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Fingers in Many Pies

Freedom to manoeuvre means CFO Pell isn't looking to go permanent

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Vivien Pell is a part time CFO for a number of clients ranging from biotech to IT to construction outfits through her own company, JVP Consultants, although she admits this wasn’t as a result of any carefully concocted career plan.

“I was the FD at Sirus Pharmaceutical and we sold it,” she recalls of her last full-time post. It took five or six months to do the deal so there was no time for job hunting. I was asked to do that handover period and that started me off. With the exception of one, from there for the last six years all the clients have come in from word of mouth.”

There’s more to the role than just being a freelancer, Pell argues, and there are hardships to endure to go with the freedom and rich tapestry of the life.

“I don’t appear or disappear and doing it this way is far harder. I work much longer hours and you’re treated as if the company you’re working for is your only one. With some of the longer contracts you get invited to the Christmas parties and curry nights. I worked until 12.30 the other night but I’m married to a CEO and we don’t have children; otherwise it would be very difficult to do this.”

There are upsides of course, notably working across all types of company from biotech and IT through hardware and even a taxi firm.

“That’s the fun bit: everybody’s different. They’re all ‘cash is king’ at the moment of course. And cashflow, forecasting, budgeting are standard across the board but the CEOs are very different types of people.”

Fresh Eyes and Wisdom
She is often brought in as a wise head to consult on strategy as well as fulfilling the accounting requirement.

“I do a limited amount of bean counting, the least I can get away with. What’s interesting is being a sounding board. Smaller companies don’t necessarily have a full-blown board structure and I’m totally independent. That’s the enjoyable thing.”

But against that, Pell notes that she doesn’t get the chance to earn stock options the way a 'permie' might, although she adds that when a full-timer she had options that came to nought anyhow.

She began her career at PwC in Norwich, most of the time in the insolvency world. “That gave me a feeling for business,” she recalls. “On the personal side it’s hard because you’re dealing hands on with an individual but on the business side, quite honestly they’re relieved to see you as they’ve tried everything possible so it’s not as hard as you might think.”

She then spent two-and-a-half years at Travis Perkins (now Caterpillar) as the financial manager of its tech division.

Colour by Numbers
“I worked out large companies are not for me,” she says with admirable frankness. “I wanted to make a difference and I couldn’t. They didn’t want anyone rocking the boat.”

Pell contends that the job of CFO is polymorphous and it’s not a good idea to talk about CFOs who are numbers-focused and those that are strategic types. “There're huge numbers of shades of grey and you have to adjust,” she says. “Being an accountant you tend to want it to be black and white, but it isn’t.”

However, she’s all for CFOs getting involved across the gamut where it makes sense.

“In a software company you might contribute in contracts, creating the legal entity, capturing information and helping to get ahead of the game. I wouldn’t get involved in drafting patents but I could talk about the cost of creating them worldwide rather than in individual countries. I’ve picked up knowledge as I’ve gone along and I’ve got contacts in banks, accountants and other firms so I can introduce people.”

Experience has shown her that whatever problems companies face, inertia is not the solution. “The worst thing you can do is do nothing, sit on your hands and hope it will go away,” she advises.


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