Paul Greensmith has been a top-flight CFO for over 20 years and was a divisional CFO inside a corporate before that. He’s worked for private equity-backed companies throughout his career and has been the Chief Financial Officer at SHL since July 2020. When asked how he secured his first CFO role, Paul explains: “I worked for a bunch of people who were at the top of the game. They were super active and very fluid thinkers. I also had a habit of putting my hand up and volunteering for stuff because it sounded interesting.”
It was this, combined with a genuine interest in the industries he’s worked in, that led Paul in a number of directions. If he had stayed in a technical accountant role, he asserts that he wouldn’t have gained valuable commercial skills such as negotiating M&A and strategic thinking. In fact, Paul landed his first CFO role because of his ability to handle strong personalities at the top, having previously worked with some tough and demanding people. His technical skills were more of a secondary consideration.
To secure a wide-ranging CFO role with all the key components – such as commercial, financial, tax structuring, M&A, debt and equity raising, buying and selling – Paul explains that he needed to move to a smaller organisation. The move made sense in the private equity world because private equity firms invest in businesses to grow, not shrink them. When Paul joined Priory Healthcare in 2002, its EBITDA was £23m. Six years later, this had increased to £70m and the company achieved a valuation of close to £1bn. As Paul reflects: “Going smaller to go forwards is no bad thing.”
Over the course of his career, Paul has always been responsible for IT, which he sees as a natural fit because finance professionals are logical and can run programmes well. SHL’s IT function also needed a major overhaul and investment, and it made sense to give ownership to the CFO. His role has since expanded to include facilities and procurement as well as finance and IT.
It’s not just his role that has changed in recent years. Speaking about the pandemic, he explains that the perception of many finance functions will have changed. “If finance acted as an enabling function to help steer the business through rocky trading, people will have suddenly seen the value of good forecasting and tight cash flow management, and their reputation will have improved.” In a crisis, taking the approach of “don’t underreact, don’t overreact” is a hard judgement line for many management teams, and that’s when a strong CFO really comes to the fore.
Looking at the SHL finance function, Paul reports that the digitisation of finance and data is something they, along with many businesses in the technology space, are grappling with. SHL has vast amounts of data but having data is not the problem; turning the data into actionable insights is the challenge. The interesting question for Paul is whether the finance function can use the data for future insight prediction modelling to really drive the business and act as a true strategic partner.
With the market in mind, Paul asserts that a further challenge for smaller companies moving forwards relates to the fact that their finance functions are mainly looking backwards because they require considerable financial investment to move forwards.
Paul’s advice for aspiring CFOs? “Learn something new every day. Get lots of different experiences and try different things.”
Download BIE's CFO & Finacial Leadership report here.