Private Equity: How do you step up from CFO to CEO in a time of transformation?

The Covid-19 crisis has placed extraordinary demands on business leaders and their teams. So how challenging must it have been for an experienced CFO to move into the CEO seat of a company that was in the midst of significant transformation even before the pandemic arrived?

Marcus Shah, Partner within our CFO and Finance Practice, specialising in Private Equity, meets Andrew Coll, the CEO of telco software provider MYCOM. Andrew, who stepped into this role in late 2019, shares some illuminating insights about his experiences.  

MS: Andrew, before this move you had been a CFO for 17 years, successfully creating value for shareholders in technology business. You had a good reputation in the private equity space and had plenty of opportunities there. What motivated you to step up to CEO?

AC: I’d always had the ambition to be a CEO and this was a new opportunity in a great business with a strong market opportunity and growth prospects, so I jumped at the chance. I had extensive experience in building software businesses as a CFO whilst learning and partnering with strong and successful CEO’s, and was fortunate to have the backing of a PE house, as well as the support of an experienced growth chair.

MS: How did you approach your first 100 days in the role?

AC: Initially, I spent a lot of time listening to customers to understand their strategy, demands and objectives and how we can support them.

I think the most important thing to do is to listen whilst formulating a plan, and the most important people to listen to are your customers and employees. 

I discovered that it’s a very interesting time in the telco sector, with some seismic changes in technology with 5G, digitisation and cloud expansion. We aim to be at the forefront of that.

In the first 100 days, I met customers and carried out an assessment of our products, roadmap and financials to determine what areas we needed to tackle in what order, then developed a plan on the back of that.

I also found we had an experienced board and, from talking to our employees, it was clear we had a lot of capable people who knew the sector well and are passionate about the business which is a fantastic start.

MS: Then Covid-19 happened. How did you respond to that?

AC: Well, it was complex to deal with, as it was for everyone, as there was so much uncertainty. As a business we were on a journey from an on-premise to subscription cloud model, and we were adapting rapidly to working remotely. I think it’s always important to stay positive, agile and lay out a clear plan and objectives.

The priority was welfare of employees and meeting customer commitments with a real focus on our customers. 

We needed to be able to operate and deliver to clients remotely, and everybody adapted to that rapidly. With the sector going through a massive transformation, the demands on our clients accelerated too – it was a perfect point to work with them and support them on their journey.

I am delighted that we have grown our ARR by 30 per cent in the last year. This illustrates that our customers see tangible benefit in our products – in improving customer service, reducing complexity and optimising their spend.

MS: Have you had to adapt the way you operate in moving from leading a function to leading a business?

AC: Yes, in a number of ways. When you’re CFO, you play a partnering role; as CEO, you are in charge. You have to develop a strategic vision that a range of stakeholders will align to and execute it effectively.

Covid-19 intensified the pace and I knew I had to make quick decisions. I have a strong team and I often consulted with people who knew the sector well, and we had to be agile and resilient. I’m now much more decisive and confident in my ability to make the right decision (most of the time!)

Customer engagement is at the forefront of my mind all the time. I was aware of it as a CFO too, but as CEO it’s your primary focus. 

Now I’m always thinking; how can we support our 40+ clients around the world to be successful? What products can we provide to help them improve their customer experience? As a CEO, you have  more of a customer-centric, market opportunity-focused mindset.

I get a real buzz from happy customers – that becomes part of your DNA on a daily basis, and you know you’re in the right job!

MS: How much did your experience as a CFO help you take that step to CEO?

AC: The pressure was on during the first two or three months in the Covid-19 environment, and nobody knew quite what the impact of Covid-19 was going to be. There was a focus on the short-term – how do we ensure we are in a position to be able to build and grow?

My CFO credentials were very helpful here. We are PE backed, and ultimately the performance of the business is measured in value creation and the levers that drive that including regular financial results.

Having said that, I had to park my CFO hat at some points. My approach and role is to work to make sure we create successful partnerships with our customers to grow and invest in our business, and to develop our products. I sometimes have a different perspective on that as a CEO than I did as a CFO.

It was challenging at times to let go of the CFO agenda – familiar territory can be difficult to let go of. Ultimately though, the CFO experience was hugely beneficial as the commercial and financial outcomes are always a key consideration of any business.

MS: So, would you take on another CEO role?

AC: Absolutely – it is a great role and I feel very fortunate. I could also see myself being a CFO again if the fit was right.

I’m a big supporter of CFOs; they play a significant role in value creation, leadership and success. In my view both roles are very important in building a successful, customer focused business.

MS: Andrew, given your experience to date, what do you think are the five key traits of a successful CEO?

AC:

1 – You must develop a strategic vision for your business and an understanding of market opportunity. You then need to align your products and vision to help customers be successful.

2 – You absolutely must be customer-centric and ensure that the business ethos and structure align with that focus.

3 – Strong cultural values are really important. You should be open, transparent, engaging, encouraging and lead from the front.

4 – You should recognise the importance of having a great team of people around you. I’m fortunate to have a team who want to do the right thing for our customers. If they are successful in that, the economic rewards will follow.

5 – You need resilience. You have to accept and deal with the fact that things will go well at points and may go wrong – be prepared to anticipate opportunities and address challenges.

I took the responsibility of leading the business during the Covid-19 pandemic very seriously; ensuring we delivered to our customers and our employees. The world was challenged by the situation.

My part was to steer the business through the crisis – we have 270 employees, many of whom have kids and mortgages; as a leader you have to flex and pivot appropriately in a way that optimises the outcome for everybody.

MS: What advice would you give to CFOs, in terms of their development, to enable them to move into a CEO role?

AC: You have to have the passion and ambition to be a CEO. It’s a great opportunity to develop, grow and lead. There will also be challenges and having a good team, and network of people that you trust is key.

Think about the experience you gain beforehand in areas such as client engagement, strategy, product, operational understanding – and get as much as you can.

Most people who take this step do it within the same business. If you can take that route, do – you know the territory already. I needed to learn a new sector and I was really lucky that I had some very good people who were open to helping me to develop that understanding.

My other advice is to build a strong network of inspiring leaders. When you are CEO you are the leader, you are responsible for the strategy, for your people and for the financial performance, and at times it can be quite isolating. So, get a strong team around you – and a good peer group outside work too.

Marcus Shah

Partner
Interim Management
CFO & Finance


Marcus is responsible for delivering senior finance interim solutions within PE, private and plc clients at varying life cycles in their development across the UK and Internationally. He has a particularly strong reputation within private equity. He places a great emphasis on trust, strong relationships and positive results. This customer-centric approach has resulted in him developing an extensive and trusted network.