Becoming CFO of respected education services provider Navitas early this year was a marked change of direction for telco/media veteran David Buckingham.
The road to Navitas
I had a long background in Perth with iiNet, first as CFO and then CEO, before the company was bought in 2015. It was important to me to change sector – I’d been in finance in telecoms and media for many years. I was looking for companies with a good brand, growth potential and great leadership. I’d met Navitas CEO Rod Jones and liked what he was trying to do with the business – it was innovative in terms of its business model.
Navitas makes A$1 billion in annual revenue, and we reported A$165 million of EBITDA in FY16. We don’t have many fixed assets, so effectively have brand and goodwill. It’s a simple business model: we take fees from students and pay a royalty for use of our university partner’s brand, teaching content and campus facilities. The rest we spend on teaching students and running our colleges, with the balance going to the profit line. We are growing revenue at 5 per cent a year on average.
Game changer #1
In the UK, I was working at a company that became part of Virgin Media – in a cable telco business that ran out of money. I did a piece of financial planning that changed the strategic direction overnight, allowing the business to reset and start again more efficiently and profitably. That catapulted me up the finance ladder within our organisation.
Thinking like a CFO value pack: not only will you understand the CFOs viewpoint better, but you will learn the fundamental skills needed to be a strong leader.
Game changer #2
One of the boldest decisions I've made was to leave Virgin Media and migrate to Australia. I got lucky in my reconnaissance mission, meeting Michael Malone at iiNet and managing to snag the CFO gig in one of only two telecoms businesses in Perth at that time. During my time at iiNet, we did amazing things, growing the business organically and inorganically.
We operate in more than 100 colleges and universities around the world. Each site is almost a small business, so our finance structure is fairly devolved, with about 140 people spread over 28 sites. I have all the usual responsibilities: financial reporting, planning, commercial decision-making, governance. I’ve also got a corporate team in Perth that covers treasury, financial control, tax and IR.
Learning how to pick and motivate your team is fundamental – you’re only as good as your team. When you’re small and growing, you’ve got to fight tougher, and need your team to fight with you. The other thing is that although change can be threatening and hard to get through, if you can’t embrace it, innovate and drive improvement, you’ll fail.
Using the analogy of a room full of spinning plates on sticks, typically I’ve found when I enter an organisation someone in finance will be trying to spin two plates, but somebody else won’t be able to manage one. You need trusted people on each stick, who you can rely on to keep your basic plates spinning.