The Big Interview - 12 Little Questions

 The Big Interview 12 Little Questions

Has there been a break down in trust between SMEs and Banks? 

The CFO of Simply Asset Finance would suggest so, stating that he also believes SMEs are the engine room of the UK economy.

Lee Shepherd – Sales & Marketing Director at Sheridan Maine London invites Stefan Wolvaardt CFO to express his thoughts on 12 little questions, over a Malbec in The Big Interview. 

SIMPLY ASSET FINANCE was founded last year by a team of industry specialists with the collective experience of over 200 years.  Focusing on traditional hard assets they have a varied portfolio in sectors such as Transport, Manufacturing, Construction, Engineering, Recycling and Waste Management where they typically support the SME sector within the UK.

CFO Stefan Wolvaardt graduated from Stellenbosch University (initially after failing to return home from a holiday in South Africa to start Uni in the UK). After considering a career as a market trader he found himself at Carphone Warehouse on a graduate finance programme working both in the UK and overseas. After a period of work with P&0 he joined Close Brothers passing the then ‘Do you read the Financial Times?’ interview test!! Following a short stint at Citibank as an Assistant Accountant he then re-joined Close as a Finance Manager and spent 11 years in various back office functions finally leaving as Finance Director Banking Division. 

In July 2017 Stefan joined Simply Asset Finance as a board member – a business he passionately believes can help grow and support SMEs in the UK, with a mantra that “people make business work” and taking existing products and markets and applying new technology and systems.

LS: “The economic outlook for the UK would suggest ‘the glass is half full’ and SMEs in the UK appear to be performing well in the majority of industry sectors. Do you share in that optimism?”

SW: “I think it is fair to say that I do share in that optimism. There are more than five million SMEs in the UK employing almost 16 million people but when most people think of business they think of FTSE 100 companies, the City and Canary Wharf.

Since the credit crunch in 2008/2009 I believe we have started seeing an increase in what was once considered “traditional” industries like manufacturing and engineering. Talking to some of our customers you would be amazed at some of the large companies they have contracts with like major car manufacturers. There is a value to having local suppliers and long may the growth of UK SMEs continue."

LS: “Simply Asset Finance has the collective experience of over 200 years with its team of industry specialists, how do you feel the current Brexit negotiations could affect (negative/positive) your markets? “

SW: “We are definitely seeing some businesses delaying investment and those that rely on exports to Europe could be quite exposed. I believe the biggest problem is the uncertainty of what final form the agreement will take. If people know what to expect they can prepare for it but there is so much mixed information out there ranging from ‘hard” Brexit to no Brexit. This confusion is only increased by the shouty headlines we see every day. I believe Brexit will go ahead and hopefully it could result in less regulation and red tape which would be a massive benefit to SMEs. The amount of regulation they have to deal with is incredible and they don’t have large governance, compliance or legal departments.

No matter the outcome, there will be disruption, but I expect it will mostly be business as normal. We will still need to build houses, recycle waste, transport goods and manufacture widgets."

LS: “On a wider scale how do you feel London can still compete to maintain its global reputation to be a major destination to attract business, investment and industry talent during the Brexit negotiations?”

SW: “London is arguably the financial capital of the world. Having said that, you are only as good as your last year’s performance and I think it will take effort and investment to maintain its reputation.

We are seeing significant investment in infrastructure, from transport links, like Cross Rail, to all the cranes you see across the City skyline. In addition, it amazes me how many movies you now see being filmed in London which is a good example of attracting new investment and industries. Last year net migration to the UK was almost 250,000. I don’t think London is doing too badly (joking).

Personally, I love the fact you can get some of the best foods from every country in the world all in one place."

LS: “What do you see as the main challenges and/or opportunities facing your business in 2018?”

SW:” As a company that provides finance, interest rate increases could pose both a risk and an opportunity. On the plus side, we are an organisation with no legacy book – so if our competitors’ risk appetites decrease we would see an opportunity to grow our loan book. On the downside, I don’t think navigating an increasing interest rate environment is going to be much fun as I don’t think we realise how much people have gotten used to low interest rates.

It is also interesting being a start-up and I have a lot of sympathy with many of our customers. Being a small company with little to no track record means that none of the banks will take you seriously. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say that we need a longer track record before they can deal with us although normally this changes when they understand how much backing we have.

LS: “How does an organisation and in particular a finance department prepare for such or indeed benefit from those factors?

SW: “The quality of the people that you hire is absolutely key. We don’t have tested systems and processes yet so are very much dependent on the experience and knowledge of the team. In that I have been very fortunate to work with an extremely experienced and knowledgeable team, some of whom I have worked with in the past.

Horizon scanning is also very important – Occasionally the team and I might enjoy a refreshing beverage out of the office to take some time and plan for what could be coming down the road to ruin our day.

Related to this is recruitment. You need good people. Anyone that says they are too busy to recruit is screwing themselves because you will never not be “too busy” if you don’t have the right team."

LS: "The role of the finance professional is evolving beyond a traditional support function, with greater demands on commercial reporting, business partnering & communication to key stakeholders to help drive the business. How do you believe finance has evolved over last few years to mirror this?"

SW: ”The world of business has become more complicated, the need to understand the full picture and to hold everything together has increased. Everything is faster and hence a broad skill set is required to have an insight into business. But it is a balance between being forward thinking and keeping everyone out of prison (he jokes). The day of the “bean counter” is gone.  There is a huge amount of training to become an accountant – you can lose your accreditation/qualification and rightly so for malpractice which can make accounts risk averse. At the same time it is important to remember it is the sales people or those creating the products that generate the income."

LS: “What advice would you give an aspiring newly qualified accountant looking to climb the career ladder within the financial services sector when poised to with the question whether to join an established brand or multinational versus a start-up or SME?”

SW: “You need to be in an organisation where you will learn, an organisation that accepts some of the best lessons are from your mistakes. You need to be working for good people, working with people that are better than you.

Don’t chase the money, chase the experience. If your aspiration is to become a well-rounded FD don’t avoid the less glamorous sides of accounting like regulatory reporting, tax and financial control. – if you have not worked in a regulatory, tax or financial control role you should seek those out to ensure you have a broad base of experience.

If you want to move into a start-up or PE environment try to spend some time in a larger organisation learning what works well and what doesn’t before then applying those lessons in a start-up environment."

LS: “Many hiring managers share a concern that through the numerous exemptions given by accountancy bodies such as ACCA & CIMA that some candidates fail to have a strong grasp on the fundamentals in accounting. Would you agree with this?

SW: “Yes! In my opinion it does appear that ACCA and CIMA seem to be in a competition to offer the most exemptions. Maybe this is to make the courses more attractive, but I find that there appears to be little correlation between an exemption and the actual degree. There is no consistency between the same degrees but at different Universities as some get more exemptions than others. Maybe I am biased, but I started out as a stock accountant working on reconciliations, T-accounts and accounts payable. By skipping some of the foundational grounding I think it leaves you less prepared for more senior and larger roles.

Some of the best accountants I know never went to university and started on school leaver programmes with AAT."

LS: “Job seekers want to work for an employer of choice, many are not only doing the due diligence on a company brand but also its employees? As a CFO what do you believe is the secret to becoming an employer of choice?”

SW: “For me it works best thinking of it as a two-way contract. As the employer you need to train and provide the proper equipment to do the job well. Some companies appear to scrimp on providing iPhones, laptops etc… but when you compare the cost of the equipment to the actual staff costs you realise that the equipment is a small proportion of the total cost of employment.

Benefits are important, whether pension, holidays, health care or long-term sick and disability income protection.

We are in a fortunate position to be able to invite partners to work events which results in family like culture. Ultimately, treat your team like you would like to be treated.

LS: “What has been your experience of working with Sheridan Maine as a accountancy and finance recruiter?”

SW: “I get frustrated with recruiters that claim they understand your business and simply do not, bombarding you with volume rather than quality. Sheridan Maine has invested the time to understand us and we can interview any candidate with the confidence that they have already been screened and briefed, saving everyone’s time. I also appreciate the level of service and the hands-on nature of the senior management team.

LS: “What aspects of Sheridan Maine’s recruitment process do you find most beneficial or particularly useful?"

SW: “You take time to meet your clients and meet your candidates and look beyond the CV. You brief the candidates well and then once the job has been filled you are good at following up and ensuring the placement was a success for both parties."

LS: “You are based in London – what’s hot in town right now for the finance team at Simply Asset Finance?

SW: “As an “introverted accountant” I am not the biggest fan of karaoke. Although somehow most of my team are, so not sure what that says for the accountant stereotype!!

 I am a bit of a D&D restaurants fan and then also some of the independent restaurants. For steak and South African wine High Timber is a big favourite with some good views of the Thames. Laughing Gravy has become a firm office favourite with some of the nicest food I have seen outside Michelin starred restaurants."

April 2018

Stefan & Lee were drinking a 2014 Malbec vintage from the Mendoza region in Argentina.

                Stef               Lee

              Stefan Wolvaardt - CFO        Lee Shepherd - Sales & Marketing Director 

                  Simply Asset Finance            Sheridan Maine London