Interviews

The strategic CFO's role in the pursuit of growth

7 min read

15 February 2016

With growth on its mind, international payments firm World First hired its first CFO, appointing an ICAEW mentor to assist the company in its expansion. As such, we talked to Alexander Filshie about avoiding the common pitfalls in the pursuit to growth, as well as what changes CFOs now face.

For the past decade, companies have had to contend with a series of large-scale macroeconomic disruptions, as well as associated pressures on costs and earnings. Now, as the global economy seeks ways to jumpstart growth, many companies are starting to increasingly focus on expansion.

With that in mind, firms have started to pay extra attention to the financial team. After all, the “evolved” CFO has been said to play a unique and critical role in providing insight, managing risk and ensuring that companies fully realise the potential value of growth strategy.

This was the reasoning behind Alexander Filshie’s appointment, which came after World First recorded a 76 per cent year-on-year increase in revenue in 2015 as it continued to grow its business globally. Last year alone, World First helped more than 50,000 clients transfer over £7bn around the world.

But with over 20 years worth of experience working in banking and payments, it’s no surprise the company hired Filshie to develop its global function. Indeed, he’s learned quite a lot throughout his career – but some key aspects stand out.

“I have seen companies rise and fall off the back of reputation, which has taught me the necessity of having a strong brand and identity,” he said. “It takes years of work to build up trust and loyalty among customers and investors, however, all of this can be lost in the blink of an eye. Those in and out of the company also need to be able to understand the clear sense of purpose behind a business. It will help drive results and motivate staff to create a personalised culture, which will run right through the brand. Identity is the bedrock of a good business.”

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He seeks to apply all of the above to World First, after all, he initially started his journey to World First as a customer. Recounting how he went from user to employee, Filshie said: “I remember being so impressed that I could download the World First app whilst travelling on a bus and make my overseas payment by the next day.”

So when the opportunity came to meet the founders it was a no brainer. And when he walked into the World First offices for the first time, he explained that he was “struck by the positive culture and the collective desire to grow the business”. 

Central to his growth strategy is having the right people for the job. He suggested the company’s culture and brand reaching new market places would drive business and be the foundation international success. Outstanding customer service, he explained, should also never be forgotten. 

“It may seem simple, but without it you are unlikely to succeed in one market place, let alone in multiple around the world,” Filshie said. “We monitor our customer service results each week to ensure we never forget business is all about the service provided. This is independently captured by Feefo and we have had an average service rating over the last six months of 99 per cent. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, customer service is always appreciated.”

Finally, selecting the appropriate products and location to invest in will be critical. Each move towards a new market has to be meticulously thought out, he claimed, bringing emphasis to the concept that the modern financial team needs to be more strategic.

In terms of those looking to grow beyond the UK’s borders, Filshie offers a few points of advice. He said: “There are two common pitfalls for businesses looking to grow for the first time; distance and ignorance. The first step into international expansion can be daunting, especially when you realise that simply organising a coffee meeting with staff in one office becomes a challenge. With personnel spread out communication is vital and distance should never be a barrier to a coherent and joined up business approach.

“Ignorance can plague a business. Every country has a different culture and way of doing business. You have to research and be aware of where your business is operating. Above all else you have to ensure offices fit the local area in terms of business ethos and culture. Having a ‘home office’ apply a one size fits all way of business will never work. You need to assimilate your company’s ethos with the local environment, it will enhance both. “

But while the finance function has rapidly evolved these past few years, Filshie explained that some things hadn’t changed. The CFO still needs to guide a company’s commercial activity and hold it to account financially, he explained.

That being said, the big change Filshie claimed to have seen was in data processing.

“The speed at which you can collect large amounts of data and process it in real time is phenomenal,” he said. “CFO’s have far more insight into how their business is working through new data systems, and crucially, can view it whenever they want. Communications tools have been at the forefront of change in the business world. We can now communicate extremely quickly across a range of stakeholders and the pace of change to do this has been unbelievable.”