Can you tell the story behind your career to CFO at Exeter University?
I joined the University of Exeter seven years ago and have been working in the Higher Education sector for a little over 23 years. Previously I held the positions of Finance Director at the University of Essex and Assistant Director of Finance at the University of Birmingham.
The University of Exeter is unusual in that it genuinely combines research and teaching excellence. The institution has transformed its league table position from being ranked in the mid-thirties in 2003, to now being close to the top ten. This type of transformation is pretty rare and it has culminated in the University joining the UK’s research elite, The Russell Group, six years ago.
It’s this dynamism that first attracted me to the University of Exeter; the focus and drive on performance creates a fantastic environment to be a CFO. Also, the University is located in Devon, one of the most beautiful parts of the UK and I absolutely love it.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your position at Exeter?
The nature of universities is that they are highly distributed, extremely collegiate, with lots of autonomy and decision-making units. This means that even senior leaders are challenged and tested by staff so securing buy-in to your vision, winning hearts and minds about the need to change is always a big part of the challenge.
How have you driven business transformation at Exeter?
I inherited a disjointed finance function. The University has six colleges (Humanities, Social Science & International Studies, Life & Environmental Studies, Business School, Engineering Mathematics & Physical Sciences and the Medical School), each of which had its own independent finance teams which were structured differently, worked differently, even operated systems and processes differently.
My first challenge was to unify the finance function. I went about making the case to invest in standardising and automating processes, at the same time as creating a new team of finance leaders across the University. We identified and analysed a wide range of issues and created a vision that resonated and aligned with the needs of the business. We then developed a new operating model and vision for the finance function – the Future Finance Programme. Fundamentally, the Future Finance programme was based on creating and delivering a whole new finance function, one that’s fit for purpose, meets the business needs of the university and was focused on people, processes and systems.
A finance function only exists to support the talent of the university’s staff and students in delivering teaching and research. The Future Finance programme is on track to deliver £1.3 million a year recurrent staff savings, all of which will be reinvested into frontline, whether that’s to improve the student experience or hire new academics.
What do you look for in a technology partner?
A vendor who has a good understanding of the nuances associated with higher education as our sector isn’t like a normal business. It is also important that our partner understands our objectives and is genuinely committed to delivering them. A strong focus on research & development also plays a part, as we want to work with an organisation that is committed to their products and won’t make our investment obsolete over time or undermine our competitive position by not continually enhancing their own products.
Part of our investment in technology is about standardising and automating processes; our TechnologyOne Financials software has enabled us to do this and in turn has driven efficiency gains – reducing the cost of the finance function by 20%. Equally important, and something we put at the heart of our procurement process, was the need for a solution which had a very end-user friendly interface. It wasn’t just about having the best functionality, it was about having that very strong user engagement and ultimately that’s what led to TechnologyOne being appointed as our preferred partner.
Universities are not standard businesses, we are full of multi-year projects funded from multiple sources, whether its research grants or commercial partnerships. We’re a charity yet we also undertake a range of commercial projects. We operate student hotels, catering and conference facilities, library and sports facilities. We have numerous partnerships and joint ventures. The breadth of our activity is astonishing. That’s where a partner like TechnologyOne can add real value as they provide dedicated solutions for universities.
If you had one piece of advice to give to other CFO’s regarding digital transformation, what would that be?
Change is difficult, so put lots of energy into planning and engaging staff and never underestimate the value of communications. Projects, especially ones that are multifaceted, can be long and arduous and it’s easy for those involved to get lost in the complexity. In order to combat this, it’s important to repeat your vision and enable staff to visualise the end result; this makes managing the change process that much easier.