Contemporary FD 2017: the wrap-up 23 Mar 2017
The second annual Contemporary FD event brought together 139 delegates, 19 speakers... and a raft of new ideas for navigating choppy waters ahead.
The thing about clichés, they say, is that they only become so by being true. And while it’s infuriating that every other business article or positioning paper these days begins, “the business world is changing fast and we face a period of unprecedented uncertainty,” it’s hard not to acknowledge that companies – and their finance directors – are indeed navigating choppy waters right now.
At Contemporary FD, the event created by EquityFD and produced in association with Smith & Williamson, we aimed to give delegates a bit of a steer on how to make it through unscathed.
Unlike most events for finance folk, the emphasis is never on number-crunching or the latest change to the tax code. And in its second year, Contemporary FD stuck to its principles: “no PowerPoint, no pitches, no press” – which means delegates are spared the usual sponsors’ sales chat from the stage.
Instead, the FDs in the room got a wide-ranging and compelling tour through the mindset of risk-takers (and risk managers); the key non-finance disciplines they need to manage; and shared ideas on the major external business risk factor of the day, Brexit.
After the 2016 event, we decided to shake up the formats – mixing presentations, interviews, panel discussions and delegate brain-storming. And the three keynote speakers offered a range of views, too.
Kevin Cahill, for 19 years CEO of Comic Relief, offered an insight into high-profile, high-growth leadership. Taking the charity from £27m raised to £99m (plus £55m for his own brain-child, Sport Relief) was no easy feat in the glare of publicity. “In the early stages of a project – the fast-growth period where you need to get things off the ground as quick as possible – you have less to lose and it’s easier to back creative, untested ideas,” he said. “As you scale up, the downside risks become much more apparent.” But you have to keep being creative and embracing those risks to survive.
Mike Wroe, the lunchtime interview, recounted his journey as CFO of JustEat. He joined when it was little more than a start-up (“I was still cleaning the toilets if we had an investor dropping by for a visit,” he admitted) and steered it through hyper-growth and an IPO to a £4bn valuation. “The thing about growing businesses fast is that you’re going to have plenty of failures as well as successes,” he stressed – reminding the FD delegates that an ability to roll with the punches is always valuable. “It was good to see that being a start-up FD is doable,” said one delegate later. Indeed it is.
The day ended with Major-General Jonathan Shaw, former head of the Parachute Regiment, British special forces and Assistant Chief of Defence Staff – a role that saw him lead UK preparedness for risks like biological weapons and cyber attack. His analysis was at times chilling, positing existential threats to the Western way of life. But in the business arena, he was more positive. High-growth SMEs have “ the advantages of flexibility, agility and the ability to adapt to uncertainties," he explained. "In the bigger organisations, people’s scope for decision-making is curtailed. It’s hard to be instinctive and inductive.”
The expert eye
Contemporary FD understands that the key CFO decisions today are just as likely to be around data, marketing, people and tech as accounting standards. (The finance is the buy-in – you can’t afford to mess it up, but it’s not going to help you justify your existence, either.)
Panel sessions on the changing nature of marketing and the increasingly important application of data and analytics to businesses had delegates taking copious notes. “I left with a significant ‘to do’ list following the matters raised and discussed,” one told us later.
The data session, in particular, covered a lot of ground – from smarter uses of customer data, though privacy and cyber defence and on to robotic process automation of data-driven functions. (Don’t worry: the FD’s job is safe. For now.)
And in the spirit of Mike Wroe’s call to learn from mistakes, we found in the feedback for this session a great tip for Contemporary FD 2018: “Have a longer day. It would have been better to have more detail on the data – I found that quite a top-level chat and it’s a very big subject.” Duly noted.
The response to the two briefings on supporting innovation were less mixed. We learned absolutely nothing about how to improve next year thanks to uniformly positive noises about Google’s Tim Wollias and ScaleUp Institute guru Sherry Coutu (who’s adviser to more stellar-growth tech businesses than she can list on her LinkedIn profile… a business she’s on the board of, incidentally).
Tim stressed the value of innovation culture – and protecting an entrepreneurial, open management style even if you grow to 75,000 employees, like Google. Sherry urged CFOs to get their people looking not for the two-times or even ten-times growth stories – but the 1,000 and 10,000 times ones. Whether you’re growing a market or blitzing entire business models, it’s the ambitious who win out in this world of disruption and rapid scale-up.
The Brexit challenge
The biggest innovation for 2017 was the table discussion session, where FDs and CFOs shared their own board’s approaches and concerns surrounding Brexit. Cheated by Theresa May – the Article 50 Bill was passed on the day of the event, but triggering it would not happen until the end of the month – delegates nevertheless found plenty to discuss as their gear up to navigate this most momentous of risks.
We’ll be summarising the output from the table groups soon. But a couple of messages came through loud and clear. Actually, that was the first of them: British business needs clarity more than anything. For the FDs in the room, it’s not so much the change that’s troubling as the lack of clear-cut decisions.
They wanted other Cs too – a clean break, with costs managed and minimal complexity. Interestingly, many of the delegates were looking to the long-term, too, focusing on the need to be proactive on education and training, and to seize the opportunity of what the government would call “industrial strategy”.
Did it work? Yes, but we took away plenty of tips to make Contemporrary FD 2018 even better. Our practitioner panel offering throughts on Brexit worked well, but some FDs wanted more time and structure for their discussions – a lesson we’ll apply next year. But we were heartened by this feedback: “Brexit discussions by table worked well. I’m often wary or nervous of small talk, and don’t especially like networking. But the hosts of this event did a great job of creating a warm reception. Mingling seemed, if not effortless, then certainly easier.”
That is music to our ears: the event is designed to be a peer-to-peer mind-share as much as anything, and delegate networking has always been at the heart of our planning. “I obtained the details of several delegates and am in the process of making contact with them,” said one happy FD. We’re delighted.
Well, almost. The reason we all like working with FDs is that you generally get an unvarnished opinion – even on refreshments: “3pm felt a little early for wine (well, for a Tuesday) though many people commented that the early-ish finish was welcome.” Hmm. Anything else? “Really, the day was pretty much perfect, right down to the food – thank you.” You’re welcome.
And this delegate has given us our promo blurb for the Contemporary FD 2018: “Excellent and entertaining – speakers covering a broad range of commercial, political and professional growth topics under the umbrella of ‘risk’. Without doubt the most well planned and well led full day event I’ve attended.”
We’re so happy you had a great time. Drop EquityFD a line and tell us what you’d like to see us cover next year.