Big Four Trained Finance Professional Marc Armstrong knows what it’s like to conduct finance at the highest levels. As current Group Financial Controller at Coffey International Ltd he’s faced unique challenges and developed a keen eye for what sets a good finance professional apart from a great one.
What have been the top two things in your career that have helped you gain your current position?
My Big Four technical grounding through to managerial level has been the cornerstone. Corporates love it because there is a very strong perception in the market that you represent a disciplined process orientation, and a benchmark of technical quality, which really equals trust. Trust the quality, trust the output, trust the delivery.
I often say to my team: the defining difference for a Corporate finance team is that when your customers are internal, you can be forgiven from time to time for slippage on timing and accuracy, but when your customer is the board, banks, and a market, there is no forgiveness, timing and accuracy discipline is non-negotiable.
Also, a stint in the UK gave me the international experience that companies often seek. The fact that I spent time in the UK and moved from a domestically listed to an international company made me far more attractive to international companies and it develops your ability to operate across multiple time zones and cultures. Coffey had an interest in me, as did I in Coffey, because I had this experience.
What has been your greatest challenge?
For me it was the first six months here at Coffey. I walked into a company that had grown very rapidly through multiple acquisitions and as a result it’s financial processes and controls had not kept pace. In my first six months we identified a material error in the accounting records of the business (market announcement June 2008) which made for some tough conversations with the Executive and Board at the time. It was a very tough period because less than 6 months in, my confidence in the finance team and related processes was very low, the board’s confidence in finance was damaged, the CFO was gone, and the Group FC was thinking, “What have I done?!” It was career defining. I love jumping in the deep end, but this was beyond deep.
It all came back to the word “trust”. There was a need to quickly establish trust in the eyes of the Executive and board. I did that by giving maximum visibility and getting the external advisors on my side quickly, to ratify what I was telling people.
What are the important things you need to do to contribute to the business from a strategic point of view?
To have the ability to think strategically and to create space to be strategic, you need to get the basics right first and that’s the finance operations. A business needs clarity, visibility, and robustness of numbers. Once this is done, you can not only create the space for strategic thinking, but drive the strategy.
Our mantra here at Coffey is to create one version of the truth across all financial metrics: whether forecasts, actuals, budgets, or KPIs. This again reinforces the trust in the numbers, in the consistencies, and in the process, so finance becomes perceived as rock amongst the storm.
How do you identify talent?
Number one for me is attitude. A humble individual with drive, hunger and an appetite to learn and grow. You can teach skills but you can’t teach attitude and ambition. I characterise hunger by looking for a balance: applicants who are clear on their successes and abilities, but understated in the way that they sell it and realistic in assessing the depth of their experience.
For example, I believe if someone truly knows their field and is confident in it, they are able to answer questions very succinctly and with clarity. If someone gives you verbiage, they are trying to sell something they’re not sure about. I see ambition and the drive to learn and grow in someone who has a clear and thoughtful map of where they have come from and where they are going in their career. I want to see someone who is reflecting on the past and planning for the future.
When you meet with people in an interview, what do you value?
The biggest thing that I value in an interview is critical thinking, and I characterise that by the following three things: asking pre-prepared questions, treating the interview as a two-way discussion, and asking tough questions. I want to feel like I’m being interviewed as well.
How would you describe the culture of your team? Do you do any specific things to nurture a particular culture?
My team is output and results-oriented, but there’s also a very strong all-for-one culture. If the team sees someone is clearly overwhelmed with work, they volunteer to assist. There is no individualistic, selfish behaviour. It’s also a very disciplined culture; I have a strong mantra around that. Corporate finance has a responsibility to show others what discipline looks like – discipline around timeliness, accuracy and consistency. A very important part of our culture is not only that we need these things, but that it is our job to demonstrate to the business what consistency and discipline look like. This is our obligation to the business. It is important to openly acknowledge delivery and commitment to these outcomes.
I buy a strong element of discipline through recruitment, which comes back to my Big Four training. I recruit specific people for roles because I want to buy a disciplined culture. The fostering of it requires one to be unrelenting on what discipline and quality look like.
What tips can you give other people in the finance industry on how to build a successful team?
- Be uncompromising in terms of quality.
- Be uncompromising in terms of delivery.
It is critical that finance earns the respect of the business. We must have a reputation as an outfit that means what they say and says what they mean. I also believe strongly in an “absolutely no excuses” mantra. There’s nothing uglier than someone making a mistake or misjudgment in finance, and then making excuses for such. Accept that mistakes can happen. Own it, fix it and focus on process changes to avoid a repeat.
How do you think the career of a finance professional will change over the coming years?
Finance professionals need to become more IT literate and to have a natural curiosity for how systems are built and operated. The fundamentals of accounting are largely unchanged. It’s the speed and the complexity at which systems go through them that’s changed.
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