“You can chose to see the opportunity or the challenge”

6th Jul 20

Energetic, open-minded, keen to learn and always up for a challenge. They’re not the qualities most people expect to find in execs with an audit background. But they’re the hallmark of one well-travelled and dynamic finance leader we know…

Romana Murphy has always loved her job as CFO for EMEA and Asia at test equipment supplier Electro Rent Group. “I like an environment where you can make a difference,” she says. “Not too small, but not too large. And our services can be a real disruptor in the future.” Finding that kind of ‘goldilocks’ finance leadership position is partly down to the fact that she’s tried out most other types of finance career going.

Big accountancy firm? Check. Entrepreneurial growth business? Yep. Multinational blue chip? Of course. But more importantly than that variety of experience, her love for her current role comes down to its ability to satisfy her twin needs: inspiration and challenge. And those are both rooted back in her childhood.

Murphy was born Romana Panaitescu in Romania, and grew up under the former communist regime there in the 1980s. “After the regime fell, there was no safety net any more, and you could see in a short period the shift from people’s lives being boring and predictable to being full of risk and of opportunity,” she says. “For most people, it really was a daily question of whether you’d get what you need.”

It made her passionate about education and self-improvement. “That was also from my family,” she adds. “If my grandmother was alive after communism, she would have been CEO of a company which would be making a difference, that’s the kind of person she was! And that’s partly where I get my attitude: when a door closes, I need to open another ten and see where they go.”

Open the door, close the door [rpt.]

With that drive, it’s no surprise Murphy was picked up in her university’s ‘milk round’. “Arthur Andersen sent me an invitation, so I went along for an interview and got the job,” she recalls. “And that period remains an idyllic one in my memory. I met someone there who really shaped my professional thinking – Dan Popovici – and he pushed me to lead a team at a very young age.”

Handling complex engagements just a few months out of university didn’t faze her. On the contrary, it helped her bloom from being ‘a library mouse’ with a love of studying and theory, to developing leadership skills that have been key to her career.

Then Enron happened. “The managing partner in Romania brought us in and told us,” she says. (A reminder: the accounting scandal brought down the entire global Arthur Andersen brand.) “I didn’t really have a big reaction – I knew we would have to work through our live assignments and wait for talks to take place with other big firms. And while I was grateful for everything I learned at Arthur Andersen, it did force me to think about what I’d do next. It was another door opening.”

Even after just a year in post, Murphy had options in the profession. But when she’d been on a university placement in Barcelona, a few people had asked her to stick around in a business capacity. “After the Andersen collapse, that opportunity came back to mind,” she says. “So I decided to do an MBA, while consulting for a fast-growth business in Barcelona. I was told it would be a challenge. But it allowed me to expand my options.”

Think big, act small

The challenges of working with an energetic entrepreneur are very different from blue-chip accountancy, of course. “It taught me a lot about being a change agent and understanding how to realise opportunities when you don’t have access to huge resources,” Murphy says. “It also gave new dimensions to my leadership development, with more responsibility for finance, leading operational change and working out how finance can dovetail with operations better.”

She learned how to speak with non-financial people and work alongside a risk-taking CEO. “He just wanted stuff to happen – but helping underpin those ambitions, supporting growth, spin-offs and all the rest, really helped me see beyond finance.”

Energetic again…

It must have been a busy three years. But by 2006, the lure of larger organisations – perhaps because of what she’d learned in the growth business – became too much. She went back into practice, first at Grant Thornton before ending up at Ernst & Young in 2007. “For a young professional, the Big Four offers massive resources behind you, and I did want more of that,” she admits. “I’d grown as much as I could with the SME, so to keep developing, I needed to learn more things in a highly structured environment too.”

As an auditor, she was getting short-term assignments that required her to learn lots about a business in a very short time. “In that job you have to apply what you learn and marry deeper experiences with your gut instincts,” she says. “It was great – but quite early on I knew that I didn’t want to be a partner. I knew I needed to learn as much as possible then get out when I felt that slowing up – a clear mission.”

The lure of London

Murphy considered moving to London with EY, but BT was looking for someone to transform its internal audit function as the group bounced back from a period of significant write-downs. “So there was a commercial component as well as technical and leadership expertise,” she says. And as we’ve already seen, that blend was catnip to her, feeding her need for challenge.

“In fact they were worried whether I would stay because they knew I loved fast change – and BT as a corporate is a big and usually quite slow-moving environment,” she continues. “But in this case they moved faster. And then within a few years I moved to a very young and dynamic part of the business.”

There was very little in the way of processes or structures when she arrived at BT Security, incubating under Group – “just a desire to get the new business going and generating revenues,” she says. “Proving it could work was just the kind of challenge I like, so I designed the finance function structure, rolled out key processes and within 18 months it was already a £250m business. A year later, and it had doubled.”
Murphy admits that resourcing that kind of growth is easier in a multinational. “But if you work hard and keep opening doors, it will come good – regardless of size and the organisation’s drive to change. Finding those solutions is probably what defines me best.”

Coming up to date

After the blue chip experience – and especially once the business had attained a steady state – Murphy felt the itch for more direct responsibility. “Private equity seemed like the right choice for that,” she says. “Platinum Equity was seeking a commercial CFO for the business, and that’s how I ended up at Microlease – which became Electro Rent Group. They wanted someone with a technical background, plus drive and speed of action and who was not afraid of a challenge.” Right up her street, then.

“It’s been an amazing experience, not least because the group’s global CEO [now chairman], Nigel Brown has become one of the most important figures in my career,” she continues. “He’s exposed me to so many new areas in the group, not just finance but commercial, supplier and customer partnerships and much more. He’s one of those rare people with a combination of innate intelligence and hard work – but he’s also so good with people. That emotional intelligence coupled with intellect is really rare – and so valuable when you come across it.”

Covid 19 has added huge new challenges of course. “A big question is how to find the balance between efficiency and resilience,” Murphy says. “That’s been a significant focus for the management team. Finding that balance – especially in a private equity environment where profitability is such an important metric – is important if we are to remain ready to pick up opportunities and run with them.”

Electro Rent had a big advantage: its Asian businesses saw the pandemic developing early on, and that gave the team time to learn and focus. “We realised suppliers were key – not just the customers, at first – because we rely on our supply chain,” she says. “We needed to know our logistics suppliers’ strategies and whether we could rely on them to service our customers; then, what were our manufacturers’ strategies? We placed quite a few orders early on that have left us in a much better place because we’re ahead of the game as economies start to get going again.”

Like all the companies, the strains on our people resources has been challenging, she points out. But the silver lining – one door opens as another closes – is that the pandemic has shown us that reinvention is possible and necessary. That’s a message we should probably listen to: if anyone knows about reinvention, it’s Romana Murphy.

Romana Murphy on…

…Covid-19: “Scenario planning and looking at the real priorities for finance is key. What really matters to the business? What are the biggest opportunities? What metrics actually make a difference and when? Since January, we’ve been asking these questions and ensuring we have the resources to adapt.”

…what happens after the pandemic: “We all have to re-invent ourselves. A big part of that is being digital, that’s going to be huge. So much work is going to be mobile, for example, and a global digital workforce means far fewer resource constraints – you can access talent at a different scale. It’s also going to radically shake up the cost base. So commercially and personally, we need to learn new sustainable ways of living.”

…global businesses: “I fell in love with London and all the different cultures here immediately. A lot of people said, ‘well, it’s not laid back like in Spain…’ but they were surprised at my dynamism! But that’s really why I have moved around so much – I love to work in different kinds of environment.”

…making plans: “Once I build a vision about where something is going, I can start to think about what I contribute and how to help others on the journey. It’s not enough to see where you need to go. You need everyone to come with you.”