CFO Stories: In Conversation with Sarah Sergeant, Stepping up to CFO

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Sarah Sergeant has been CFO of Watkins Jones, a developer and builder of residential for rent across the UK and Ireland, since October 2021. Originally founded in 1791 Watkins Jones has developed into a leader in the UK’s property industry. The AIM-listed company continues to build for today and for the future, as it has done for more than 200 years.

We invited Sarah to reflect on her route to her first Group CFO role following a varied career in finance, and on her experience of the No.1 role. Sarah shared her thoughts on her career with Mark Craddock, Head of CFO & Finance at Eton Bridge Partners – and offered advice to aspiring financial leaders.

MC: Sarah, did you always want a career in accountancy or finance?

Since studying Maths at A-level, there had always been a numerical and methodical side to my studies, which in turn pointed me in the initial direction. I was also attracted to business, so I applied to the big four. If you’re coming out of university with ideas of being a CFO, you can take either the ACA or the CIMA route. Either works, but I’d say it’s quite hard to get exposure to all the aspects of accounting with CIMA, so if you are looking for variety, ACA is probably best.

From university I went to PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the advantage of going into the big four is that if you work hard, you’re likely to be promoted quickly and go on to experience various challenges from working with a range of different clients. I spent eight years at PWC, which gave me an incredibly strong network and great experience across various different organisations.

“The other attractive point about PWC was their willingness to embrace diversity and flexible working. I did my senior management interview when I was pregnant; I knew I was going to come back three days a week initially, and they made it clear I could still progress in my career, which was exciting for me.”

MC: Was there a point when you thought you might make a career in practice, or did you always want to be in industry?

Ironically, considering where I am now, I worked with house builders such as George Wimpey, now Taylor Wimpey, and Berkeley Group when I was in practice. There was quite a range across my client base, but with a focus on the construction sector. I got great exposure with my clients of operating at Board level through attendance at audit committees.

But I always knew I wanted to go into industry; it was just finding the right time and the right opportunity. That’s when I moved to BAE Systems to be a Group Accounting Manager, partly because of the work-life balance with the children as I needed to be outside London, and I wanted to find a FTSE business closer to home.

“Typically, you see more female finance leaders in retail and media companies rather than construction, heavy engineering and manufacturing, but I didn’t find it an issue at all being in a male-dominated environment – it was a great first role for me out of practice.”

MC: You then went to Compass Group PLC for 13 years, what initiated this move?

I was really attracted by the business; it was in an interesting sector, with the right look and feel. Even though I was in head office, I was very keen to get out and spend time in the business, for which you get a lot of recognition and support from the local teams.

The structure was lean and flat and there was always the opportunity to go above and beyond, to go outside the remit of your normal role – to be broad-shouldered and take on additional responsibilities. This is something I would always encourage people to do to progress in their career.

I had a great range of roles at Compass Group from starting as Group Reporting Manager to being Head of Reporting and Control, working for the CFO. I also spent time in the M&A team which allowed me to get that commercial experience from within a group role. I always knew I needed to do an operational finance role to progress in my career and was trying to work out the best place and time. Then an opportunity came up as CFO of the Asia Pacific region, based in Singapore. I knew it would be an amazing opportunity, both professionally and personally, for my family to experience life living overseas. Again, this is something I would so recommend for finance professionals wanting to progress their careers.

“There’s a world out there, and you should take opportunities that come to you and challenge yourself. Life is short, you have to seize the day. Carpe diem.”

MC: Yes, that’s when you were in Singapore for a few years; did that experience of different languages and cultures benefit you in making you the CFO you are today?

I was working with businesses at different stages of the growth journey. For instance, in Australia there was a big, mature market and well-established finance teams. But India was in a growth phase and the focus was getting the right processes and systems in place.

“Some people may have had pre-conceptions about a female CFO of the region, but my style was to be with the businesses, to support them in their delivery. I spent a lot of time on the road or on a plane.”

MC: When you look back at your time at Compass, was there any time you took a role that wasn’t right for you?

I don’t think of it as a mistake, but when I came back from Singapore I went into an operational role outside finance, as an Account Director for one of the global clients.

It was good in a way because I got a lot of client experience. There wasn’t the accountability you get with a finance role, but it added to my technical experience – and if you want to become a Group CFO you do need that.

During Covid-19, I was CFO of the UK and Ireland at Compass. From a leadership perspective, this role formed me more than any other I had before. Most of my time in the role as CFO was governed by finding the right balance between doing the right thing for the business and the right thing for the people while reacting to the changing circumstances.

It was important to react and make decisions quite quickly – I had to be agile. At Compass, you were always empowered to make your own decisions, and my overall resilience really helped in being able to guide the business and its people through this time.

MC: What was the trigger that led to you stepping up to a Group CFO role?

I knew I wanted a No.1 role and that I was ready, given the breadth of experience I had to date; in Group, UK and overseas roles, having M&A and operational experience. I was definitely looking for something listed, either in services or construction. An international footprint would have been ideal – that’s the one thing I didn’t get!

From the first meeting with Watkins Jones, the relationship was very good. We work together well and there’s a level of respect, they’re appreciative of what I bring to the company. Richard Simpson is a tried and tested CEO who is very good with the team and our relationship is key.

One thing about my first six months is that it’s been very external facing. We did a Capital Markets Day, which was challenging – it was the first time I had been up on stage and taking the Q&A, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The feedback afterwards was all really positive! Since delivering the full-year results in January, the focus has been more inward looking which I’ve been really enjoying.

MC: What advice would you give somebody looking to make the same move?

Feel around the organisation. You can’t meet everybody, but spend as much time as possible with the board, the advisers, brokers and auditors. And ask around the sector. I know quite a few people in it from my days in PWC, so I got their view.

My thanks to Sarah for joining me for such an illuminating conversation. As well as discussing her career path, she offered extremely useful insights into the way future finance leaders can follow her path – by gaining broad commercial experience, developing strong technical skills, showing great self-belief and being willing to take risks.