It’s actually not that uncommon to come across finance leaders who relish excitement. True, many see calm and stability as an intrinsic objective of solid financial management. But businesses are living entities – and for CFOs such as Julia, change and the chance to have a material effect on a company is what really matters.
She’s currently COO at Foundries.io, a cloud platform designed to both simplify and reduce the cost of developing, deploying and maintaining secure smart devices for both domestic and commercial uses. “This is a start-up – a much younger business that I’ve ever worked in before,” she says. “It’s shaking up the Internet of Things [IoT] – currently there is no equivalent of Android for the IoT Space, so we address this gap with our solutions.”
She’s worked in private equity backed situations before, of course: “I’ve relished the dynamism that often comes with that territory. I’m not very good at the routine, stable kind of finance director work. I’m much more interested by high growth, acquisitions and make-or-break decisions.” And a look back at her career shows no shortage of those…
Out of practice
Julia trained at KPMG and ended up in transaction services. “There was always a new deal round the corner,” she says. “Back then, there was a lot of international travel, lots of variety in the projects. It was exhausting, but it was a real buzz too. That’s probably what draws me to businesses that want to get things done quickly. My time at KPMG certainly shaped my skill-set for future workplaces.”
But there came a point when the partnership track stopped being enticing. “I guess you might call it ‘consultancy fatigue’,” she explains. “You get under the skin of a business, understand its risks and strategic drivers, but then just walk away. I’d got to a point when I wanted to test my knowledge against the reality of operations.”
When one of the businesses her team was preparing to float, TV Travel Group, asked her to join, she jumped at the chance. But the 9/11 terrorist attack – which had a catastrophic short-term effect on travel – wasn’t necessarily the kind of excitement she’d had in mind.
“We’d got a lot of the elements in place to float, we had deal opportunities, we’d launched new businesses – but that collapse in travel after the terrorist attacks was severe,” she recalls. “The business took a major hit to revenue, so the CFO role became strategic turnaround. We had a big job – addressing costs, raising new capital to see us through… but also looking at what shape the business needed to be to come out the other side.”
Pace of change
With a finance team 40-strong, Julia also learned a lot about leadership. “But there was so much paperwork!” she says. “Luckily, because I’d been involved in preparing the long-form report ahead of flotation, I’d been able to hit the ground running, I knew the finances in some detail. But you learn a lot when you have to marry that to team organisation, management, strategy and communication.”
She stayed on after the business was sold. But then the Group FC role came up at Lastminute.com. Here was a high-profile business, listed in the US and the UK, with a CFO (David Howell) who was very much a deal-doer. That meant as well as overseeing all the controls, projections and treasury, Julia was much more exposed to the City and specialist areas like tax and internal audit.
“We did five acquisitions in my first six months, so as well as that big FC role I was also in charge of getting new businesses onto our systems – all finance executives will understand the challenge of shifting people from Excel to Oracle. So there was plenty to keep me interested.”
When Howell left in 2005, a move up to the CFO role didn’t materialise. “And with a big slow-down in deal-doing, the FC role was started to get more repetitive,” Julia says. “Right from the start, I wanted to be across the whole business, [and really enjoyed the non organic growth of the business] so seeing the horizon shrink back to just reporting was my signal to start looking again.”
Building (with questionable foundations)
Looking for a change of scene, Julia spent a year as interim Group FC at construction group Mowlem – a big change from lastminute.com. But, for reasons outside her control, it soon transpired this highly traditional business wasn’t going to be boring. “I joined the new top team – and found that when the business was placed under stress it showed cracks,” she recalls. “In fact, it was much more of a turnaround situation. It wasn’t exactly sold to me that way, but my interviewer did at one point have his head in his hands!”
Valuation issues created something of a fire-fighting job. “At one point we had four firms of accountants sitting in the business – some working for us, but others for the banks or potential purchasers,” she recalls. “Meanwhile I was project-managing a bunch of workstreams trying to establish the true financial situation.” Eventually the business was sold for £291m to Carillion – a process Julia describes as incredibly hard work in a short time-frame, but also great fun.
CSC Media Group, the UK’s largest private multichannel broadcaster, was a return to the digital arena. With prior experience of both TV and PE-backed businesses, Julia was in her element. “It was great fun, a young organisation running exciting TV channels,” she says. “And for the first year, things went really well – the numbers were all going in the right direction, we launched six new channels on top of ten existing once and were building out the web presence.”
But the finance function gods clearly like to test this CFO. And when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the advertising market took a big hit. “Although it was a buy-and-build strategy, we’d actually chosen not to buy a couple of style channels at the top of the market, which turned out to be a great decision,” she says. “But hunkering down also meant thinning out the board. So after a bit more interim work, I decided to see what else was out there.”
She found Amino Technologies, a set-top box manufacturer that looked interesting. It was setting out a high-growth strategy and had just picked up a major tier-one customer in Italy – with potential demand for millions of units that would quadruple the size of the business.
You can guess what happened next. “I came in as CFO at the end of the financial year and found… it had run out of cash,” she says. “Worse, the new contract turned out to be loss-making. So almost immediately I was back in a turnaround situation.”
Luckily the COO Donald McGarva replaced the old CEO – and in him Julia found a willing partner in tackling profitability and ‘productising’ the business. “After five years, we’d got the balance sheet into great shape – £20m of cash on there and running a healthy profit,” she says. “We were even able to make strategic acquisitions in the software market – including a competitor that had been undercutting us, which revolutionised the strategy to transform the business model.”
It’s a reminder of how valuable it is for a CFO to be working with a really good CEO. But for Julia, other priorities were also creeping in.
“I had kids relatively late, and commuting to Cambridgeshire from London while balancing home life, caring for children, hobbies – it was not sustainable,” she says. “Balance isn’t just an HR policy; it’s how you manage life. But you do get more from your people if you help them find their own balance, too. And for me, in 2016, that balance was best achieved by returning to consulting.”
But, a couple of years later, a new opportunity cropped up. And by now it won’t be any surprise to read that the mission Julia chose was far from straightforward. “I went into streaming music service 7digital with a new CEO when the group was insolvent and at high risk of being put into administration – so it was a pretty stressful reintroduction,” she says.
Being AIM listed meant the company could go to the market and raise some capital in 2019 – but the share price took a major blow. “The comfort in a situation that’s already bad is that you can only make it better,” Julia says. “If things go majorly wrong on your watch, that feels terrible. But if you come in specifically to fix something bad, you can only do your best. And whether or not that’s good enough, the experience is valuable: you develop new skills and resources – in leadership and in nuts-and-bolts financial management. We managed to fund the company – so the mission was certainly a success!”
Plan for the best, prepare for the worst
Julia’s latest assignment began in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic – she didn’t even get to meet her CEO at Foundries.io for a couple of months. But after a career seeking out – and often stumbling across – dramatic situations, she’s taken it in her stride.
“My career changes have often been driven by events rather than some grand plan,” she says. “In those situations, there are often changes within the business, an exit or some other external factor pushing you into new roles or responsibilities.”
And in many ways, that marriage of technical skill, hard work and the need to partner and motivate people goes right back to her early days. “Although I studied maths originally, I focused on combined sciences and also ended up studying psychology and economics – those disciplines just really interested me,” she says.
“I’m not sure how often I get to apply my knowledge of psychology! But I don’t think you can be a leader or even a manager without having some interest in people and what motivates them.” And there’s no better time to observe what people are really capable of than a tricky situation – which makes Julia Hubbard an extremely valuable CFO.