Dougie Cameron: Why bite-size finance is right size finance for a growing company

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Life comes at the owner of a growing business fast. They don’t have to go looking for worries to keep them awake at night.
Two worries feature prominently in their feverish night sweats – cash and people.
In the early stages of any business every penny is a hostage, and every hire is critical. And these two truths are inseparable. 

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Money is always tight as the business has to invest for growth ahead of sales generating cash, so the owner must always be canny with their investment decisions. Similarly, every early stage employee hired has to be productive and also has a massive impact on how the business’s culture will develop. Spending money on each new employee is a huge decision.

Youth and low cost are tempting while experience is expensive. But these need not be black and white decisions; resourcing a growth business is not a zero-sum game.
Let’s take a look at finance as an example.
Often a business uses an external accountant to do their book-keeping and the owner manages cash. Then the first recruit is a book-keeper. Then as they reach critical mass they invest in a full-time accountant, maybe a finance manager and finally a finance director. Value for money is critical at each stage. Usually the ability to roll up sleeves and get stuck in is the most coveted skill. But is this a false economy?
In the early days of a growing business the owner is in a lonely position. It feels good in the moment to see people busy; the Dunkirk spirit with everyone mucking in to fulfil an order or submit a bid are the experiences that form the legendary origin stories in the company’s culture. But being busy doesn’t help the owner with their night sweats.
As the business grows, the worries about cash and people evolve into existential strategic decisions, critical tenders and make or break funding pitches.
The need for a jack of all trades that can muck in and get things done evolves into the need for a wily old dog who has been round the block. What they need more than an extra pair of hands is a trusted advisor and a critical friend; a role fulfilled much more ably by an interim or part time resource in a way that an employee, no matter how senior, can struggle with. And a role often fulfilled by an experienced finance director who has guided organisations through these stormy seas before.
Of course, experienced finance directors can be eye-wateringly expensive but, when your waistband is already straining, why devour the full-size Snickers when the fun sized option is all you need?
A part time finance director can be a cash efficient way of getting things done while also gaining that trusted advisor. Imagine you had a budget of £50,000 for your new finance director. For that budget you’d get someone competent – you’d get your accounts done, you wouldn’t upset HMRC but they are unlikely to set the heather on fire strategically. Now, how about recruiting a very competent accountant for £35,000 and then buy in a finance director for 15 days at £1,000 per day?
A finance director isn’t just an accountant with grey hair – they are strategists, they understand how to structure a business, they have often run operations themselves, and all that is underpinned by rigorous financial training. The need for finance director resource normally comes from a desire to change something in the business, for example, get funding, make an acquisition, exit, buy expensive assets, grow internationally or, alternatively, they have identified a need to be better informed about their business – where do they make or lose money and how could they be better.
By recruiting a finance director on a part-time basis a business buys in high powered financial expertise, and a consigliere for the owner, while retaining a good hands-on accountant doing the basics for the same budget as a mediocre finance director.
So, the financial business case is strong. How about the business benefits? Lets have a look.
Speed of response
You are unlikely to ever have a problem that an experienced finance director hasn’t seen before. As soon as they are appointed they will hit the ground running in your business. Years of experience has hard coded rapidly deployable solutions in their arsenal – they have a network where they can find people fast, they know systems that can be deployed quickly, they know how to identify why you are losing stock and what to do next, they know funders and how to structure a proposal, they can present to your bank with confidence, they can get you through an audit.  Often the decision to invest in a finance director is the only thing holding up a solution to the problem that is keeping you awake.
Breadth of experience
Often the part-time finance director has a long and varied career before them. This breadth of experience brings insight and a network that is incredibly valuable to a growing business. Just thinking through my own career I have worked in audit, operations finance, shared services, commercial finance, commercial negotiations, financial accounting, financial planning and analysis, regulatory and by sector I have worked in brewing, FMCG, production, distribution, marketing, soft drinks, leisure, hospitality, media, broadcast, customer service, contact centre, tech, telecoms, field operations charity and sports governance. I have led finance teams, run large operations, negotiated major deals, implemented systems, launched products, set up businesses, shut down businesses, restructured, downsized, TUPE’d, transformed and raised funding.
That is a lot of transferrable insight that can be put to use in a growing business.
Scalability
The great thing about a part-time finance director is that they can scale with your business and your ability to afford them. You may have an arrangement for a day a month, but you need them for a whole week when you are preparing your business plan – that is possible with good, clear communication and planning. As your business grows they can move from one day a month to one day a week, scaled according to your finances. This avoids the cliff edge of having to make a large incremental decision to take on someone full time.
Credibility
If you choose the right part-time finance director you buy an intangible asset that can be incredibly valuable to your business – gravitas. The most experienced finance directors have boardroom experience that can’t be bluffed and, as they are also often experienced non-executive directors, they can talk to Boards, funders, and regulators with assurance backed by facts and data. The perception of a strong finance director supporting the business owner lends credibility to the business and it’s strategy.
Peace of mind
Your part-time finance director may be an expert commercial negotiator, an efficiency guru, or a funding expert, but under the surface one of their most valuable skills is that they are well trained in regulation. Too often the chief finance person is referred to as the abominable no-man, as they have a million ways to say no. However, the expert finance director seeks the best way to get to yes, but without upsetting HMRC or auditors or regulators. Their skill is in finding how to best work with regulation to get the desired business outcome, but if the idea is simply un-doable, you can be sure they have tried everything and their primary concern is keeping you out of trouble.
So, if you don’t have the management information that you need to run your business, or your existing finance people don’t have the skills to move your business to the next step then the chances are that you would benefit from employing a part-time finance director. Not all finance directors are equal so choose well for the skills that you require and for the personality that will fit with your business.
Dougie Cameron is an experienced finance and operations director working on part-time, interim or consultancy basis. He can be found at Strathblair and is also Chair of the Board of Triathlon Scotland.
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