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From City to Corporate – The Journey of a City Analyst to a Plc CFO

Reading Time: 9 minutes

The individuals in the C-Suite and Non-Executive seats around any boardroom often vary in backgrounds to compliment the business appropriately. No stranger to this is the CFO, where boards may at times look outside of the traditional accounting candidate pool to source their top finance position.

This interview explores the route of an Investment Banking Analyst to Chief Financial Officer. Analysts, who are traditionally not qualified accountants, bring with them a diverse way of thinking and can approach financial strategy from a different perspective.

Mike Trollope, Associate Partner within the CFO & Finance practice recently sat down with Paraag Amin, a veteran Analyst, who moved very successfully into the CFO space, to talk about his experience and how businesses can benefit from placing C-suite candidates from an analyst background.

MT: Paraag, please tell us a little about your background and how you started your career.

PA: “I started out at Goldman Sachs, on the ‘buy side analyst programme’. This allowed me to move to the city onto the ‘sell side’ as a Coverage Analyst. This grounding in the markets really helped give me the ability to look at company specifics.

Over the next 6 or 7 years I gathered an understanding of teams, strategy and funding; going through several IPOs gave me exposure to different management styles and teams which I have taken with me throughout my career.

Subsequently there were two more moves across the ‘sell side’ which led me to move out of the city and start my own Mar-Tech start-up, which I sold back to investors. I then became CFO for marketing tech company, DotDigital.

The interesting thing was that the business was already structured with a Finance Director and a Financial Controller. Both were ACA qualified, so they knew the business inside out from an audit point of view, but from a performance perspective, they needed to take all the data that the business had generated and start to rationalise and utilise it.

Companies tend to add gradual solutions as they grow, but organisations need to create scalable solutions that can be replicated across different geographies – this is just one area where the unique experience of an analyst is so valuable.

There is also the Investor Relations (IR) piece, creating the narrative and measurable KPIs that stakeholders can use to determine short, medium- and long-term strategy. Having someone who can use that data to forecast is a valuable skill set. For a high growth business which implements big changes year after year, the past isn’t indicative of the future, you need operational metrics to drive the business forward.”

MT: How has your background as an analyst made you a strategic thinking CFO?

PA: “I would say that getting the next 3 year’ model right is more important than reviewing what has happened in the past. Looking at it from a straight accounting point of view, you do need both, and they must be right. But if you spend all your time examining what happened in the past, you’re not actually thinking about what’s going to happen, and that is a skill that has come from my analyst thinking.”

MT: How does investment banking compare to working in a CFO position for a public business?

PA: “It’s more familiar in a corporate culture and the personality types are different. You must brush a lot of things off your shoulders in investment banking, it’s very much work hard, play hard, and everyone’s competing for a share of a bonus pot.

In a corporate culture, everyone is working together.

A CFO role and a CEO role can be quite lonely as you don’t have any other peers. So having a good relationship with the CEO is key to give each other someone to lean on.

MT: In a listed business CFO role, how important are the CFOs relationships with analysts?

PA: “If the CFO is going to be doing most of the IR piece, then your relationships are important, but it’s even more important is to understand ‘city speak’. The way presentations and reports are presented is a different language to traditional press releases. Analysts are only interested in the numbers for the next 4 years, how are you going to hit them and beat them, and what are the risks?

So having that experience of being an analyst makes it very easy to understand what other analysts are looking for when in a CFO role.

Many CEOs are not confident in talking about certain elements of the business, so the responsibility of communication often comes down to the CFO, who traditionally focuses on the numbers, the forecasting and anything data related.

MT: How much due diligence do you do when you’re approached for a listed CFO role?

PA: “A lot! Because as an analyst, detail is important! But there are probably three things I look at for a listed role.

One you probably know the brokers who act for the company; second you probably know the financial PR who acts for the company so you can do a lot of research just by speaking to a few people who are already in your network, and the third piece is around going through the numbers and the forecast and looking at whether it adds up. So, you already do the analyst job on any potential business you’re looking at to see if you can buy into it.

MT: How much due diligence do you do when you’re approached for a listed CFO role?

PA: “A lot! Because as an analyst, detail is important! But there are probably three things I look at for a listed role.

One you probably know the brokers who act for the company; second you probably know the financial PR who acts for the company so you can do a lot of research just by speaking to a few people who are already in your network, and the third piece is around going through the numbers and the forecast and looking at whether it adds up. So, you already do the analyst job on any potential business you’re looking at to see if you can buy into it.

For me personally, growth is exciting, so you want to understand in very simple terms whether this company is looking to grow, and if so, how?

When engaging with a search or interim firm, you want to make sure they fully understand and that they are the. right fit for you for the long term.”

MT: Sometimes, individuals are excited about how they can implement change, transform those that are struggling, and make an impact on the organisation. Knowing the risks and rewards from being on the city side, how inclined are you to feel confident that you can change something, or does it scare you off?

PA: “If it’s a business with a strong core whether it’s product or people I’m up for the challenge.

Either the business hasn’t executed well in the past or the city hasn’t understood the changes that a business is going to be going through, and that’s an interesting opportunity.

There’s one company that I was speaking to recently who have decided proactively not to talk about their fantastic product because they’re going through big changes. But there’s a structural story there – the product is great, and it will be market leading with significant long-term growth – that kind of opportunity is exciting.

Another company approached me with a product which would have been great 10 years ago, but other competitors have come into the space with more modern and usable technology and therefore it’s in permanent decline, so I would predict that this product wouldn’t last long in market.

If you don’t believe that the business has a strong core and is going to be able to be turned around, then why would you take it on?

Transforming a business doesn’t scare me, it’s more a case of is it possible?”

MT: How do you think your skills would transfer in a non-listed company, perhaps private equity, or privately owned businesses?

PA: “At the moment, I’m speaking to several privately owned businesses, private equity businesses and public businesses.

The natural move is to a public business is because you have the IR piece, so you should be able to do that in your sleep. When it comes to a private business, you’re still looking at the same skillset; data, how to optimise investments, and how to grow and scale. Another element to consider is whether it’s still owned by someone who has ambitions, and you still need to be able to generate that long term narrative of where the business is going, and how you’re going to get there.

You still need to speak to investors and show that with the right investment you can take it to the next level, and the return that can be expected. And then, at some point, a lot of those private businesses will want to exit, whether that’s selling or listing. While your network is slightly different, you’re going to go back to the same bank and use the same financial PR, and all those people who you used and worked with to do the listing.

So, it’s all the same world, the same skill set, the same elements that you will require when you’re looking at the long term whether that’s a private business or in a public listed business.”

MT: What aspects did you enjoy most – in both your city role and corporate role?

PA: “As an analyst the most interesting thing for me is talking to the management team and understanding what they’re looking to achieve with their strategy.

In some companies the management team really knows what they want, and you can see what they’re trying to do and how they’re going to get there. In others there is no real substance, and it looks unlikely.

Ultimately if you’re in the right sub sector at the right time and you’ve got the right product, you can execute it with the right people, then you’re going to be successful. If you’ve got the wrong product, no matter how, when or where you’re going to sell it, it’s not going to work.

From a CFO point of view, for me it’s creating a path to future growth. It’s the strategy, working alongside the CEO and the board and looking at how you go from a to b. Because you’re creating something in the real world.”

MT: What has been the biggest, unexpected challenge for you moving from city to corporate?

PA: “Ironically, it was the cultural change. My only interaction up to that point had been the board and the CEO, and they’re all familiar with the public markets, investors, and community which makes them very similar culturally in terms of the individuals and how they operate to a bank. But as soon as you go one level below that, it’s completely different. So, the cultural change was the biggest surprise for me.

The second thing was the systems. When a business has grown from a very small company very rapidly there is often no investment in that side of things. There is no database, no data warehouse, and no consolidation of different systems. That is part of my remit, getting those systems talking to each other and working together.”

MT: What is the most important thing that you’ve developed in your corporate role that you will take into future roles?

PA: “I’d describe it as two parts of the same kind of skills; empathy and communication.

When you’re managing people in a corporate role you’re managing the entire business, not just your team.

You must quickly become empathic to what drives different people and give them what they need. Sitting down and asking people what motivates them and where they’re trying to get is paramount from the outset.

It might sound like a trite phrase, but you need to win hearts and minds to get people to follow you and back you.”

MT: We are seeing a rise in analysts moving into CFO roles, particularly outside the traditional accounting routes. Where else do you think CFO’s might progress from in the future?

PA: “The other area is from tech – there’s no reason someone who’s very good with data and can translate that data into operational awareness can’t then take on a CFO role, so if they can effectively manage people they can succeed. You can learn how to deal with the city, but it’s being able to use that data to help the business and drive it forward. It’s a slightly longer path, but there’s no reason a data driven CFO with an accountant team below them can’t be successful.

MT: Are there any other roles you see individuals in analyst roles move into within industry?

PA: “A lot of analysts move into IR, and I’ve also seen a few move into Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) roles because again, it’s a similar skillset to an analyst – looking forward, identifying, and communicating the narrative. Those are the two most obvious, IR and CSO.

Chief Technology Officer (CTO) roles might be good if an analyst is proficient in tech and code. It often comes down to how flexible you are in your mindset and how forward thinking you are as an individual, and ultimately if you’re the kind of person who is always looking at how to make things better, and where things are going to be in the future.

That thinking gives you the confidence to be able to walk into any role and add value.”

Mike’s Conclusion

It was a great pleasure to explore this intriguing topic with Paraag an individual I have known for several years. The world of finance has come a long way in recent times and CFOs are seen as very much the right-hand partner to most CEO’s and Boards. Strategy, commercial data and future forecasting is now the paramount conversation around most boardroom tables.

The move for a business to hire an analyst into a CFO role adds to the candidate pool extremely well and provides another great hiring opportunity outside of the traditional finance and accounting route. Whilst this is a very viable solution for businesses looking to hire their top finance roles, it’s important to stress that it’s an additional compliment rather than revolutionary avenue. Analysts can be a great addition to the team like highly commercial minded accountants in the top jobs, but these roles will be best utilised in companies with strong financial control in place that allows complete freedom of forward thinking.

Thank you Paraag for this incredibly insightful interview.

For a confidential conversation with Mike around interim management in finance, please get in touch.