How Bonnie Cornish-Bowden re-imagined her career by going solo

Finding success as an outsourced CFO gives Bonnie the space to co-create thriving businesses.

Bonnie Cornish-Bowden is an outsourced CFO. She has a roster of handpicked clients she works with for a certain number of hours a week or month. This type of arrangement allows her clients to secure the expertise of a leading finance professional without having to employ her in a full-time engagement.

Bonnie had a natural aptitude for numbers from a young age and chose to study Business Science at UCT because she liked the idea of being exposed to courses that would give her a dynamic, multi-dimensional view of the business world.

She did her articles at PwC and stayed on after she qualified as a CA and says, ”I was extremely fortunate to have a great mix of clients including big corporates and smaller owner-managed businesses. Those experiences exposed me to the different ways businesses are run.”

She was happily traversing her career until becoming a parent prompted a powerful pivot. “I wanted to be a more hands-on parent and knew that my job wouldn’t give the flexibility I desired. So, I left my 9-to-5 with the intention of staying home until I could figure out what to do next.”

Treading a new path
As she stepped away from her job, a friend approached her with an opportunity to assist a growing start-up that needed a part-time CFO. The promising online retailer needed someone to help with putting processes and procedures in place and also help them take the business to the next level.

“I decided to give it a go and soon ended up with a few other clients and from there on, the business grew. I discovered that I love the SME space and had a real knack for it. There is so much you can contribute to that environment and make a huge impact on someone’s business, which is really rewarding for me.”

Though she started working sooner than had planned, she says “I found my suite of clients offered the stimulation and challenge I craved while allowing the flexibility to be with my children. I went for it and never looked back.”

Creating a custom solution
Bonnie thrives as an outsourced CFO because she finds the work varied and rewarding. “Working with entrepreneurs is different from working at larger corporates. These are entities where the owner has typically poured their heart and soul into their business, so my contribution is often very high stakes for them.”

She’s very open minded and curious when she steps into a business, saying that “I go in with a learner’s mindset. My approach is that I don’t know more than the owner about the business. They are the one who has carried the vision and has often invested so much to bring it to life.”

She spends a substantial amount of time having strategic conversations with entrepreneurs and understanding their long-term wishes, “For instance, some people want to be able to sell the business one day, others want to pass it on to their children. It’s crucial to understand what the end game is so that the decisions we make are aligned with it.”

She admits that it can be demanding to function at that level because she doesn’t offer a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all type of service. “What I do goes beyond merely putting in place systems or reports, it’s about integrating closely with the leadership team and using my expertise and insights to achieve success.”

However, because she works with entrepreneurs who are attached to their business, part of her role is to provide the dose of reality when needed. “That’s why I invest so heavily in my relationships, and really educate myself on the business and industry. So, when I have to give clients a reality check, they respect my views.”

Bonnie has an affinity for innovators and entrepreneurs because she can relate to them as a business owner herself. Apart from her CFO outsourcing business, she has also dabbled in some online businesses including a baby toy subscription box, and an online interior business. “Running my core business and an active homelife has consumed most of my time, but I’m keen to go back to my passion projects when the time is right.”

Sharing space with dynamic clients and networking like-minded connections has proven to be great for growing her business. “Networking in my world is not about superficial connecting but having meaningful exchanges and taking a genuine interest in other people’s lives,” she says.

Leading, learning and leaning
Bonnie’s leadership style leans towards a more collaborative, coaching one. “Throughout my career, I have learnt a lot from people. For this reason, it’s important to me to educate those around me so their businesses can thrive too.”

Agility is also a key element of her success, and she emphasises that the confines of what a CFO role looks like are changing. “There have been massive changes in work and business and Covid-19 has further changed the way people think about business. Now, more than ever, when you are a CFO, you cannot operate in a silo. In my model, I become involved with areas across the business from HR, marketing, operations, because they all work together to grow and sustain the company.”

2020 in particular was a turbulent time for many businesses and she has felt the gratification of being a reassuring force for clients as they grapple with unprecedented challenges. “I think it’s been helpful for them to be able to tap into my expertise as the pandemic forced them to re-examine their systems, undergo scenario planning and reinvent business models to stay afloat. I have done my best to be there for them as businesses grapple with tough decisions daily, with leaders often trying to find a difficult balance between being as lean as possible and keeping jobs or finding creative ways with fewer resources.”

Constantly growing
Reflecting on the business she has built, Bonnie is glad she chose finance because of the range of opportunities in the field. “It is important that up-and-coming finance professionals are aware that the field is fast evolving and established career paths aren’t guaranteed. Having business strategy, analytical, risk management and communication skills is important because the traditional tasks that used to be performed by people are being automated. “Value these days, comes from performing functions that can’t be automated and we have to continuously develop these skills.”

Bonnie says she shared this sentiment when she came across an opportunity to be part of an online mentorship programme last year. “I loved the idea of giving back and once I got into the programme, I was so inspired by these young participants.” She says she got so much from it, she was reminded of when she was a tutor during her university days.

The programme has been a reminder that it is easy to contribute meaningfully and help younger people direct their career. She shares her passion for personal career growth and says she reminds mentees that every year, they should be constantly adding something different to their CV.

Outside of work, she and her husband who both grew up on a farm love going outdoors with their two daughters aged 7 and 5. “Being out in nature, whether in a friend’s farm or Kruger Park is our happy place,” she says.