Now in its fourth year, Contemporary FD 2019 - EquityFD's invitation-only event for growth company FDs – took as its theme ‘CFOs of the Global Frontier’. The audience of over 130 FDs, CFOs and other finance execs of growth business was treated to a grand tour through several dimensions of scaling their business beyond borders.
Appropriate, then, that the kick-off keynote was from Mark Tanzer, Chief Executive of ABTA (left), the travel industry body. It’s easy to forget that even without 30 years of globalisation, there are businesses that have been managing international value chains successfully for generations. And, as Tanzer pointed out, they’ve also been at the forefront of critical global trends like sustainability and innovation.
They’ve also been quietly getting their own approach to Brexit sorted out. As Tanzer explained, while the politicians are debating amongst themselves, ABTA and other industry bodies have been ensuring aircraft can fly and tourist visas can be kept simple, whatever the outcome of the negotiations.
Brexit has been lingering around UK businesses like an unwanted houseguest who’s yet to discover where the shower is – you’ve no idea when they’re going to leave, their presence means you can’t make any firm plans and you’re pretty sure they’re going to leave a nasty odour behind when they do go. When we were planning this year’s Contemporary FD, we had expected to be free of it my 2 May. No such luck, so while the first panel of the day had been intended as a look forward to a post-transition period world, inevitably they ended up sharing their ongoing experience of planning for the eventual outcome.
For the CFOs on the panel, the tone was resolute: plan for every eventuality and look outward to global opportunities. That might mean building up a base in the EU; or continuing the drive for new markets in the US, China and India. Like all good FDs, the aim is to balance risk, reward and opportunity.
Our two ‘briefing’ sessions this year can from Dr Imran Zawwar (executive development strategist at Cranfield, left) and Dave Springsteen (a tax expert from CLA in Florida). Zawwar took guests on a tour through the need for a lean, agile approach to running their businesses – the only way to scale in a digitised world or fast innovation and intense competition. Spingsteen gave the invited FDs a springboard into the US market, running through his top ten areas to watch when going over the Pond.
In both cases, attention to detail was the watchword. It’s great to have bold ambitions – whether going beyond the borders of your country or your business model. But without allying that ambition and entrepreneurialism to the discipline of the ‘traditional’ FD role, it’s easy to stumble.
The second panel of the day explored ways to establish and secure international bridgeheads. It quickly became apparent that there’s no one way to go. For some businesses, setting up a large market feels compelling. It’s complicated (as Dave Springsteen has explained…), but gives control of the culture of the new business. Others are drawn overseas by a major client who wants support for their own international operations. Buying businesses to gain a local footprint can work well regardless of what draws your abroad - and also means sidestepping some tricky issues such as opening a bank account. (Seriously: this remains a huge headache for FDs setting up overseas...) And the delegates heard a combination of buying to gain access to the local culture and building out the existing business model and culture is a really effective mix.
Online commerce also gives an international presence and now underpins all of these options. But don’t be seduced, delegates were warned. Smart analysis of your digital exposure to new markets is essential if you’re to pick your expansion targets successfully. And there’s no substitute for local knowledge and culture.
Tom Ilube is no stranger to life overseas – or to digital businesses. After an international childhood, he settled into a corporate career in the UK before realising that he had to vent his entrepreneurial urges. In an inspirational interview, he explained that his new businesses literally start with a single desk in a small office and a flipchart featuring a very short to-do list: “think of an idea.”
Having been involved in some of the UK’s more successfully digital and financial services ideas, it clearly works. But his restlessness also led him to establish schools in Ghana to support girls education in STEM. Successful in corporates; bootstrapping multi-entrepreneur; reformer of the establishment (as BBC board member in charge of diversity); and philanthropist. No wonder delegates went to lunch buzzing.
The stage was buzzing after lunch, too, with Patrick Dunne’s ‘Directors’ Dilemmas’ session, where delegates’ own board-level problems were talked through with a panel of seasoned execs. Situations included a troublesome CEO whose shareholding had gone to his head; a narcissist deputy CEO creating succession dilemmas; and coping with senior management rebels in overseas subsidiaries. Honestly? You had to be there, but if Dunne is free for CFD 2020, this hit session will be on the cards again.
And to round out the day, an emotional and inspirational story of finding ultimate success in an overseas market. Crista Cullen has retired from international hockey for three years when we was called up to the GB squad a few months before the Rio Olympics. She explained how the team found its motivation and discipline – even as they competed for limited places in the side – that resulted in an unbeaten run to gold. Truly inspiring – yet another stunning keynote for Contemporary FD to round out our fourth year.