Interviews

When the brief goes beyond the traditional CFO role

8 min read

20 November 2014

Former editor

We quiz Katherine Grover, CFO Semafone, on what it's like being in charge of the finances at a fast-growth startup.

Those joining a startup during its young and risky days are expected to much in and get their hands dirty in areas they’re not particularly familiar with.

For Semafone CFO Katherine Grover, she has absorbed the facilities management, HR, legal and the company secretarial functions of the business. As part of our ongoing effort to gain a greater understanding of what goes into being an FD, we asked Grover to assess her position.

What were you doing before you joined Semafone?

Prior to joining Semafone I worked as the group finance director at KnowledgePool Group for eight years. This is actually where I met Tim Critchley, the CEO of Semafone.

While I was at KnowledgePool, the company acquired a small HR company called Right Hand HR that was based in Newcastle. I managed the team of HR professionals while continuing my normal duties, meaning I essentially had two jobs.

How did you come to join the company, and what attracted you?

As I mentioned earlier, I met Tim Critchley at KnowledgePool. After setting up Semafone he asked if I would like to join the company. This came at a great time; I was looking for a new challenge, and having already grown one startup I was keen to repeat the experience and knew I could bring a lot of expertise to the role.

What does your role involve?

As CFO I am a member of Semafone’s executive management team and sit on the company’s board of directors. My responsibilities include Semafone’s “financial health”, contributing to the strategic direction of the company and helping to secure external investments. I have also established an infrastructure of reporting and procedures for Semafone, which has helped the company grow from a startup to a fully-fledged and expanding global business. 

My brief is broader than that of the traditional CFO, mainly due to the fact that Semafone is a growing business. My role encompasses facilities management, HR, legal and the company secretarial functions, meaning that my knowledge of Semafone goes way beyond its finances. 

What are the big challenges in your day-to-day activities?

Semafone is going through an extremely exciting time at the moment. This is mainly due to the recently secured investment from the BGF and other companies. We are starting to look to expand geographically, grow our sales channels and develop our product offering – all of which have financial implications. Launching all these new projects, while making sure we still concentrate on the fundamentals of running a rapidly growing business leads to some interesting diary management logistics.

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How do you think the role of the FD has changed in recent years?

In terms of SME’s I think the role of FD has changed in the sense of needing to know much more. Today you have to have a much deeper understanding of not just the company that you work for, but also be aware of what’s going in other parts of the organisation and your customers. 

FD’s working for SME’s need to get out from behind their desk and experience what is going on in the rest of the business. I sit in on meetings on everything from product road maps to customer implementation reviews, and regularly speak with other employees to learn about the positives or negatives within their area of the business. Everything comes back to finance, and understanding the wider company helps with any financial decision. 

What are the key skills an FD must possess to help a business grow?

Obviously there are the “need to know skills”, such as experience in raising funds and managing investors, as well as knowledge of detailed cash flow management. 

I also think it is important for an FD to have a broader range of skills to provide them with a commercial view of the company. The fact that I am also tasked with facilities management, HR, legal and company secretarial functions means that I understand how Semafone runs at a much more detailed and broader level than just the finances. 

Finally, confidence is a really important asset in an FD. You are expected to make some really big decisions and you need to show that you are confident is these choices, otherwise people will question them.

How do you interact with the rest of the senior management team?

At Semafone we are working hard to maintain our informal culture. Our office is open plan with no individual offices so if something needs to be discussed we just get up from our desks to have a catch up with each other. 

We are a young company and while we are not so keen on formalities, we do still understand the importance of the senior management team all getting together so we do have monthly meetings.

Where do you think your opinion and skills are valued at board level?

Financials of course – the board need to be completely satisfied that I have presented 100 per cent accurate and correct financials with no mistakes and advance warning of any potential problems.

Additionally, because of my wider commercial knowledge of Semafone, my opinions are valued and trusted when discussing the strategic directions of the business.

How are you looking to broaden your skill set to help the business?

Semafone want to grow its footprint in the US, and other overseas territories, so anything that I can do to help broaden my international experience and knowledge is a huge benefit to me and the business.

What advice would you give to finance professionals hoping to one day land an FD role?

The best advice I can give is to be nosey! Everything that is going on in the business has a financial implication so ask questions and talk to people; find out what is going on and how different departments work. The more you know about the organisation, the better prepared you will be for the FD role.