Guest interview with John Carver
What has been your career to date and what projects you have undertaken in an interim capacity?
I spent most of my early career working for Procter and Gamble across Europe in a variety divisional roles and subsequently setting up their accounting shared service centre. Since becoming an Interim I have worked as FD in a range of food businesses both in the UK and abroad. These have ranged from group financial planning for a PLC, being divisional FD based in Northern Europe; setting up a divisional finance organisation in another PLC; acting as FD for a newly merged business until the permanent FD arrived; as well as working in a couple of B2B food SMEs. One assignment was even a commercial role managing a client’s international distributors and customers.
What do you consider to be your core specialisms?
From an industry perspective I have a lot of experience in FMCG, as well as manufacturing... particularly food. Having said that I am a very commercial FD, who quickly understands a business and helps apply better financial analysis and challenge. I have a lot of experience in managing finance organisations through change and improving their capability, as well as restructuring and helping turn around businesses in general. Having worked in a number of international businesses, I can also bring a lot of expertise on how to manage across countries and dispersed organisations and handle some of the idiosyncrasies of operating in different countries.
Over the past 10 years or so how have you seen your career evolve?
My permanent career was largely at a large US multinational, where resources were not limited and cash generally not an issue. Since then, I have largely worked in UK companies – even if with international operations – usually with much less robust processes and information and often where cash management is pretty critical. I have also worked for a wide range of different sizes business from SMEs – some family owned – to larger PLCs at both group and divisional levels.
As a business we have seen a lot more interim roles coming up within the manufacturing & food sectors. Has that trend been reflected in your own experiences or those of your colleagues?
I think so. The food business has been changing rapidly; particularly once you get past the big well-known multinationals, with a lot of changes in ownership, restructuring and relentless pressure to provide cheaper food while controlling quality much more tightly. Such change often creates the need for interims, particularly those familiar with the issues.
You’ve been working as FD at an SME food manufacturer over the past year, what were the biggest challenges you faced on arrival?
The immediate challenge was to help the new management team develop a realistic three-year strategic plan that would have the confidence of the investors. At the same time, the company’s financing was up for negotiation which required careful management of cash and creditors. In addition, management was looking for financial data and analysis that they had confidence in and could inform some of the decisions they needed to make. Finally, because the business was being run in a more centralised way I needed to establish more central control and reporting systems and a corporate structure to support that.
Do you think they’re issues faced by many different kinds of businesses?
Since the banking crisis, investors and lenders are much more critical and require more reassurance and confidence in management’s strategy. Many businesses have adequate financial accounting, but either struggle to provide good management information or to provide actionable interpretation of the data. Particularly where there is either management change or the business is at a critical juncture, this often becomes controlling. Managing a business with such international reach as the SME food manufacturer is rare in an SME but increasingly common, particularly in larger businesses and they are more and more run more centrally.
How much of an important role do think interims will – or could – play in solving these kinds of challenges?
I think they are a very useful resource. Frequently, for the period of change - or to address an immediate need - you require someone with the depth of experience and the ability to move quickly. But in the medium term, once the change has happened, different skills are required and potentially at lower cost. On the other hand, people frequently overestimate the cost of interims, particularly when there is a lot of change happening. The cost of hiring and – if strategy alters - changing management, plus the real cost of fringe benefits, makes the cost of permanent hires much higher than at first blush.
On the flip side, can you see any particular challenges for interims moving forward?
Quite a bit of change comes with a price tag. And in the current quasi-recession there are risks that the more discretionary change management doesn’t happen and so there are less interim opportunities. In tougher times people may baulk at the headline cost of interims, though as stated above this is potentially a false economy.
What do you think are the main benefits for a company that employs interims?
Primarily you get the skill you need almost immediately and for the time period you need it for. You get managers with the experience (often more than strictly needed) rather than people who are maybe looking for the experience and have some learning to do. Good interims will get up to speed and contribute quickly. They are also unlikely to have an axe to grind and so will give you a fairly dispassionate view on the project or business based on a varied experience. The cost if you get the hire wrong is low and interims can be replaced quickly.
Finally, any words of advice for readers of Perspective who may be thinking of becoming an Interim?
Interims are seen as expensive, so it is very important to be able to start contribute very quickly – the client wants to pay for as little ‘familiarisation’ as possible. You also need to be very clear how you can add value. In part this by clearly understanding what your client expects. However, it is also critical to quickly ascertain the key levers needed to deliver that; as well as any additional opportunities you identify in the course of your assignment that can make a difference.
Generally you have to be much more hands-on and self-reliant than you might have been used to. Some of your clients may not have the same level of support you are accustomed to or it is not available for an interim. You have to deal with what you have available, even if it means doing things you once would have delegated.
You can connect with John here.