Robert Matthews began his career around 20 years ago in the corporate finance world, working for the likes of KPMG, Sky, PepsiCo and Carphone Warehouse. But he soon discovered he wanted to take more risks.
“I wanted to be out of the corporate environment,” says Robert, who is now CFO at fintech firm FlowGlobal. “To try something a little more risk taking, and I got exposed to SMEs as a result.”
Following that move towards SMEs, he’s stayed within the space, working for a number of small enterprises throughout the past 15 years.
His journey from corporate to SME
“In my 20s I was just enjoying being a little bit more exposed to senior management and from then I’ve always just stayed in the SME space, whether it’s doing VC types of investment and helping businesses scale, or being more involved in existing SMEs and seeing where I can add value and support as a CEO,” he says.
“I’ve chosen not to go back into the corporate realm, although I believe I was good at it and did enjoy aspects of it, I prefer the SME space.”
This preference is due to the level of corporate governance which means big companies have to move at a steadier pace, he says.
“With an SME, and certainly being maybe a bigger fish in a smaller pond, you can have a direct and faster way of making an impact.”
“And that’s the message – if you can make an impact, you can create value, if you create value you obviously have some sort of capability therefore can be a little bit more directly responsible for your personal performance – whether it’s making a difference or earning more money.”
“But that’s where I started to get a flavour for being able to make more of a difference and therefore enjoying it as a result.”
Robert also enjoys being ‘exposed to everything and anything’ in his role as a CFO, which includes operational parts alongside the typical finance tasks.
“The element I find fascinating and interesting as businesses grow and as things change and economics changes the flavour for where things should be done best,” he says. “Fin opps is the buzzword now. It is really exciting if you look at what’s happening underneath the hood.”
No to being pigeonholed
Alongside sticking with SMEs, where Robert feels he can make the most impact, he also enjoys diversity within his career, meaning that he supports a number of businesses in different sectors – as a non-exec, finance executive or CFO.
“I don’t like being pigeonholed in one industry or one business,” says Robert.
Businesses he’s worked for recently include FlowGlobal, a London fintech providing working capital loans to small shop vendors in emerging markets; Bi Systems Inc, a data management and business intelligence consultancy; and Black Swan Group, a military grade communications and security solutions business for the private sector.
But despite these differing sectors, Robert says the principles – and often the challenges they face – are the same. “I keep saying to all my finance departments the same thing: let’s find time every single week to do nothing – I challenge them quite early on that I only want them to work four days a week, not five.”
“I always challenge them that we have to figure out ways to be more efficient and problem solve so that you do have that gap and window of opportunity to also spend some time thinking and figuring out what other problems might need solving.”
Sometimes this problem solving is not straightforward, and involves having tough conversations. In the pandemic, wireless tech company Black Swan, where Robert was financial director between 2019 and 2020, needed to make some swift and significant changes to its business model, which involved hard conversations with the board.
“We had a specific business model that actually wasn’t going to be relevant anymore,” says Robert. “So I was trying to explain this to the board, that we needed to make some quick decisions on how we can get rid of imagery, how we rebrand the offering, how to communicate to clients.”
The fundamental elements of communicating these difficult solutions was first understanding what he was trying to change and second, having the conviction to give what he thought was the right advice.
“You have to have conviction,” says Robert. “Regardless of what the implications are. It became a whole rigamarole, and it was a bit of a big bang approach, but the bottom line is it was the right thing to do for the sustainability of the business and it worked.”
Robert’s Power Profile
What music empowers him?
“Through TikTok I’ve been exposed to some really cool, inspirational music, such as electronic yoga music, which I searched for on Spotify after hearing it. I now listen to it to get in the zone.”
Who is his hero?
“I’m a new Dad and that’s changed a lot of priorities and focus for me, so I think anyone who is trying to be a good parent and manage their work responsibilities is a hero.”
If you love learning more about the finance leaders of today, why not check out other Shift interviews? Don’t miss out on the insights and fascinating journeys they share with us!