The changing face of the CFO

The chief financial officer is now increasingly integral to strategic decision-making, risk management and organisational growth, Ultima's CFO tells Paul Simpson.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2023

“My job is to make my CEO successful,” says Tamsin Ashmore, the South African chief finance officer of Ultima Solutions, a private-equity backed UK-based provider of cloud, security and digitally-managed services. That goal has always been a core part of the job, she says, but it has been obscured by the “traditional image of CFOs as the lead on figures and balance sheets, removed from the practicalities of daily operations and execution”, a stereotype which is now obsolete.

Ashmore has certainly walked that talk. After a varied and stimulating career encompassing financial roles at BT, Credit Suisse, Jamie Oliver Restaurants, Merlin Entertainments, Technicolor and Unilever, she joined Ultima in 2019.

She has since widened her remit to cover “all business operations that support sales and delivery”, leading the group’s ESG strategy and championing the cause of women in tech within the company - and across the industry. (Progress is being made, albeit slowly, as she recently remarked: “Current research suggests the gender wage gap will close in 2119.”)

Expanding her field of responsibilities wasn’t, she says with a laugh, a personal power grab, it simply reflected the fact that the CFO is now increasingly integral to strategic decision-making, risk management and organisational growth.

“You need to manage risk and cash but success in business today is about growth and growth is delivered by people,” she adds. She learned this back in her first finance role, at Unilever in South Africa, when she was encouraged to thrive in a people-first culture.

Mentors have been crucial to her progress – indeed, she advises senior women in not-for-profit organisations through the Aspire Foundation – and so, in that spirit, she shares her advice for aspiring CFOs with Management Today.

1. The only real failure is not learning

Flunking out at the University of Cape Town was, Ashmore says, the “defining failure of my life”. Yet without that disaster she wouldn’t have knuckled down to get a first class honours degree in corporate finance at Durban University and pass the Chartered Institute of Management Accounting exams.

That experience taught her the value of “failing fruitfully”, an attitude that came in handy during a tough time at the failing Jamie Oliver Restaurant business, when she soon realised her role would only last a few months. Her advice? “It’s important to be part of a struggling organisation, as well as a high growth one – you learn very different skills in each.”

2. Be realistic about your skill set - and plug the gaps

“Look at your experience and make sure it extends across all the financial areas,” says Ultima’s CFO. “That means getting to grips with cash management, acquisitions, divestments, and financial transformations – but also developing as a leader and communicator.”

One particularly pressing challenge facing CFOs is balancing the role’s technical and emotional aspects. It’s your job to be a misery, highlighting risks, reading the warning signs in a cash forecast and, when sales are growing too fast, encouraging a move towards a sustainable growth trajectory. (This is exactly, she suggests, what many Silicon Valley giants didn’t do, getting carried away with excitement and hiring thousands of people they laid off later.)

At the same time, Ashmore says, one of the best things a CFO can do in a crisis is to help the board focus on opportunities, not just survival.

3. Find the right mentor

“The right mentor will have a phenomenal impact on your career”, Ashmore says. She learned a lot from Christian Robertson, her CEO at Technicolor. He was always looking for the next opportunity, asking, as she puts it, “What’s the lever that we can’t quite see yet which we could use to change the game?”

His relentless drive was reflected both in strategic decisions, such as launching a new software business and tactical issues: in one exercise, the finance team listed all the jobs they hated and brainstormed ways to fix them.

4. Put people first, even in the age of AI

What kept many businesses going during the pandemic, Ashmore argues, is that they rediscovered their humanity. It would be sad, she adds, if that was lost again through economic recession or the stampede to adopt AI.

“Each employer has the opportunity to use AI to improve their pace and profit,” she says, “but, at the same time, they have a responsibility to reskill and upskill people so that roles automated by AI can be replaced by creative roles which use AI.”

Businesses - and CFOs – which ignore that responsibility could find it stops employees being their “best selves” at work, harming corporate performance: “If people don’t believe in your ethos, your brand, your leadership, it could have a disastrous impact on your ability to retain and recruit staff.”

5. Give yourself space - and improve your resilience

Holidays only happen once or twice a year so it is vital, Ashmore says, to “build that ‘holiday feeling’ into your daily working life”. Ensuring there is space and time to step back is, she argues, “pivotal to resilience”, enabling leaders to breathe, think more holistically and create.

Indeed, after Jamie Oliver’s restaurant chain closed, she took a three-month break, which she used to draw up a nine-point list of priorities for her next role. Even today, as a busy CFO in tech, she is conscious of the need to step back: she is presently studying how to integrate spirituality and business.

Illustration using picture supplied by Tamsin Ashmore/Ultima Solutions