Three COOs reflect on taking the step up to the C-suite
The CA is known for being a passport for business, but it also offers a strong foundation for those successfully running companies of all sizes. We speak to three leading COOs about their journey to the C-suite and how being a CA helps them navigate today’s choppy waters
When you tell someone you’re a CA, how do people tend to react? A self-employed business owner might ask if you can help with their tax return; an office worker might ask why it takes so long to get their expenses signed off. Surprisingly, it’s not just those outside the industry who can be unsure as to where a CA qualification can lead. Many CAs go on to become finance directors, but the truth is that the training also opens doors that are nowhere near the accounts department – and it can lead to a seat at the boardroom table that isn’t reserved for the CFO.
Our three interviewees are all chief operating officers who credit their CA designation with helping them to implement strategy, steer culture, motivate people and cope with the last few years of global economic turbulence.
In the early days of lockdown, ICAS CEO Bruce Cartwright CA explained why accountants matter in a financial crisis – and even more so coming out of one. It may be some while before we reverse the current downturn, but Cartwright’s assertion that “accountants are uniquely placed to have an overview of any business because they get to see all the different moving parts and translate them into financial implications” is likely to resonate with these three COOs.
Being a CA gives me the tools to make informed decisions as COO
Kevin Gibbons CA, who became COO of Little Dots Studios in 2021 after almost four years as CFO, says his CA training helped him develop people skills as much as financial diligence
My CA training, which I did at Deloitte, taught me diligence and rigour. And it taught me people skills too, because you have to extract information from people who don’t want to see an auditor!
After qualifying, I moved to corporate finance, spending 18 months in Glasgow, then London. It opened my eyes to different sizes of deals and businesses. In 2014 I joined Liberty Global’s media investment arm, which they saw as a strategic priority, so there was money behind it. I came to Liberty as someone with deep expertise in a particular area, but I had to go broad very quickly, becoming responsible for all aspects of the investment cycle, including portfolio management.
I also became a non-executive director at football media company COPA90, advising on strategic finance decisions. Good boards have a range of skills; homogeneous shareholder boards, with their own agendas, aren’t necessarily best for business.
I joined Little Dot Studios in 2017, first as FD, then as COO. We have two functions: first, we help partners maximise their audience reach and monetisation potential, whether that’s via organic audience development, creating original content for them or managing their media campaigns. Our clients include Disney, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Our group CEO says we’re “promiscuous” – in a positive sense! We’re also a digital media network, running channels such as Samsung TV and Roku. We have a base in LA, and offices in Munich, Berlin, Sydney and Melbourne.
I have a wide role, providing both functional leadership and wider business leadership, responsible for growth, strategy and international. I’d picked up some of these responsibilities as CFO when I focused on strategy, growth and corporate development. In time, areas like IT and HR fell under my remit. Senior leadership was restructured and my title changed.
The next six months will be hard. But long term we’re optimistic – it’s still a growing market. People want content. We just have to make the right decisions. One of my skills is the ability to make short-term adjustments. Being a CA gives you lots of tools you can draw on to make informed decisions, rather than just relying on gut instinct.
I’m more empathetic now. At Deloitte I was surrounded by experts, but in a small business, people come from a range of backgrounds and don’t necessarily understand your agenda, so you need leadership skills. Diversity and inclusion are an absolute must. There’s a ton of learning to do and you must be willing to engage and show some vulnerability.
Publishing is creative but it still requires logical thinking
After a career spanning many countries and sectors, Kate Gibb CA became COO of Edinburgh-based independent publisher Canongate in 2017
Having a head for numbers, and both a logical and creative brain, has served me well, even if my career was unplanned. My CA qualification gave me a grounding in something I could rely on.
Working for Voluntary Services Overseas with the Ministry of Finance in Malawi taught me to think on my feet. It was a poor country under a long dictatorship, but the experience taught me the importance of sharing knowledge with others. It led to a role there with Deloitte working on a large privatisation programme.
Working in commodities for Cargill Investor Services in Nigeria, I turned my CA training to the reality of people’s lives. It was a time of hyperinflation. At one point I was paying part of people’s salaries in sugar to sell in local markets, because it held its value better than the currency. Moving back to the UK as European FD, working in the City, taught me about compliance and risk. I’ve applied it to every job since.
I learnt early on that the numbers translate to people, actions and results. I had FD roles at non-profits, developed a microfinance programme in Sierra Leone, and tore down the walls between the finance and fundraising teams at a hospice group to great success.
In 2014, I became FD of Canongate. In 2017, after overseeing a nine-month acquisition of US publisher Severn House, with significant library sales in the US, I was made COO. Publishing is a rollercoaster business. You ride on your good books – Matt Haig’s bestsellers and Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which inspired a Netflix documentary, are among our recent successes – but you must be prepared when others don’t sell as hoped.
Working in multiple industries has given me an understanding of how each has its own culture, and how best to apply my skills to them. Publishing is creative, full of people who live for books, but it still requires logical thinking. A book may be beautiful but you have to ask yourself how many people will buy it. As COO I’ve built structures, processes and systems – including moving year-end to March because it works better in an industry with age-old agreements on sale-or-return – in order to bring these passionate people on the journey.
We’ve had a fantastic 15 months, but publishing a book takes 12–24 months. There are huge upfront costs, including advances, that will become even more critical over the next three years. Paper costs are up 30% – when printers warn of likely rises, we try to pull schedules forward – and I’m having to mould behavioural change within the company so everyone is aware of the impact. I remain optimistic, with high hopes for our forthcoming releases, including the second of five Leonard Cohen books and the Alan Rickman Diaries in autumn.
I also have two NED roles as Chair of trade body Publishing Scotland and Leiths School of Food and Wine. Being a COO, I see the need for senior leaders to have a mentor as a chair, someone to bat ideas off. A chair who says, “I’m here for this business, not for me,” is the most useful support a business can have.
A COO is future-looking: where’s the next opportunity? Where can we increase net profit?
Shyam Moorjani CA, COO for multinational law firm Clyde & Co, reveals the lessons learned on his journey through the finance industry
Unlike most people I qualified alongside 25 years ago, I was always more focused on industry than audit. So I trained at the newly privatised Scottish Power, in conjunction with Coopers & Lybrand, now PwC. I was fascinated when our investment bankers would visit us, then return and write a broker note which invariably led to the share price rising.
After qualifying as both a CA and a corporate treasurer, I moved to JP Morgan in London, first as Financial Controller, then in asset management as VP and Head of Client Reporting. I was offered an internal MBA, but I didn’t want to focus purely on banking, so opted to pay for an executive MBA, which cost £45,000. It was a huge gamble – my wife and I had to put it on our mortgage – but the best thing I ever did.
While getting the MBA, I studied alternative investments, then spent the next five years in hedge funds in a variety of C-suite roles, focusing on how we grow assets under management to successfully help with an exit. It was exciting and I used both my CA and MBA skillsets. Then 2008 happened – our hedge fund went from £3.2bn to £1.8bn in three months. I learned a lot, and we made some tough decisions.
Eventually, I was made redundant, which gave me time to think. After working for an insurance broker, I went into consulting, working as a director or partner for a number of firms, including BDO and Deloitte, delivering finance transformation and system implementation for CFOs and COOs.
Then I was offered an amazing CFO role at Allen & Overy, a law firm – a completely new industry for me – to support a potential merger. Sadly, the deal fell through, so after a short stint at Baker McKenzie, leading its global finance transformation project, I joined another law firm, Clyde & Co, where I’m COO for Europe, Latin America and the disputes practice group.
Going from financial services to law meant having to adopt a new mindset. You’re moving from a place where decisions are often instantaneous to one where you need buy-in from a lot more people and investment decisions are for the long term. You have to understand the politics as well as the finances.
The most important part of being a COO is to deliver on the strategic vision. That’s where my skillset comes in: I can take that blue-sky thinking, translate it to an operational plan, then execute it by getting the right teams aligned globally and unblocking any barriers to resources, internally and externally.
As an FD I spent much of my time reporting on historical numbers. But a COO is future-looking: where’s the next opportunity? Where are we going to increase the net profit of our firm? Where’s the next office opening? How can technology help us deliver a better client outcome? That’s what excites me.
You don’t have to be a CA to work in industry, but it definitely helps. For me, the most fascinating thing after qualifying was applying my core skills to real-life situations – and I continue to use those foundation skills today.