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Finance stars of today and tomorrow


Personality, integrity and a sense of humour are vital to today’s stand-out CFOs

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The job of a chief financial officer in one of the toughest economic climates may be a thankless task, but it is a critical one. A good CFO can make the difference between a struggling company surviving or failing. There are undoubtedly companies out there that owe their survival to the finance chief who is feverishly negotiating with bankers late into the night on a Friday when the rest of the office has gone home.

CFOs, some of whom have never worked through a recession before, have been vital to helping their companies navigate the financial crisis of the past four years. They have secured financing in a virtual dearth of credit or debit facilities, they have reassured jittery investors, they have managed the businesses for growth despite aggressive cost-cutting, they have had to find a way to balance short- and long-term objectives and they have led the finance team as it has become ever more unpopular. No wonder CFOs are feeling battle-scarred.

But despite the challenges, the crisis has also given CFOs the chance to prove just what they’re capable of. Strategists? Tick. Negotiators? Tick. Communicators? Tick. Innovators? Tick. CFOs who tick all the boxes have an unprecedented opportunity to make their mark. So what does it take to be a star in today’s finance world?

“Clearly leadership is an important quality,” says Mark Freebairn, head of the financial management practice at headhunter Odgers Berndtson. “As is the ability to cut costs to the right level to move the business forward without hurting it. They need to be able to get the confidence of the board and of the external marketplace so that they have the ability to raise credit if the business needs it.” He also identifies personality, integrity and gravitas as essential attributes of a star CFO – oh, and a good sense of humour.

A broader view

“They have to have a more commercial view, not just stay in their ivory tower,” adds Gillian Lees, head of corporate governance at CIMA.

“They need to be able to connect the dots. They also need to be a partner but be tough enough to stand back and not go along with the crowd. Sometimes they might see the whole of the business going in one direction and they have to have the courage to say, ‘That’s not right’. They have to be able to stand up to the chief executive.”

But it’s not just the challenges faced since 2008 that will shape the finance leaders of the future. The likely period of sluggish economic growth over the next four to five years will also present plenty of hurdles. Star CFOs must be able to motivate the business and the finance team and know how to beat their competitors to growth opportunities when they see them.

“The skills they need will be no different from the skills of today,” says Freebairn. “But there will be an added focus on competitive elements and managing a team who are immensely frustrated with the sixth year of cost cutting.”

Five to watch

Here are five CFOs to watch during 2012 and beyond

Suzanne Baxter

Suzanne Baxter, aged 44, has been group finance director of outsourcing company MITIE since 2006. Despite operating in a fiercely competitive sector and in a torrid economic climate, MITIE has consistently delivered strong financial results. It notched up a 10 percent increase in revenues to £1.9 billion for the year ended 31 March 2011 (its most recent published results), with pre-tax profits up 15.3 percent to £105.7 million.

Suzanne Baxter, MitieShe also renegotiated £250 million in bank facilities during the year and raised £100 million on the US private placement market in December 2010, putting it in a strong funding position. Baxter, who plays an important strategic role within the company, is instrumental in its financial success.

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Finance stars of today and tomorrow
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