By Louise Chaplin. Published on 11 June 2015
It’s just over two years since Stephen Wilson joined Genus plc as Group Finance Director, leading a team of around 130 finance people based in different locations around the world. Headquartered in Basingstoke, Genus operates in over 25 countries, working with dairy, beef and pig farmers worldwide, providing them with superior genetic products to boost the production of high quality meat and milk. Louise Chaplin, Partner, Executive Search Finance at Eton Bridge Partners spoke to him about his role and found out why he believes being a Group FD is like being a navigator on a ship.
LC: Describe your role
SW: It’s a very broad one. As well as the more traditional CFO activity, IT reports to me and all M&A activity is within my remit, as is strategy development. In many ways it’s a strongly operational role which touches on all areas of the business.
LC: Has the role changed since your arrival
SW: Five years ago, Genus was like many UK mid-cap companies, it had grown in a way which was decentralised and geographically disparate. Operations and finance activity reflected that, the FD role was less commercial and more focused around traditional reporting methods.
Since then, the business has grown, changing from a ‘big little company’ into a ‘little big company’. One of my goals has been to standardise and centralise control, ensuring that things are done to the same standards of excellence around the world.
LC: How have you achieved that?
SW: We’ve taken the best practices from our global operations and looked to implement those systems throughout the organisation, giving us a clear sense of strategic purpose. We now have shared service centres delivering basic accounting activity and business focused CFOs who are true business partners working very closely with the different divisions and business units.
We still have some work to do, but building our systems and our capacity is one of our main thrusts.
LC: How easy was it to persuade people to change?
SW: A lot of it is about the expectations you put in place. If you set an expectation that you will be operating as a real global team of finance people, pursing the same standards of excellence around the world, then it’s a different emphasis compared to one person in a country serving the local country leader. It’s an education process and it’s all about changing the culture and direction of where you should be going.
Good communications and people engagement is very important. You have to be very visible and ensure that people understand what they are doing and why things are changing.
Interestingly, the finance team were very keen to follow this route, so for me it was like pushing on an open door. Everyone could see this was the way we should develop. Of course, as you start to put new systems in place and inevitably there will be changes along the way.
LC: What were some of the issues you came across?
SW: The ability to align data and ensure it is measured and managed in the same way is really important when you are running a global business. You need to know that a particular metric means the same, no matter which country you are operating in. Beforehand we didn’t have that level of process. We’ve worked hard to build up our business partnering and financial planning and analysis capability – you can only succeed with the right people and the right systems in place.
LC: Tell us how you found those people
SW:The first move was to take on a new group controller, after which we started to define expectations and look at how we could separate out the different roles, such as a new head of FP&A. It was important to get the right skill levels in place and we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted. Some of the new team have worked in larger organisations and they were able to bring with them the examples of good practice that you find in bigger companies. Their expectation of what “good looks like” is what I was looking for and Eton Bridge Partners was able to help identify some of those people.
LC: Has it been easier to manage the new finance structure in a growth economy?
SW: Because we’re an agricultural biotech company operating in a global marketplace, what’s happening in the UK economy has been less relevant. For us, it’s much more about what’s going on in agriculture markets and these are very cyclical.
We have a very strong focus on science, and using biotechnology to create the next generation of elite genetics. It’s about using that emphasis to ensure we grow as a global organisation and especially in the countries which really matter to us, such as the US, Brazil and China.
LC: What’s your growth strategy?
SW: We have been pursing both an organic and inorganic growth strategy. There have been a number of acquisitions which have been very successful and, as we grow and increase our global footprint, part of that will include ensuring we acquire the technology to enable us to stay further ahead of the competition.
In the agricultural world though, you always have to take quite a long term view, as there are basic biological facts that you simply can’t change. You are dealing with a two-three year life cycle just to allow an animal to grow to the point where it delivers milk, so you always have to think about different time frames and have strategies that are going to deliver performance over continuous time periods. It’s about working on things for today, tomorrow and the day after, and doing that simultaneously, otherwise the business won’t prosper.
LC: You were previously with Misys and before that IBM. How different is this environment?
SW: It certainly is different, but it’s very interesting. If I told people at a dinner party I was in financial services software, that was the end of the conversation. Now, if I say I work for a genetic improvement company breeding pigs and cows, everyone has an opinion.
As far as the role itself is concerned, being a CFO is a transferable skill and I think coming from a different industry has been very helpful. I believe that the breeding business we are in has a lot of similarities with software as a service. I use plenty of analogies from the software world when I’m explaining how this business operates. People need to understand what we do more clearly. Effectively, we’re saying that if you’re a farmer, you take out a subscription with a genetic improvement firm and then we charge you a monthly licence fee for our services – much like in the software world.
LC: What strengths do you think you bring?
SW: Strong analytical and strategic capabilities. It’s about doing detailed analyses, but also having the ability to think sufficiently about how you create real business value. I’ve also had plenty of experience in the art of getting transactions done.
LC: How would you sum up your role?
SW: I tend to think about finance as being a little like a navigator on a ship. You are not the ship’s captain because that is the CEO, but you are probably the next most important person and you have to plot the course to the harbour on the other side of the ocean. Once you set sail and you are out in the middle of the ocean there are two important jobs – do you know where you are: because if you don’t then you are in trouble; and secondly, what do you have to do now to get to your objective: because you may have been blown off course or have to navigate round an obstacle.
The analogy of navigating a ship is the one that I think gives a sense of what the job is really all about.
Louise specialises in the recruitment of CFOs, Divisional FDs, Group/ Divisional Controllers, and M&A/ Corporate Development across London, the South East and increasingly further afield.