An Interview with Grant Douglas – GM Finance, Brickworks Limited
Grant Douglas began his finance career as a fresh-faced cadet with Deloitte, a large multinational professional services firm. It wasn’t long before he was given some big responsibilities and big projects to manage – and although it was a challenge, he seized his moment and has never looked back.
Grant is now the General Manager – Finance, at Brickworks Limited, a large ASX listed group of companies that have been in operation for over 80 years in the building products industry. Grant started at Brickworks around five years ago as Finance Manager – East Coast, and has since progressed in the company to the position he holds now.
I recently spoke with Grant to discuss his thoughts on making the most of career opportunities, the importance of a great team and culture, and where the future of the finance professional is headed.
What have been the top two things in your career that have helped you gain your current position?
The biggest would be starting my career at Deloitte, a professional services firm, when I was 18 and straight out of school. It was there that I developed a strong work ethic, leadership skills and learnt how to manage teams early in my career.
Being involved in professional service has given me the chance to work across multiple businesses, industries and countries, which opened up both work and life opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.
I’ve also been fortunate to have worked with some great managers. I’ve been thrown into the deep end, and found myself challenged and uncomfortable at times, and needing to learn really quickly. I’ve had really good managers to help me along and show me the way.
For example, at Deloitte, I was given the opportunity to lead one of their bigger audits. I was at a remote location, with a team of 15 people, at the age of 21, responsible for the audit – and really that responsibility included more than just getting the audit done; it was about managing and leading a team too.
What’s been your greatest challenge?
Making the transition from professional services to commercial, as I left it relatively late in my career to make the move. That was certainly a big challenge, and it took a solid 6-12 months to understand the business, but also to translate the theoretical view of the professional environment to the practical day to day requirements within a business. You need to be aware of that – it really requires you to put your head down and see how things operate, because the reality of business can be quite different to what you expect.
I think fundamentally I took the long term view to get into a business, and I wanted to have some influence on how a business operates. Audit was heavily compliance focused and it was difficult to get the in-depth knowledge of the business required and be able to really influence it and drive outcomes. I couldn’t see myself doing compliance in the long term, so I decided to try something different. Primarily, I really wanted to get into a position as a CFO.
What are the important things you need to do to contribute to the business from a strategic point of view?
I think making sure I see the whole picture. In senior finance roles you have a real advantage in being one of the few people aside from the CEO or General Manager who has a view across the whole business, connecting the actions and strategies back to what it will mean from a profit and cash flow view etc. You are in a unique position to connect the dots and seethe big picture.
At a higher level, involvement in the planning and managing of capital projects and showing an understanding of how we approach managing capital spend. Allocation of resources to major projects and being involved at the beginning of the capital spend discussions and the justification for projects and acquisitions.
How do you balance the operations part of your role with the strategic?
It’s not easy. Operations are a large part of the role, and really underpin what finance does. A strong part of the role is to get the info out, get to month end and ensure the back office functions are operating well. So building a team you trust, so you can step away to look at the strategic side, is key. Having a strong team around me allows to me step away from the finance operations and to engage with key people in the business at a different level.
How do you identify talent?
I think internally I look for people who get out of the office and get into the business. Talent will generally get impatient with sitting behind a desk and looking at the numbers. They will want to get out of the office, see the business, understand the business, add value and come up with projects of their own. But they can still deliver results from an operational point of view while achieving great outcomes in projects.
When you meet with people in an interview, what do you value?
You need to be able to build rapport really quickly. Self-awareness – I tend to find good people are very self-aware, they know their strengths and they know their weaknesses. If you are self-aware, you are more likely to succeed. You will tend to focus and better yourself. People that have really taken an interest in the business, they already know the business, have done their research, and understand the role – and more importantly they have questions and a probing mind.
I think technical ability is very important, but it is really only a ticket to play. To be an accountant you will need to be technically capable, so generally, I look for people who are qualified, and someone who can articulate clearly in technical situations. But to really succeed in business, soft skills become really important. The ability to go out and engage with the business, to build relationships – that is probably even more important than the technical side.
How would you describe the culture of your team? Do you do any specific things to nurture that?
We’ve done a lot of work in the last few years to focus on results and continuous improvement. A strong work ethic, focused on highly quality outputs. There’s a strong focus on process improvement – faster, simpler and a higher level of accuracy. As a result, we run a lean team and we have a strong sense of team. We have to have a strong and focused mindset and have the right team all pulling in the right direction – and that can be very challenging to achieve with a geographically remote team.
It’s important that I have put people in the right positions and articulated to the team what it is that we are trying to achieve. I give opportunity for input as to where we are going as a team and as a department. I try to get my Senior Finance team engaged in the process and give them the opportunity to lead process improvement.
What tips can you give other people in the finance industry on how to build a successful team?
Ensure that you get it right early, with the right people in right roles. Don’t jump into hiring. Consider very carefully the culture you are building and hire people that fit that culture. People who are not part of the culture can quickly become toxic.
Another important point is to always set high standards. Make sure your team understands what is expected and don’t allow less than that. But, remember that they are all people, and everyone has their own style – understanding that style and how people operate is important in getting the best out of them. You can’t only push for results – you need to strike a balance between getting the culture right and delivering results.
Do you see any significant emerging trends in the finance function?
There really is a strong move for finance people not to be just the “numbers guys”. The days of people purely crunching numbers are disappearing. Accounting staff at all levels are becoming partners with the business – becoming involved in the strategy and identifying opportunities for the business. They really should understand the business and bring something extra.
Another key focus is on automation. Automating repetitive tasks so capacity is freed up for analysis, so people can be more involved in true commercial support.
How do you think the career of a finance professional will change over the coming years?
It won’t be good enough to just be good with numbers – you’ll need to have more of a commercial view and really understand how the business works. It will be important to be in a position to be a sounding board for the operations team and there will be a great expectation to be involved in the business. I expect transactional work will become increasingly automated and systems-driven changing the dynamics of the finance team.
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