Carole Cran CA: Ports, Brexit and the role of a CFO

Carole Cran Forth Ports
By Robert Outram

28 November 2018

Carole Cran CA tells Robert Outram about her role overseeing eight busy UK ports and how Brexit is affecting business.

Britain’s ports are the gateway for much of the food we eat, the cars we drive and the gadgets we can’t get enough of.

They are a vital part of the UK’s infrastructure and their ability to handle millions of tonnes of cargo – not to mention provide a safe berth for the many cruise ships that visit every year – is crucial to the economy.

As Chief Financial Officer with Forth Ports, Carole Cran CA is part of the Executive team overseeing eight of the UK’s busiest ports, including Edinburgh’s Port of Leith; Grangemouth, Scotland’s largest container port; Dundee; Rosyth; and Tilbury on the Thames Estuary, one of London’s key ports.

As a statutory harbour authority, Forth Ports also manages and operates an area of 280 square miles of navigable waters on the rivers Forth and Tay.

As Cran explains: “We provide a service to the best part of 1,000 customers. Anything from handling the goods as they come into and go out of the port to providing storage space or services on the quayside. For example, in Tilbury we handle a lot of grain, so we also deal with quality control and inspection for this.”

To give an idea of the scale of the operation in just a few figures: Grangemouth handles around 9m tonnes of cargo each year; the London Container Terminal at Tilbury deals with in excess of half a million containers per year; and Tilbury takes care of all of Hyundai’s exports to the UK, around 45m cars in all.

Last year Forth Ports reported turnover of £214.4m and profits before tax of £68m with Tilbury making up around 60% of this.

The role of CFO

As Cran puts it: “The CFO role covers pretty much anything and everything, which is the great thing about the job.” As well as the core finance functions, Cran is responsible for the corporate IT systems.

She is involved in the commercial side of the business too, including assessing the risk and reward in new deals. And as part of the small management team, under Group Chief Executive Charles Hammond, she has an overview of all the group’s operations, from handling goods at the port facilities to storage and logistics.

Top of the agenda right now is “Tilbury 2”, the expansion of the Tilbury port, which is currently awaiting planning permission. This is effectively a brand new port, which will significantly increase the capacity of the existing one on the Thames.

Tilbury is already the UK’s number one port for forestry products, paper, grain, recyclables and warehousing space.

The local community is a big aspect of what we do as it relates to what’s happening politically and forging close relationships with local councils.

The investment programme, launched in 2012, involves capital spending of £1bn – the largest investment the group has ever made. It is expected to create jobs for a total of 9,000 people, three times the port’s existing workforce.

Meanwhile the group is also investing in its Scottish ports. Grangemouth recently saw the delivery of a new 524-tonne ship-to-shore crane and the completion of a 100,000 square foot warehouse; a warehouse is under construction at Rosyth for a new long-term customer; and Dundee is gearing up for the opportunities created by decommissioning in the offshore oil and gas sector, as well as offshore wind energy.

As a major landowner along Edinburgh’s waterfront, Forth is also working on the final stage of the Western Harbour residential development.

Cran says: “Another aspect of Forth Ports – and for any ports business – which I’d perhaps underestimated before I joined, is that the local community is a big aspect of what we do. It relates to what’s happening politically and forging close relationships with local councils.

“At Aggreko [where she was CFO] there were relationships akin to that but you are much more aware of it in this business. A port like Tilbury creates a lot of jobs, and there’s a different dynamic again with a city port, like Leith, where you’re working right alongside local residents.”

The impact of Brexit

Of course, one of the biggest unknown factors facing the group – as for any UK port operator – is Brexit and what it will mean for trade, whether with the EU or other countries.

Cran says: “The way we’ve approached it is to not make investment decisions that are solely predicated on Brexit as we don’t know what the outcome will be, but to invest in things that will give us some flexibility.

“For example, we’d already made the decision that we were going to invest in the expansion of the Tilbury port. It so happens that means we’ll have more space to move commodities and goods around, which will be helpful regardless of what happens.”

Forth Ports has also secured Approved Economic Operator status, ensuring that it can be seen as a trusted partner by Border Force and HMRC. Cran explains: “That was a good thing to do anyway, but it is even more helpful now.”

The move from practice to industry

She trained with KPMG in Glasgow and, on qualifying, took the opportunity of a secondment to Australia with the firm. “As it does for many people, two years turned into seven,” she adds.

The move also gave her the chance to switch from practice into industry, with a role setting up an Australian internal audit function for BAE Systems.

As Cran explains: “The philosophy that our director had was that ‘internal audit will be a great foundation for you to learn how the business runs, but if you want to, I’ll commit to putting you into a line role in two years’ time’. And he did that with everyone that came through. It was a great training ground for people coming into the business.”

She adds: “Because it involved setting up the internal audit function in Australia, as well as learning the business, the most challenging – and most interesting – part was that you had to immediately form relationships with the senior management team, and sometimes have quite difficult conversations with them. At the time the Australian business wasn’t performing so it was quite a difficult climate.

“In the external audit world you are used to your colleagues coming from the same background, looking at things the same way. In industry, the motivations of the people you work with are not necessarily the same as yours.”

Sitting round the board table is very different and it’s not something you can read a textbook to help you with.

Cran returned to the UK with BAE Systems and, in 2004, moved to take up a planning role with mobile power generation, heating and refrigeration unit provider Aggreko.

During her time at Aggreko she became Group Financial Controller before making the step up to CFO in 2014. This followed the departure of Angus Cockburn (also a CA) to head up the finance function at Serco.

Cran says: “The thing that was invaluable to me in stepping up as CFO was that, in those latter stages, Angus was not only a boss but a mentor too. It’s very helpful having someone in your corner who’s done it before, and who can give you advice on what will be different in the CFO role – because it is very different.

“The financial role, the day-to-day stuff, wasn’t very different at all. But sitting round the board table, that is very different and it’s not something you can read a textbook to help you with.”

There are still too few women in the CFO role and Cran acknowledges: “It’s a difficult problem and there’s not one single right answer. The only way there’s going to be a big change will be if when a woman chooses to have children her partner takes a share of the parental leave as they do in other countries.”

She adds: “As a woman and a CFO, what I’m most focused on is giving people who I think have got potential what they need to help pull them through. To give what advice I can and to be supportive, as a manager and an employer.”

Being a member of ICAS is an important part of Cran’s professional identity. She says: “I feel very strongly about it! It does have a certain cachet and it’s a strong brand. I feel proud to be a member.”

As a trading nation, the UK relies on its ports – so it is important that there is a commitment to ensure their infrastructure is fit for purpose. In these uncertain times, Forth Ports is demonstrating its confidence through the group’s willingness to both invest in and meet the demands of the future.


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