" “The same work ethic I applied when I was a trainee chartered certified accountant I apply now as a CFO.”

By Christopher Argent, Founder, GENCFO

Sponsored by Fluence Technologies.

Maria Olympha Preston

CFO

Atrium Group Holdings

From the Philippines to the UK, and a wealth of FTSE 50 companies to boot, Maria Olympha Preston’s career journey so far has been an enviably varied experience. 

But one thing that hasn’t changed is Preston’s dedication and appetite for growth.

“The same work ethic I applied when I was a trainee chartered certified accountant I apply now as a CFO.”

We caught up with her to find out more about the key learnings and core values she’s bringing to her latest role at Atrium, and how she's been catalysing digital transformation throughout her career.

Growth mindset as motivation

Tesco, Burberry, Ted Baker … you don’t get to have a resume as impressive as Preston’s without a belief in your ability to continuously develop, improving both yourself and the business you’re at:
 

“I think it's innate within me that I'm a continuous improvement champion. Whenever I go into a job, I'm never satisfied with how they do things, I'm always trying to find a better way." 

 

"I've always had that mindset from the very early stages when I started as an internal auditor back in the Philippines. It's always been in me.”

Preston thrives off variety and change, which she considers the main reason she’s enjoying her current role at Atrium so much: “There’s never the same day for me, every day is different.”

In fact, when the opportunities for affecting positive growth become few and far between, that’s usually a sign it’s time for a new challenge: 

“If I know that I make a difference in someone's life or in a company, then it gives me that boost to keep doing more. I find it really challenging in a company when I know that I cannot affect any more change.”

Championing tech revolution

It’s no surprise then that Preston needed little convincing to get behind the drive for digital transformation in the finance world.

“In my first job as an internal auditor, I recall with a certain nostalgia how everything was painstakingly done by hand: with general ledgers stacked high on my desk, S.O.Ps weren't just PDFs, they were thick volumes that could easily pass as encyclopaedias."

"The typewriter – oh yes! - the relentless click-clack of keys echoing in the office, punctuated with the satisfying ding at the end of each line. Fast forward to today, and I'm navigating the sleek interface of ERP systems, powered by cloud computing and AI. It's a world away from my first job, but it's a testament to how far we've come, and an exciting glimpse into the limitless possibilities of the future.”

Living through digital transformation has strengthened Preston’s belief that finance functions must incorporate technological tools if they want to see themselves succeed. 

Aside from the some of the more commonly lauded benefits such as savings in time and operational costs, Preston believes technology is working best to create transparency between teams, removing silos and improving collaboration:

“Technology for transparency helps employees come together as a team more easily and effectively, allowing you to have positive experiences internally which leads to a positive experience for customers.” 

Getting the right strategy for change

However much Preston may be a strong advocate for tech disruption, she’s keen to stress that CFOs shouldn’t feel pressured or intimidated to make big sweeping changes each time. Small instrumental changes over the years can have equally big impact:

“From my time at Tesco, they have this famous saying - every little helps. And that phrase serves as a reminder to me to never underestimate the power of small actions taken for bigger outcomes.”

Preston also knows all too well that riding the waves of change isn’t always smooth sailing: 

“One key challenge I think that stands out is the workforce evolution. There is a shortage of finance transformation experts in the field, which poses considerable recruitment challenges, especially for smaller, family-owned enterprises… mainly as it’s monopolised by the corporate giants in pharma, retail, fintech et al. ...”

Having the right people to help you implement and drive transformation is as important as having the right technological tools themselves. Nowhere is this felt more keenly then when facing pushback from the top: 

“However much I like the idea of digital transformation, and my inherent desire to incorporate it into our operations, its success fundamentally hinges on executive buy-in. "

"Without their approval and support, any efforts towards digital innovation will likely falter.”

 Advice for women in leadership

It seems it’s never been more important to have people like Preston who can be trailblazers for technological change in decision-making roles. As a woman in leadership herself, Preston believes striking the balance between self-belief and not feeling the need to prove you can do it all alone is key for women aiming for top positions:

“Be your own self and don’t be intimidated by others”,  she notes, but also “surround yourself with a positive network of people that share the same values as you.” 

Preston herself cites the power of having the right people around her when it comes to key moments in her own career: 

“Aligning myself with the right group of peers & support network, was instrumental in shaping my journey. Their shared ambition, unwavering support, and relentless pursuit of knowledge served as my compass, guiding me through the challenging terrain of MBA as well as the corporate world.”

Her trademark growth mindset is something she recommends other women leverage for their own leadership ambitions:

“Persist in your quest for knowledge, establish a goalpost, and identify a role model whose footsteps you wish to follow."

"I believe this trio forms the cornerstone of intellectual growth and personal development.”

Power Profile

Who does she consider as her personal luminary?

"During my tenure at Burberry, I was exposed to the enigmatic leadership of Angela Ahrendts, whose blend of authority, empathy, and grace left a lasting mark on me. Encountering such an extraordinary individual is a rarity, and she continues to be a source of inspiration for me. However, beyond Angela, I believe the true heroes in our society are mothers. They are the silent warriors of our world. No matter the strife or obstacle, they rise above it. As a full-time working mother myself, I am well aware that there are many others in the same boat. Juggling full time work, household chores, school admin tasks (which can be quite daunting) and caring for the kids, it’s full on! But amidst this whirlwind, carving out 'me' time for social interaction and self-care is truly vital for resilience and goal pursuit..."

What kind of music stirs her soul?

"When the week has been a marathon of relentless work and endless meetings, I find refuge in the soothing notes of jazz music. But when it's time to let loose and enjoy, you'll find me on the dance floor, moving rhythmically to the beats of commercial house!"

Author

Christopher Argent, Founder, GENCFO
GENCFO Team

Chris is the founder and MD of GenerationCFO.com and creator of the Digital Finance Function Model and a contributor to many articles on our platform. Chris focuses on the shift toward digital transformation in accounting and finance, shows you what good looks like, then helps to get you there!

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