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How can finance leaders regain a long-term planning focus amidst the Covid crisis?

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The coronavirus crisis is highlighting one of the most fundamental tensions that business leaders face:Do they pursue purpose or profit.

Vicky Wordsworth carved a reputation as a financial management specialist within private-equity backed businesses, before becoming CFO of the 158-year-old family-owned group of communications specialists – Bailie Group. Here, she considers the need for finance leaders to look beyond the turbulence of the pandemic and plan for the future…

The role of a finance leader is multifaceted. At the core, is a need to protect the balance sheet. However, in supporting the strategic progress of a business, there is increasingly a need for the profession to manage uncertainty to mitigate risks and leverage opportunities too.

This was true long before the onset of Covid-19. A Gartner guide from 2019 for example, highlighted that finance leaders were spending 25-50% of their time navigating unfamiliar situations, even then. And many years earlier, a Wall Street Journal article from 2014 cited advice from Deloitte which encouraged senior finance executives to drive corporate-wide, critical decision-making, that balances strategy, risk and finance in uncertain times.

So, while the health crisis has been a colossal blow to not just the world of commerce, but humanity on the whole, from a finance perspective, we do know what to do.

The onset of short-termism

Another Gartner report, issued in the earlier wave of the pandemic, warned CFOs against short-term and unsustainable cost cutting measures, and understandably so – knee-jerk financial decisions can have devastating longer-term consequences in terms of everything from supply chain security to the retention of valued talent.

However, for many organisations – particularly those without the luxury of healthy cash reserves – it very quickly became about survival. So yes, finance leaders may have been forced to take some rapid actions they would have rather not, but in most cases the decisions will not have been made recklessly. They will still have been considered, albeit at pace.

This agility is an important trait for finance professionals – crisis or no crisis. As a private equity CFO – my former role – the fluidity of decision making reflected the speed with which stakeholders wanted to drive up the value of the business and realise an ROI as quickly as possible. Here aggressive targets may have been the pressure points – not a global pandemic – but the need to act fast and think about a comparatively more short-term outlook, was key.

Moving the dial

For businesses that are a going concern, the objectives are very different to those associated with the PE model. So, the challenge for CFOs in these environments, is to regain a longer-term outlook, ASAP.

Admittedly this isn’t easy amidst so much economic turbulence, and some companies, sadly, are having to manage cash on a daily basis just to ensure staff get paid. But we know that pure short-termism can jeopardise the future financial integrity of businesses, while stifling innovation in the process.

At Bailie Group, for example, the purpose of our organisation is to invest in ideas and people which make a positive difference, and properties that inspire. We therefore have some bold ambitions – not to mention a sharp monthly reporting rigour – and we’re continually growing, both organically and via acquisition. But we naturally have a longer horizon too, which cannot – and will not – fall by the wayside because of Covid. The board needs to support the company, the people within it, and society, far into the future.

Vicky Wordsworth

Vicky Wordsworth

Looking inwardly to develop long-term plans

To do this, last March was all about looking inwardly to check that we were OK. We temporarily paused a commercial property overhaul for example, and some due diligence work on an impending acquisition also took a momentary back seat while we ensured our ‘house was in order’. Thankfully, in our case, we have a robust management structure and strong cash reserves from previous years’ reinvestment, so our position was stable. But this evaluation exercise was important nonetheless as we certainly didn’t have ‘global pandemic’ on our risk register.

We formed a Covid-19 committee who met every day to make rapid decisions, under pressure, for the benefit of the business, our people, and clients. But we were quick to look outwardly again – after only 1-2 months – to begin focusing on the medium term.

The pace with which this shift can take place will naturally vary from one organisation to the next, and it would be wrong to suggest it’s easy. But the most important point to note is that the adjustment is almost always essential, as soon as practicably possible, and it’s never too late to turn the dial.

Nurturing a vision

Personally, 2020 was less about long-term planning for Bailie Group, as we were already in the final year of a three-year plan. We’re fortunate, in that respect, to have previously had that vision, not to mention an operating model which doesn’t bog decision makers down in tactical constraints.

But even without these fortunate elements, and however prolonged this period of difficulty may feel, finance executives and their senior management teams can still be visionary.

Presuming organisations have taken advantage of all funding currently available, and undertaken sensible cost reviews to remove unnecessary spend, the next key action is to devise a plan inclusive of clear milestones, roles and responsibilities, to bring it to life. Love or loathe the term ‘pivot’, it is evidence that lateral thinking can ignite previously untapped revenue streams, and some businesses may be yet to fully realise their potential here.

We’re about to currently formalise our new three-year plan – purely because we’re at that part in our strategic cycle, not because of Covid. And while our tactical goals for the next 12 months naturally reflect the current climate, our purpose remains true, and so our strategy is largely unchanged as a result. We’re going to push boundaries and drive more positive change in our communities, because that’s why we exist. We’re still looking out for additional acquisition opportunities, having completed on one in October 2020, and we have recently announced a substantial innovation fund to ignite the fire in the bellies of our progressive Group companies.

We’ve earmarked investment for wellbeing too, as the health of our people will prove crucial to our longer-term success, and training and development is currently in sharp focus. We’re keen to ensure our colleagues feel engaged, fulfilled and supported now, in readiness for us returning to some degree of BAU, in the future. In fact, this has been an essential part of our budget setting.

We also feel prepared, which is important. Nobody can say with any real certainty what the future holds for the economy. If confidence starts to build, particularly in H2, we will see GDP rise and market opportunities open up once again. We have to maintain that optimism, but we’re continually looking outwardly for cues that influence our ongoing decision making, and advice from peers who also want British business to succeed.

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