Career insights: Gavin Maitland CA
ICAS spoke to Gavin Maitland CA, MBA, Fractional CFO in Life Sciences, about consulting as a CFO, working with start-ups, and his life experience detailed in his book “Swimming Through Adversity”.
What is your current role?
I am a fractional CFO specializing in the life sciences sector, and I work with several client companies at the same time. Being fractional means devoting anything less than full-time to a company – for me, that’s typically between 10 and 15 hours per month depending on what’s going on. Client companies are often not ready for the cost of a full-time CFO but do need the core skills that a qualified CFO can bring.
Life science companies are in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device sectors. One of my client companies is an early stage drug development company, for example, and their profile is unconventional as they spend all their money on research and development and generate exactly zero revenue. Their goal is to gain success in lab tests to show that their molecule actually works in cancerous tumours and to earn approval so they can begin testing their drug on humans.
There is a high risk of failure in early stage, drug development companies, so the CFO focal points are GAAP accounting, being on top of cash forecasting, and managing investor relations. The time horizon for success can literally be decades, as drug development has so many hurdles to clear.
The compelling aspect of this client company is their focus on immuno-oncology, which is a significant development in health care over the past few years. Scientists are using their understanding of the human immune system to target hitherto untreatable diseases in what is termed “precision medicine”. Given my personal interest and daily challenges in managing my own immune system, I am fascinated by the science and its potential to help millions of people.
What’s unusual about this market and sector is that companies can do a public placement or IPO with no revenue but rather on the promise of how the drug will sell 10 years down the line. Somewhat surprisingly, investors have a huge appetite for these drug development companies, and there are big rewards for the people and companies that get it right.
What interested you in accounting? How did you start your career?
I grew up in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, in north-east Scotland. My parents were both business owners – my father owned a home furnishings business, and my mother owned an independent book shop. I often helped my mother with the financial part of the business. Her auditor at the time was Sandy Manson CA. He was starting out at Johnston Carmichael in Aberdeen, and we had many lively discussions about the book value of books – literally.
I graduated from the University of Dundee and then worked at PwC in Edinburgh, where I qualified as a CA. After I completed my training, I wanted to use my qualification to travel and became an international accountant and a financial controller for TNT Express Worldwide (now owned by FedEx), an express courier multinational based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The role was 90% travel to subsidiary companies worldwide, where I performed internal audits and financial control work. I worked in over 30 countries in that role.
Each country had to comply with corporate policies, and I reviewed the financials to ensure they were complaint. We carried out balance sheet reviews to verify assets, receivables and liabilities. The company financial mantra was “no surprises”, so we were largely focused on making sure there were adequate provisions and accruals. The biggest challenge was navigating each country’s landscape – how the financial controllers kept the books in the different countries to line up with local laws while applying adjustments for consistency across the corporate group.
You co-founded Axiomlab, a publicly traded VC fund, with an entrepreneur and some former McKinsey consultants. Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur? What was this experience like?
I completed an MBA at London Business School and returned to London after a stint in Prague as CFO of a venture-backed technology company. The stock market was still charging along with the dot-com euphoria of the late 1990s, and I had the opportunity to co-found a venture capital fund. The fund was subsequently listed on AIM of the London Stock Exchange and made a series of A round investments in start-up and early stage internet and technology businesses.
Timing is everything when starting a fund. We were at the end of the economic cycle and being in the right part of the cycle is important. I learned a lot about working with early stage companies, particularly regarding cashflow, key hires, and understanding the importance of being in a market niche. I left in 2002 when I moved to Colorado with my wife – who is American.
What happened when you moved to the US?
Initially when we got here, I did some financial consulting work as an independent consultant. Denver’s a reasonably sized city, and that worked well for a time until I was almost tripped up by the biggest personal challenge I have ever faced. I started becoming ill with a mysterious lung disease. I swam competitively in college and was running marathons after, and I noticed something was wrong when my running pace slowed dramatically, and I developed an irritating and persistent cough. To keep a very long story short, I had to undergo a life-saving bilateral lung transplant at the age of 41 in 2008.
Recovering from the operation was not easy, but I felt like I had no choice but to keep pushing forward. I joined a life sciences consulting firm with a few partners in Boulder, Colorado, which is where I am today. My interest in the life sciences industry largely developed because of my health issues. With a lung transplant, the most significant part is the effect on your immune system as you stop your body from rejecting the organ. With that comes an inevitable need to understand how both the US healthcare market and the pharma/biotech industry work, which is very different from the UK.
What role does swimming have in your life?
At university, I swam competitively, and now, after a hiatus of over 20 years, I got back to swimming. I swim three to four times a week in a local Masters group in the pool, as well as challenge myself with longer distance open-water swims. I swam the Great Chesapeake Bay 4.4 Mile Swim in 2018 and the 10K bridge-to-bridge swim in San Francisco in 2015 (where you jump off a boat at the Golden Gate Bridge and swim to the Bay Bridge). It sounds crazy but was a lot of fun. I’ve done these swims with my kids too, and we have never encountered any sharks.
How did your health problems change how you approach your career?
Rather than just go through the motions, you make decisions about what you want to do and how you prioritize. I am more deliberate with the work that I do – I do what I want rather than what I feel obligated to do. I really wanted to work in the life sciences sector. I feel that I’m helping people by helping companies that develop life-saving products and therapies.
How is the CFO role changing? What do CFOs need to know to be effective?
A CFO needs to really understand the business much better than they did before – you can’t just be the numbers person. I’m not a biologist or chemist, but it’s very important that I understand the science and medicine behind the companies I work for. Everything touches the CFO at some point – money is the common thread – so the management team look to the CFO for real advice.
Start-ups aren’t big and structured, and they need CFOs to provide oversight on cash flow and investor relations – investors want to know that their money is safe and that they’ll get the financial information they need from the company.
The integration of systems and automation are affecting CFOs. Companies are moving away from paper reporting, and everything from payroll to document storage is online. You need to be comfortable with the technology part.