Tackling the unexpected with Alison Cornwell CA
In the second of a series of articles from ICAS Conference speakers on how to tackle the unexpected, Alison Cornwell CA, Chief Financial Officer with cinema group Vue Entertainment International, tells us how her CA training and experience have helped her to deal with the unexpected in her career in the film-making and distribution industry.
In your current role, what are the kinds of factors that can present unexpected challenges?
My challenges at Vue International usually involve balancing my focus between corporate matters and “business as usual”.
For example, the timeline within which we acquired our Dutch business was only six weeks from the first contact to closing a fully diligenced and financed deal.
To minimise the risk of unexpected business challenges we have created an organisation with high calibre and solution-oriented finance, and operating people in each of our key businesses. We support this with open communication and a robust suite of reporting metrics, both actual and projected.
How are the nature of challenges, and responsibilities, different once one reaches the C-suite?
Although I enjoyed a very high profile and challenging position at Disney as Head of Finance for its international TV business (my division sold to over 100 countries, employed several hundred people, generated revenues approaching $2bn and delivered substantial profits) it was only when I joined Sparrowhawk Media, an international broadcaster, that I realised that being the CFO brings an even fuller set of challenges and responsibilities.
For example, Disney had large corporate teams covering tax, treasury, financing and numerous other head office functions, whereas at Sparrowhawk all of these head office type functions were my responsibility too.
Can you give an example of an unexpected challenge and how you dealt with it? How did your experience and CA training help you to deal with it?
My former role as CFO of Alliance Films presented the most unexpected challenges. I joined six months after the company had been acquired by new private equity owners to find that the EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) was only half that expected by the new owners and the working capital facilities were fully drawn. Luckily, I enjoy a challenge!
My experience and CA training have always led me to follow common sense, analysis and communication.
I solved the question around profitability by analysing historical EBITDA generation, noting that half of the profits had been generated by non-recurring sales to a former sister company.
The working capital question was answered by undertaking a forensic analysis of all payments made from the date of the acquisition onwards and then determining the dates of the underlying invoices being paid.
The result of this exercise was to identify a very substantial value of very old invoices (over six months old at the date of the business acquisition) where payment had been significantly delayed by the former management team.
We were able to work through these early issues and I enjoyed overseeing significant business growth supported by a strong capital structure over the next five years, in the lead up to a successful exit.
Do you think the environment for business is more uncertain and unpredictable these days, or are we just more aware of it?
I think we are seeing a combination of both.