Richard Hughes, CFO at spend management software firm Proactis, has never been afraid to roll his sleeves up and do the jobs others don’t want. His first job, for example, was cleaning toilets. “I grew up in a coal mining community in West Yorkshire,” he says. “I had a weekend job as a cleaner at my dad’s office. Growing up, I think I was quite naïve and my outlook on life was quite insular.”
Richard left university without the necessary grades for any of the major accountancy firms. Instead, he found work in some local accountancy practices where he eventually gained ACA qualifications.
He moved to Sydney, Australia in 2003 but struggled to find a finance role. Richard undertook a series of bartending and barista courses, but they weren’t for him: “I make a mean macchiato now, but I actually hate coffee,” he admits. “Give me a cup of tea any day of the week.”
Richard eventually secured a couple of finance roles in Melbourne, and later he moved to Perth, where he worked for the Western Australian government as a public sector auditor. “Working abroad gave me more confidence in my own ability. It made me realise that if I was to make something of my life, I had to knuckle down and work hard.”
It wasn’t until Richard made the leap from working in practice to working in industry, once back in the UK, that he began to put his unique skillsets to better use influencing businesses from the inside. For Richard, this meant getting involved in another job that people try to shy away from, namely change management and business transformation.
He joined software and services firm Pace plc (which later became ARRIS, and subsequently CommScope) in 2011, following 7 years working at PwC, which was his first real taste of change management. The ARRIS-Pace acquisition in 2016 was one of the most challenging times of his career, when he attempted to facilitate change in a large, publicly listed US business which didn’t have the mindset to embrace it.
According to Richard, the wrong mindset can be one of the biggest barriers to change management. “You’re never going to succeed unless people have bought into the process,” he explains. “And one of the challenges with change management and any sort of organisational transformation is how you bring people into it. For me, it’s about clear communication and getting people to believe they’re a key part in the decision-making process, it’s giving people an element of responsibility, so they feel valued and that they have a stake in it. It’s about creating a culture that can not only respond to change but provides clear value for everyone to get excited about.”
In Richard’s experience, people are either on board, or they’re not. While businesses can do a lot to bring as many people on-side as possible and recruit others along the way, there will always be a select few who remain resistant. Sometimes, this can be due to what Richard describes as ‘change fatigue’, in that so much change has occurred in a business over a period of time that it’s initially met with cynicism and resistance. “There’s always that one person who says ‘oh, not this again, do we have to do this?’ I’ve seen it in so many businesses, you can see their hunched shoulders, they’re already cynical. But often it’s because change has not been adequately communicated, they don’t understand the value that the change will bring and their role in that, and they’ve not been brought into the decision-making process.”
Richard restructured the internal finance team at Pace, rebuilt key business processes and helped put the central finance function on the path that the businesses wanted it to be. “I became the CFO’s fixer,” Richard explains. “I got dropped into financial problems across the world, including the Brazilian rainforest where one of our factories was struggling with even the easiest bank reconciliations. I helped set up a procurement function in Hong Kong and I spent time in the East and West Coast of the US doing risk, internal audit and other finance projects. I suppose I became a bit of a financial Jack of all trades, but hopefully not master of none!”
Then came Proactis, where he is now. Richard joined to help Proactis move to the next phase of its journey. He has contributed significantly to the change management programme underway, from talent management to operational and financial changes, and a future-proofing strategy has played a key role. The business also refocused its go-to-market strategy on mid-market customers, a
historically successful approach for Proactis.
“This is my first CFO role, and it was one I was keen to embrace and earn my stripes. When I first started out in 1999 in a small accounting firm in Leeds, I never thought I’d one day be CFO of a PLC. So, for a lad who grew up in a coal mining community in West Yorkshire who started out cleaning toilets, I think I’ve done all right so far!”
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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