Deborah Stevenson is a Chief Finance Officer with 15 years’ experience working in the Interim field. During that time she has worked with 20 boards including Northgate plc, TH Real Estate and Harkand among others. We asked Deborah a few questions about her career to date and her outlook on Interim.
Deborah, can you tell us a bit about your career to date and what projects you have undertaken in an Interim capacity?
I qualified with KPMG. I did a bit of consultancy work, qualified as a treasurer and then moved on to be a private equity Finance Director. I was leaving the country for a while just as Interim was coming in: I worked on a short term assignment before I left and really enjoyed the hard hitting, quick delivery nature of the work. When I came back to the UK I decided to try another Interim assignment to see how I enjoyed it. Working as an Interim was not really a conscious decision; I just enjoyed working on Interim assignments so I kept doing it.
Some of the projects I’ve done have been turning businesses around: for example, going into a failing business, dealing with the banks explaining that I could sort out the situation if they gave me, say, three months. Then within that three month period I’ve turned the business around to break even and then produce a small profit, then a larger profit. I’ve also raised money for businesses that were in a reasonable state but needed more money in times of recession: in one of my assignments I raised over £850million and the share price double while I was there. The project varies depending on the size of the business and also on the deliverable that the client needs.
What do you consider to be your core specialisms?
One of my core specialisms is making a business work efficiently. Quite often you see a lot of waste in businesses: things that people think are necessary but which might not actually be essential for getting the business to where it wants to be. I can usually identify those quite quickly.
I am also good at stabilising a business that is going through a lot of change and making those changes stick, and if needs be, training everyone into a different mindset.
What are the main differences between now and say 10 years ago?
I started working as an Interim about 15 years ago and at the time Interim was very new - people didn’t know what it was. If I said to someone that I was an Interim Manager they just looked at me quite strangely. I needed to explain that I wasn’t a Consultant or a Contractor and I had to explain how an Interim was different. Now people know what an Interim does and they understand how businesses can benefit from having them. In the past that wasn’t the case and people would see you as a challenge to their position. People now understand that you are there to do your job and make their life easier, and when that job is done you shake their hand and you leave.
Do you think the perception of what an Interim can do has changed over this period?
People now have experience how interims can benefit their business. Once someone has experience working with an interim they are more comfortable with the idea of what we are doing and also are more likely to hire an Interim in the future. People now are looking more openly at Interims whereas ten years ago they wouldn’t have even thought about it as a solution.
Has there been a shift in demand for the skills you provide?
Demand for specific skills seems to fluctuate. You tend to see trends, but demand for specific skill sets change. For example, when we were going throughout the credit crunch money-raising and making banks feel confident were skills that people wanted. Now my skills in helping to set up a more cost-effective office function or integrating businesses are more in demand. If you have more than one string to your bow you do notice that the skills which employers look for go through phases, often depending on the economy.
What do you think are the challenges facing Interims within Financial Services over the next 5 years?
I think there’s going to be a lot of change across all sectors but that change will be more high profile in the Financial Services sector. I think that will be good for Interims because people are going through change and they may need help to deliver that in short time scales, and Interims can be a cost-effective option. The key challenges are going to be keeping up with legislative changes. I have been working a lot with clients, the Financial Conduct Authority and lawyers to ensure that we achieve what they all want. I think working with clients together with the FCA is going to be very important. Businesses are going to go through a lot of change over the next five years to modernise: those businesses will benefit from people who work within and outside of Financial Services and who are able to give the client more options for where they want to be in 5 years’ time. Being an Interim delivering that support will be challenging because Financial Services people are usually very intelligent and you’ve got to fit into their world, either working with them or leading them through that change to ensure that they’re at the top of their game within a short time frame.
What type of assignment do you enjoy the most?
I always enjoy something different to the last assignment. I think if you do the same thing time and time again you become stale and then clients don’t get a good deal.
I prefer working on the more challenging assignments. A more difficult assignment will stretch me and make me think outside of the box. That’s really interesting for me. If the assignment is easy you can often train the client to deal with the issue themselves so that they no longer need your support, and then the assignment can be shorter than expected. I usually get a really good deal with dealing with external’s, lawyers or banks, and I usually get a really good deal which leaves everyone happy: that is really rewarding.
Where do you feel interims add the most value?
It could be anywhere. If an Interim has a particular skill then they can really bring that to the table. I’m pretty good at negotiating commercial deals with banks and suppliers. I get the banks and suppliers onside and work closely with them to get a good deal for the client. I don’t think that I have ever not achieved a better deal than the client has had before. When everyone walks away happy - the bank, the client - then you have helped to build a strong long-term relationship between the bank and the client. You can’t always put it in figures, but in one case I finished an assignment saying I was able to add £10million to the bottom line, purely because I had been there, that’s a great feeling and a great thing to do. Hopefully the client has learned some skills so that they could replicate it in the future. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The last 6 years have been heavily focussed on risk, regulation and compliance: where do you think the emphasis will be over the next 18 months?
I don’t think that focus is going to go away, but I do think that there will be an increasing emphasis on running a business smartly. A business has to have the risk, the regulation, the compliance; those three items will remain really important. But all businesses will also get a benefit from being run and managed efficiently, and I think there will be a focus on building businesses on a solid base. I think that there is a lot of optimism out there, and an opportunity to add growth to a business by specialising or finding a niche: I can see a trend toward that at the moment. It’s important for companies to be excellent at running their business smartly to be able to deliver their services efficiently.
Do you think the definition of Interims within Financial Services is starting to define itself against the backdrop of Contractors and Management Consultancies?
Interims are added tools to the client’s toolbox. By hiring an Interim clients are able to get their job done quicker. That’s the way to look at it. Consultants have a place, Contractors have a place and now so do Interims – that is more clear now than it was in the past.
You held a variety of senior positions for a long time so has your attitude towards Interims shifted since moving to the other side of the fence?
I hadn’t actually heard of Interim when I was in a permanent position. That was 15 years ago and there weren’t that many Interims about. An ex-colleague of mine introduced me to the concept and I went to find out about it – I thought it sounded quite interesting at the time so I tried a couple of jobs and that was it. I’ve never been a permanent person hiring an interim.
I do think that the perception of my friends and colleagues who operate at CEO or Chairman level has changed. Even really good friends of mine a few years ago would joke about ‘When are you going to get a proper job?” They don’t say that anymore. So I do think that the perception has totally changed.
As an Interim, do you ever find yourself suggesting to the client that they should hire more Interims to support you in your work?
Last year I had a job where we needed to get a lot done in a tight timeframe. I could have spent 2 years completing the assignment or I could have managed it in 6 – 9 months. To get the timeframe down we needed to hire people who could hit the ground running and do more than the client was able to do. We had a team of people from the client who we retrained to help them develop the skills they would need for the next stage of the company’s development. Wherever we could we trained those employees and put them in the positions they would be in the future, and where necessary we brought in Interims to complete one-off projects. I always prefer to use permanent people for permanent jobs so that their job will continue, and using Interims for Interim jobs so that their role will disappear over time.
What do you think are the main benefits for Financial Services organisations that employ Interims?
Interims bring a fresh approach. Sometimes Financial Services businesses have people who have been there a long time – they’re probably very good at what they do, but sometimes they need a fresh approach. Having a different way of thinking about things can help the client get to where they need to be more quickly, and bringing in another member of the team to add a different approach and a different skill set can be very beneficial. It is important that businesses hire appropriately, though. If the job is a permanent job hire a permanent person: if you’ve got too much work for your team to do over a finite period then bring in an Interim to support that growth. When their job is done they will leave and will leave behind them some skills with the client.
Finally, any words of advice for readers of Perspective who may be thinking of becoming an Interim?
Being an Interim is a different lifestyle to a permanent job, so be sure that it’s what you want to do. Working as an Interim can put strain on friends and family because you may have to work away from home or longer hours. As an Interim you look at your job slightly differently – you look at what you can deliver to the client and how you can help them, and it’s a slightly different emphasis to a permanent job.
If you are interested then speak to an Interim to find out a bit more; most will be very helpful. And Odgers will also be able to give you good advice.
But be aware that it is very different to permanent work and make sure that it will suit you at that time of your working life.