Katie Murray - CFO Old Mutual: "Don't job-hop, get real experiences"

Scottish Katie Murray has been at Old Mutual for eight years and was Director of Finance: Group Chief Accountant at Old Mutual Plc in London from 2006. In this role, Katie was responsible for Old Mutual’s internal and external reporting, business planning and the sponsorship of the group-wide finance controls initiative. She was also part of a team that revolutionised the global finance reporting function.

Prior to 2006, Katie led the International Accounting Standards conversion project, was involved in the financial integration of Skandia into the Old Mutual Group and was seconded to Nedbank during its rights issue. Before joining Old Mutual, she spent 10 years at KPMG Consulting, where she advised global clients on finance transformation.

Katie took on the role of Group Finance Director of Old Mutual South Africa on 1 January 2011. She is on the Steering Committee for the iCRaFT (Integrated Capital, Risk and Financial Transformation), a group-wide initiative which aims to align capital and risk management and to implement best practice in the way that the group measures and manages risk, capital and financial performance. She is also a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland.

Old Mutual was established in South Africa in 1845, and is an international long-term savings group. It is now a FTSE100 listed company and has more than 12 million customers. The company employs approximately 15,000 people in South Africa, of which Katie looks after nearly 700 people in total - 400 of them are 'purely financial' employees.

What do you enjoy most about your job and why?
For me it's the variety of tasks, in which I get to do many different things in one day. Also, as the CFO you get to understand the whole organisation - in working closely with the CEO you jointly decide on how do you bring the ambition of the company to reality. Next to the fact that I enjoy that partnership with the CEO, it's also absolutely critical. By bringing my specials skills as a finance director to the table you form a strong team, and enable me to act as a deputy for him when the need arises.

How do you perceive the role of the CFO has changed in the last five to ten years?
As the role of the CFO evolves, you leave pure finance behind and you become much more of a generalist of the wider business issues. In practice this means that you touch more on wider business issues and less on the details of finance. Within the finance role you are exposed to everything, since it is key to get involved in all different aspects of business. Therefore the CFO gets to use his or her finance skills on the use of the wider business practices.

As mentioned before, cooperation and partnership with the CEO has become increasingly important in current day affairs of the CFO. Many CFOs make the mistake of wanting to be CEO themselves, and try to act as one. While instead you should focus on your own (finance) skills that you bring as finance director and therewith complete one another, just as taking time off the hands of the CEO.

Next to be a strong partner to the CEO, the CFO has also become more of a partner to the rest of the organization. We are more and more expected to be the conscious of the whole organization in making sure that it stays true to its belief and ambitions. And to keep the company safe, of course! We are dealing with increasing rules and legislation which the finance director needs to make sure the company complies to. The CFO continues to drive for adherence to compliance, and apply the demands correctly and effectively within the company.

How do you see the role of the CFO evolving in the next say five to ten years?
It is my belief that the previously described development will remain intact. The CFO will maintain being a real partner to the CEO in taking the business forward collectively. For the CFO to go back to purely managing the finance side of the business would be ineffective, that's the role of a financial controller. Although it might be the right thing in times of crisis, but being the CFO in a modern multinational business implies you can't be just a finance person anymore.

Furthermore, the CFO has to continue evolving into a person that can be many personalities with a varied skill set at the same time. During one day there are so many different things on your agenda, each requiring you to take a different role. For example, on a day like today, I've sat down with the HR department, had a media interview, had to decide on capital management and discussed individual people development: all different tasks which require different specialties at that particular moment. Being able to switch between these different roles allows you to cover a vast variety of tasks, meetings and responsibilities every day - which is what makes for an effective finance director. Your span of control is just very large. For me personally, I continue to see that span just growing wider, adding new personalities all the time.

Would you say that accurate forecasting and budgeting is still feasible for a financial department in today's tumultuous financial markets?
Absolutely! In fact, I would state it's almost more important nowadays. You got to remember that we are not just aiming for one number, since there is a great deal of ranges and sensitivities around one number. I personally am more interested in that range than in the actual number itself. Understanding the external factors and drivers that push internal numbers up and down is far more important - since understanding what markets and macro-economics do to your numbers provide you with the information needed to anticipate developments. That in its turn will help you be a lot more accurate in your budgeting. You have to think in a wider circle than just being focused on getting the numbers right.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for South African companies in the global economic situation?One of South Africa's biggest challenges is the current growth rate and risks - the fact that this country's growth is lacking is a problem. I also look at government, and the environment in which they operate, that's critical. We should be very excited about South Africa recently joining the BRICs, which really puts us out there on the international playing field. The fact that our government is moving in that group is fantastic.

However, the Rand does create more challenges. I feel the currency is far more volatile than it should be. If the dollar, sterling or the euro moves - so does the rand. It just shows a lot of movement currently, which makes things more complicated for our economy than I feel they have to be.

Which skill(s) do you think a finance professional should master to be most successful in his/her work?

My personal top 3 of required skills entail the following must-haves for a finance director:

  1. Emotional intelligence and leadership;
  2. Project management and delivery;
  3. Finance skills.

The third skill is obviously obligatory; it's the first two that make the ultimate difference between a good and an average finance director.

Which achievement or project in your business career are you most proud of and why?
One of the things was running a large international project at Old Mutual. My team and I converted the business from UK GAAP to IFRS. The transition took three years to complete, running from 2002 to 2005. It effectively increased Old Mutual's comparability with company accounts across the various European capital markets and laid some important foundations and blueprints on how the company still operates today. It was my first global project within Old Mutual and one of the most challenging things I have done so far.

So this was something you implemented straight after joining Old Mutual? Was that the only thing you changed within Old Mutual after taking the position?
Well, I was actually recruited to implement the transition, so it was not something I decided to do. Building a global finance community connecting South Africa with other countries was essential at the time. I think it is fair to say that it effected good changes and it did have a great positive impact in the business.

In my first period of time after taking the position of CFO I focused a lot on consistency of development and making decisions on the code of conduct within the Old Mutual Group. There was a huge amount of work in that, but ultimately enabled us to move people and jobs a lot more effectively within the company.

Who is your role model in life?
I think of somebody who was really more a mentor than a role model to me - Ms Kru Desai, who now is part of the management board of KPMG in the UK. During my first years working internationally she was my senior, and a very fierce lady. She actually frightened me from time to time. Looking back I see that her fierceness merely created an environment for me to grow. From a business perspective she contributed greatly to my development into the person I am today. Today we are friends, and although she is still a very fierce person, luckily I am a lot less scared and intimidated by it, because I know the challenge comes from wanting me to be the best I can be.

What vital piece of advice would you give young ambitious finance professionals?
I always tell my team they rather 'ask me for forgiveness instead of my permission'. I much rather advise people to get on with things instead of waiting for me to give you permission to go ahead and do it. It makes for people to develop more initiative and be more empowered. Also, I advise people to get as much variety in experiences as they possibly can. Don't stay at your first job for ten years and then expect to be appointed finance director. Much rather ensure you get new, real experiences every 2-3 years and learn as much as you can at different places. Which is not the same as job-hopping; don't leave a company before you have made sure you got the most meaning and insight out of every experience.

Stay connected, up to date and in the loop on what is happening in the world of finance by joining our special group for South African finance professionals on LinkedIn and following us on Twitter.