A CFO's challenge: making tough decisions

Scott Scoullar FCPA, CFO of Summerset Group Holdings Limited

From corporate banking to the tax department and now CFO of one of New Zealand’s major retirement village companies, Scott Scoullar’s career has been all about taking on new challenges.

Fact File

Joined Summerset Group Holdings Limited: March 2014
Formerly: CFO Housing New Zealand; CFO NZ Inland Revenue; Senior Manager Performance Management, ANZ National Bank
Awards: 2017 NZ CFO Awards Finance Team of the Year; 2012 NZ CFO Summit Awards Special Commendation; 2011 NZICA Public Sector CFO of the Year
Summerset has 21 retirement villages across NZ; 4200 residents; six sites in development
CFO’s team: 60
Operating budget: NZ$6-7 million
Annual profit: NZ$145 million

1. My role: "A unique relationship"

Ultimately, the bulk of my focus is driving the revenue line and managing company costs at that level. I manage the traditional hardcore finance functions – accounts payable and receivable teams, financial accounting and management accounting.

I’m also responsible for our marketing, human resources, information technology and legal teams, as well as our property team, which focuses on maintaining the assets in the villages.

The CFO role is embedded in the business. It involves marketing, in supporting selling the product, and property, in maintaining the quality of our assets. It’s a unique business relationship, as not many businesses support their customers 24 hours a day.

Our brand is reliant on word-of-mouth recommendations, so we have to provide an environment that residents enjoy and where they can live the life they want. 

Professional Development: Thinking like a CFO value pack: Take your career to the next level and begin to adopt the skills of an aspiring CFO.

We moved responsibility for pricing of our units from sales to the finance team, which is key to the profitability of the business. [Finance also has] a strong engagement in assessing the economics of where we buy villages and the economics of developing them. It’s a broad role, and that’s why it’s enjoyable.

A CFO can’t just sit there and look at the profitability of the business without an intelligent overlay and strong business engagement. You have to actively engage in the business.  

2. Game changers: "Out of your comfort zone"

There have been watershed moments that took my career to a different level. At ANZ National Bank [which he joined after university, staying for 12 years until 2006] I was very ambitious; I had dreams of stepping up to a leadership role. We acquired Countrywide Bank and I had the opportunity to join the project team doing the amalgamation. 

Then I worked with our property team, dealing with several different National Bank property companies. Someone left and I stepped into that role for a period. I’d had no previous involvement with the property side of the company. Then at Inland Revenue I was asked to look after a facilities management team with up to 200 staff. I didn’t know anything about facilities management.

They are watershed moments – quite scary – when you move outside your comfort zone into roles where you have no knowledge base. That said, it’s not rocket science. It’s about applying yourself, demonstrating leadership, learning how things work and applying commercial/business thinking. 

3. My challenges: "Making tough decisions"

Probably the biggest was at Inland Revenue after the global financial crisis. With companies, you have a revenue line and can control your destiny to a degree. In the public sector, it’s very hard in a period of shrinking baselines. 

Inland Revenue had about 5000 staff and the government required departments to work differently, indicating there would be no additional funding. In these situations you have to get on the front foot and be proactive. I worked with senior management to make tough decisions around staff, smarter processes and business re-engineering. 

We reduced staffing levels considerably over 18 months and, at the same time, our business performance lifted. You can’t do that without re-engineering processes to make the business work better. Success is not just about reducing costs; it’s also getting a more favourable outcome. 

4. Back to corporate: "Coming home"

I was probably always a corporate boy – that was always my home, and in going to Summerset I was really just coming back home. When you grow up in banking, it’s very commercial and there are many business-oriented aspects. You’ve got to understand a lot of commercial aspects to business. Summerset is a Wellington-based growth company and not many have had the growth rates we’ve had. 

We made a profit announcement [in February 2017] that we’d grown, in round numbers, 50 per cent. The fun, the challenge and the dynamics attached to a growth business are exciting. It’s a big attraction to be part of a corporate-based company doing well. But it’s a company that has a social conscience. You can visit our villages and say “that could be my mum or my grandmother”, so there’s a connection there that’s quite deep. 

Lessons learned and best advice

In a growth business it’s more important you understand the kind of levers you can pull, how hard to pull them, what order to pull them in and where your untapped potential is. You also need to be cognisant that if you try to pull all the levers at once, and drive too much change at one point, you could break the business.  

Work smarter
At times, you’ve got to stop, take a look and rebalance the books. You can keep growing every year, but sometimes you have to stop and ask “are we doing this as smartly as we can?” 

You’re only as strong as the people you surround yourself with. If you’re real in the way you engage with people, you create an environment that is more of a family. You win trust. I’d back this [Summerset] team against anyone in NZ. We do things together – social stuff, sporting team stuff. Everyone talks with everyone else, and they are free to challenge my views on things. 

Navigation skills
Government is a complex place to be. There are ministers and boards with different areas of focus. There’s a degree of non-commerciality in the sense that you often don’t have a revenue stream you can build in order to grow. You learn to navigate through multiple layers, to recognise opportunities and navigate through them. That’s a handy skill in a commercial environment, too.   

Step outside
Every aspiring CFO should step outside the finance function at some point and get to understand the fundamentals of running a business. It teaches you about the practicality of what you’re recommending. When you’re a CFO you have to be a good business partner and understanding the business massively helps with that.

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