccupied with it at the start of April when we caught up with Ultima Business Solutions CFO Tamsin Ashmore.

“Covid-19 is really tough,” she says. “One huge worry for a CFO right now is not having any visibility. It’s so difficult to do even the most basic forecasting and budgeting at a time like this. But I’m very lucky to be in a technology business. [Ultima offers managed IT services, cyber security, robotic process automation, cloud and data centre optimisation.] When I think of CFOs in hospitality or in airlines, it must be just so hard.”

The pandemic is certainly a shared crisis. For most of us, for example, the first month of the lockdown “felt like a decade,” says Ashmore. “And we’d been working really hard preparing for six weeks before the lockdown. The signs were there from China – a CFO has to be a bit of a misery-guts. So at the end of January we were saying we had to get ready. A CFO absolutely has to highlight downside risks – and, of course, your eight week cash flow forecast will keep you on your toes.”

But Ashmore doesn’t just bring the stereotypical CFO’s caution to the table. She’s applying lessons in positivity and creativity she’s learned throughout her career – not least from one of her toughest assignments…

Turning stress into resilience

That job was as CFO of the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group. A recap: celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his eponymous eatery in 2008 (after successfully opening reality show-based restaurant Fifteen in 2002), quickly scaling up to 61 restaurants in 25 countries. But the group over-reached in an industry famous for financial woes.

In February 2018, it attempted to cauterise losses with CVAs and the closure of 12 branches. But the slide continued. Ashmore arrived towards the end of the year with an almost impossible mission: save the business.

“I went into Jamie’s to deliver a turnaround – and I learned so much in my seven months there,” Ashmore recalls. “Within four weeks of arriving, I’d had to dig out the story and relate it to the banks and other key stakeholders. It wasn’t pretty.”

Her experience at Jamie’s was exhausting: 90-hour weeks for seven months. “Having 1,400 people’s salaries on your shoulders isn’t something that allows you to pause,” she says. “And until you’ve been in a place where you think you’re not going to make payroll, you can’t really understand how that feels.”

Eventually it became clear the fight could not be won. In May 2019, KPMG was appointed as administrator and most of the remaining restaurants were closed. But the point, says Ashmore, is not whether you succeed or fail (especially given the scale of the task). It’s how you approach the challenge – and what you take from it.

“You have to drive hard at those kinds of situations and decide that you’re going learn everything you can from it, let it suck you dry – throw yourself into the deep end and work your butt off, but learn,” she says. “I gained so many insights into how people operate in a crisis; how you keep your finance team going when they are right on the front line; and how you pick yourself up each day to go again.”

And these, she admits, are traits that are serving her well during the current lockdown. “It was an arduous and emotionally draining experience – and it’s really helped give me empathy for what everyone’s going through now,” she says.

Mind you, she also took three months off after Jamie’s just to recover – a reminder that these lessons are hard won. It’s a very unwise CFO who doesn’t nurture their own reserves and wellbeing, the better to tackle fresh challenges.

“After Jamie’s, one headhunter offered to help me find a job because, they said, ‘it’ll be more difficult now’ with that on my CV,” she recalls. “I was absolutely gobsmacked. I told them, ‘I’m going to be the best asset to a business, I’ve learned what could be around the corner, I can pick up every unturned stone for any business.’ Experience is a huge store of wealth.”

Not always tough, always a challenge

Let’s be clear at this point. You don’t need to have been through an existential crisis to develop as a finance leader. But you do need to have a dedication to learning. One lens Ashmore uses to look back on her career is the CEOs she’s worked alongside. Having chemistry is vital, she says, but the partnership should also be revelatory for you as CFO.

Example? “I worked for a great CEO at Technicolor – Christian Roberton taught me so much,” says Ashmore. “What he does phenomenally well is think about the gaps in the market, about how you could look at something differently. He sees everything that happens as an opportunity to grow revenue and profitability.”

Grow they did: in the two years Ashmore spent there, the visual effects (VFX) business doubled in size. Roberton was relentless. “For example, the order book was strong, and EBITDA was healthy, but he still asked, ‘what would you do with £2m to improve the business?’” she recalls. “We were spending a lot on software licences, so I suggested a JV to recapture some of the costs. He just said, ‘why not build our own software business?’ We went from 15 to 150 software engineers in a year.”

There were plenty of other creative moments – such as building an internal recruitment business to manage talent shortages as the business expanded globally. “It’s about always looking for opportunities,” says Ashmore. “What’s the lever we don’t quite see yet that we could use to change the game?”

Crucially, the CEO expected his CFO to do the same with her team – like the project to get the finance function articulating all the jobs that they hated, and then brainstorming ways they might go about fixing them. (A great project for your own lockdown finance guys…)

What’s on your CFO role checklist?

Ashmore took the role at Jamie’s because, although she enjoyed the partnership with Roberton, she longed for exposure to the make-or-break elements of treasury – the full responsibilities of a main board CFO. That was something she couldn’t get in a corporate subsidiary, however dynamic.

Jamie’s perhaps provided a surfeit of those elements. So Ashmore cooked up a clever plan during her three month breather to prepare for her next role: a checklist. “I was told it was a ‘tough market’ that would mean I’d wait ages before I got a role,” she says. “But I ignored all that and focused on what I wanted.” (Coming across EquityFD didn’t hurt – we know the value of the lessons Ashmore learned over the years…)

“I wrote a nine-point list,” she continues. “They included having a CEO who I really wanted to work for, a visionary with commercial nous. I wanted to work for an ambitious investment fund – but that would give me a level of independence as CFO and were people I could have a drink with. I wanted to work in tech – which is a constantly changing environment. And I wanted to be able to do the school run!”

She followed up interviews based on how many of her nine points a role could tick. “Being clear on what you want – and what will bring you joy every day – is a huge part of finding the right job,” she says. “This job is why I wanted to be CFO – to help steer the ship in a way that makes a real difference, to work alongside a CEO in a synergistic way, as a unit.”

Applied resilience: planning through the pandemic

All of which adds up to great preparation for the current situation. Having a CFO with Ashmore’s resilience will be a major plus through the lockdown and recession. And it will be an intense learning experience, too.

“All finance people going through this pandemic should remember that,” she stresses. “My FC is very new in her role, it was a big step up. I tell her: what you’re learning now will stand you in good stead to be a finance director one day. You might be really annoyed or frustrated or stressed by a situation – but learning how to harness and use that to make positive changes in the future is part of the job. Always take the lessons out of your career.”

And even in an extreme situation, you can’t lose sight of the future. “As a CFO you need both the technical and emotional sides,” says Ashmore. “One of the most energising things you can do for a board in a time of stress is focus on the opportunities – to support creative solutions, because they’re desperately needed.

“For example, you need salespeople motivated by new possibilities, not just survival,” she continues. “If you push everyone into fighting the crisis, you’ll end up swallowed by it. At Jamie’s, for example, we scenario-planned what we’d do if we got a big cash injection. Money no object! That changes the mindset. Same applies now: we need to look at what amazing things we can do for clients, not focus on falling budgets or late payment.”

That’s not to say you lose the finance discipline – you still have to be that misery-guts to some extent. But it’s clear that alongside doggedness and determination, being a great finance leader these days must also be about vision and growth – both profit and personal.

Ashmore on Covid-19…

…and the CEO relationship: “Keep your CEO boosted and focused on strategic issues – it’s important they don’t get bogged down in the immediate issues. It’s not just about survival. You need the creative minds thinking how we come out of this healthier.”
…and the CFO workload: “You have legal, IT, HR and property under your remit. So everything directly related to Covid-19 is my responsibility – from remote working and IT continuity, to reviewing contracts and credit terms with that additional risk lens.”
…and customer engagement: “I’m on the phone with client CFOs and procurement heads, and CTOs chatting about payment plans and just how they’re doing. Helping them manage their own situation is the right thing to do – and it sustains relationships.”
…and risk and flexibility: “Maybe I can’t increase my risk exposure to a client, they need to know that. You can’t bend to everyone right now. The CFO’s responsibility is not to be the nice guy. But if we can agree a flexible approach that’s realistic and helps us both, let’s talk.”
…and confidence: “I say to my CEO, the business worked well at £15m turnover, it worked well at £45m turnover – it doesn’t have to be the same size to be successful, we just have to be ahead of the game on planning. It might be a different shape a year from now.”
…and practicalities: “I tell my credit control team: be the best friends of our clients’ accounts payable clerks. We want to be their preferred choice. And I’m asking my own team: how are you using the commute time you’re saving? Are you going for a run, spending time with your family – we need to make the most of the enforced controls.”
…and horizons: “Right now, it’s tech and contracts; then cash runway; then the strategic issues. But the world in Q3 is going to be very different from Q2 and on a different trajectory from the year just ended. A week feels like a month, so your ‘strategic plan’ is what you do right after this intense decline – 18 months isn’t ‘medium term’ anymore!”