Founder of Fearless Financials, Gillian Caughey CA, reflects on her experience setting up her own practice
When Gillian Caughey CA decided to use her skills to work with creative and purpose-driven businesses, she tapped into her Big Four experience to help clients become fearless
Showtime. Relaxed and smiling in front of a swishy magenta glitter curtain, Gillian Caughey CA is the convivial compère of our Zoom chat. This is not a background filter. The founder and FD (aka “Financial Demon”) of Glasgow-based Fearless Financials admits she was “tired of looking at all the background stuff behind me” when Zoom calls became the norm. So, on the heels of a rebranding exercise that centred hot pink as part of the Fearless Financials palette, the glitter curtain went up.
It’s a fitting accessory for a practice that specialises in helping creative entrepreneurs and small businesses. A light-hearted symbol of how Caughey views her firm’s services, letting clients focus on what they do best: be creative, give back and, crucially, have fun.
With a roster of around a hundred clients, Caughey and her small team – currently, employees Eilidh McKay (below, l) and Lauren Simmons (below, r), plus two freelancers – run the gamut of deep to light-touch involvement with a range of creative businesses. “With some we’re basically an outsourced finance department,” she says. “With others, they just need advice and support with self-assessments and the transition to Making Tax Digital.” What unites them is the same thing that drew Caughey to the sector, and the ethos behind Fearless Financials: making an impact.
“I’ve always been surrounded by creative people,” she says. “My mum went to art college when I was going to university [St Andrews, where she graduated in mathematics and statistics]. And I’ve always gravitated towards people with a creative streak. My partner studied poetry and was writing plays – she has a master’s in playwriting. Lots of my friends have been in the arts. So between my natural attraction to that sector and the social enterprises and charities I’ve been involved with myself, I feel I’ve found my tribe.”
Caughey’s route to setting up her own practice was, however, more conventional. After earning her ICAS qualification with PwC in Glasgow, she took a year out and travelled to Australia with friends. “It was just after 9/11 and recession was on the cards,” she recalls. “I needed a job and I got hired by the Commonwealth Bank doing investigative work. Because of my CA, the difference between what I was earning versus my mates, who were taking waitressing or sales jobs, was pretty remarkable. And they weren’t treated very well. I saw that my CA was already worth the hard work, even though I definitely needed that break after the exams!”
When it came time to return to the UK, it was a role in the forensic team at PwC in Northern Ireland that set Caughey on the path to becoming a senior manager before moving back to Glasgow, where she again joined the forensic team, this time at KPMG. It was here she met Adam Bates, who became something of a mentor. “Adam was promoted to Head of Risk Consulting, then a third of the advisory at KPMG at the time, and I ended up being a sort of sidekick executive assistant supporting him – that was a secondment to London,” she says.
Caughey’s time at KPMG took her to New York, to a TEDx event in India and eventually to leading the firm’s partnership with the Entrepreneurial Spark accelerator, which “helps entrepreneurs grow, scale and become investment-ready” – a role that clearly had an influence on Fearless Financials’ own foundations.
“That’s the thing about working for a Big Four company,” she says. “I remember telling my mum when I started my qualification – because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I came out of uni – that getting my CA would be a good, flexible thing to do. It sets you up you while you’re making those decisions about your career. You can learn really good skills and then decide where to go with it.”
Caughey now aims to work on her work-life balance. “My goal is to have a healthy and happy business,” she says. “I’m in my mid-forties now. I want to spend time with my family as well. I’m working now on how I can work less in, and more on the business. I don’t want it to be massive, but I want it to be able to look after me, my family and my team – and to develop the team I have now. That’s why I’ve been calling on freelancers, so I can grow sensibly and steadily. Ultimately, like lots of people, I’d like to be able to introduce the four-day-week concept for us all.”
Since setting up Fearless Financials in 2015, as a new mum, Caughey’s focus has been not only on helping clients to achieve their goals and make an impact, but also on instilling confidence. “I wanted to set up a business where I made an impact,” she says. “Creatives have a reputation for being bad with money, but they’re really not. They generally have low or no budgets and have to make a lot happen from nothing. Many are freelancers who are also trying to set up social enterprises and stay community-based – all things that tick a lot of boxes for me.”
And with the pre-pandemic creative industries worth an estimated £9bn within the wider economy – and set to grow – in Scotland alone, the opportunity for making an impact could mean raising a lot more glitter curtains.