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'In business, delivering winning outcomes matters': An interview with Chris Harrison, CFO at Munnelly Group PLC

Chris Harrison

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Chris Harrison is Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for Munnelly Group PLC, a market leader in logistics and waste management services.  Recognised in 2016 as a top finance professional working within a finance function in UK industry, Chris is known industry-wide as an entrepreneurial-thinking CFO who delivers winning outcomes.

Chris’ career has seen him work as a Financial Controller and then Finance Director for the UK Rail arm of a French listed business as well as Group Accountant for a former FTSE 250 PLC.  Chris has also held non-finance and non-executive roles.

1. Was your first role in industry what you wanted or expected?

Initially, after achieving my ACA qualification, I transitioned from one big four firm (Deloitte LLP) to another (PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP).

When you look how people usually move after their qualification it looks an interesting decision as I could have gone straight into industry on qualification rather than stay in practice. I was delighted – and still am – to have worked for two of the world’s top accountancy firms and with some amazing blue-chip clients and projects.

On moving into industry, I couldn’t have had a better start in industry than working for a FTSE 250 property group like Minerva PLC.   There was a small team of excellent, experienced and knowledgeable people to learn from and being surrounded by quality like that is only going to help accelerate your development.  The business was also transitioning from previously being unquoted to the demands of a PLC; a journey that I could help with.   It was an exciting place to work – a top FTSE (250) company yet with a small and tight-knit family culture. 

2. What were your biggest challenges when working in industry for the first time?

In business absolutely everything matters; you are not simply offering advice in a practice. You spend every working day trying to make the business better and unlike rotating around several clients in practice you have a more specified role that is concentrated on one company.  That takes time to get used to.

You also become acutely aware of outside influences on the company.  For example, my post-qualification career has seen issues like the global credit crisis which severely impacted the capability and reach of the banks as well as the Brexit referendum result.  In industry, you must deal with these issues and how they are going to impact your business in real time.  

3. When did you realise you wanted to be a CFO?

From my early experience working within a family business, I knew that working in business suited me and my personality. I love working with people and solving problems which in simple terms is what business is all about.

I’ve also aspired to be the very best that I can be at anything I’ve set out to achieve.  So, if I was going into business to be an accountant then I aspired to be someday a CFO. 

4. How do you achieve the rounded CV needed for senior leadership?

Be brave and take on experiences that are put in front of you.

In previous roles, I’ve taken the opportunity to do non-financial roles alongside my finance role responsibilities.  That gives you a great network within and understanding of the organisation and builds your capability.

Also, give back to others – I find it a phenomenal privilege to mentor for the ICAEW and to be asked to speak publicly about what I do.

For me, the CFO should work exceptionally hard and have a strong, unbreakable ethical backbone.  A thick skin also helps!

5. How important is a mix of controls and commercial experience?

Strong governance and structure is vital in finance.  You need to get the balance right between good corporate governance and good entrepreneurial behaviours. The best people I have met and work with have demonstrated in their career that they can switch between these two sides. Strong candidates will have at least 2½ years post-qualification experience in both commercial and governance roles.

To win, should your football team excel at attack or defence? You need both.

6. What advice do you live by when it comes to your working life?

Focus on delivering winning outcomes and ask for advice where you think you might need it.

Career advice and information can dry up when you start your career so find someone you admire and talk to them. Work with them, read about them or reach out.

Be honest with yourself; those things you’re good at, make yourself still greater at those. 

7. Where do you see the industry in five years?

There are good UK businesses and they will always need great financial professionals.

The governance and commercial challenges will always be there – when they change they come at you just in a different format.

In five years I see a changed landscape that will have dealt with the challenges of Brexit but will still have businesses striving to serve their clients well and grow as well as deal with legislation and regulation changes.

8. What advice would you give for a career in property or construction finance?

Consider the company type that would best suit your development and do your research.

Construction can be a small world where people network and know each other.  Personal relationships really matter not necessarily for now but for the future.

Ask yourself where could you succeed and add value?  

9. What are your tips for someone aspiring to be a CFO in property or construction?

Becoming a CFO is a significant career milestone and not everyone will get there.  I think having achieved a CFO position my top seven tips for someone aspiring to that position in construction would be:

  • Understand your key stakeholders and what they need from you as CFO.

  • Work very hard at every aspect of your role.  You can always improve something about yourself.

  • Balance stewardship and commercial acumen well and deliver both well into the business.

  • Put finance at the heart of the business and of business decision making.  Aim to get finance into the conversation

  • Understand the business.  The CFO is a custodian of the business proposition so must understand it.

  • Don’t be frightened of a short CFO tenure – change is a very, very positive thing.

  • Be approachable.  Friendly CFO’s are loved; unapproachable ones are not!

10. What do you look for when you are hiring professionals?

When I hire someone at any level, I think that there are five characteristics that set great candidates out from the good ones.

Great candidates have energy and also an ability to energise the room and others around them.  Some finance topics and issues can be dry so if you can see those two skills that a very positive start.

A finance professional needs to be able to engage with the business and the rest of the team and to execute the role.  An ability to execute the technical elements of a role well is a must.

Finally, innovation.  The best candidates I see have an edge that really sets them out. When I recruit for Munnelly Group PLC, I’m looking for someone who ultimately could be my successor.  It’s really important that any new recruit has an ability to develop over time and an aspiration to reach the highest levels of our organisation.

11. If you weren't an accountant - what would you be?

I’m sure I’d still be in business because I love it – probably as an engineer. The engineering mindset of continuous improvement and obtaining greater efficiency is phenomenal. My ideal alternative role – working in elite sport such as football or for Formula 1.

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