The CFO: innovative, with many skills

Rachael Cox CPA, CFO at the Museum of Australian Democracy. Photographer: Rohan Thomson.

Rachael Cox CPA strives to excel as CFO at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, where she balances the requirements of preserving a heritage building with providing vibrant experiences for visitors.

Fact File

Joined the organisation: 2014
Based: Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 
Qualifications: Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Commerce from the Australian National University; CPA designation
Formerly: Project  manager and project accountant Department of Agriculture; client manager The Canberra Hospital; business analyst Health Services Australia (now part of Medibank Private) 
Team: Five people
Operating budget: A$21 million in operating and capital funding for the 2017-2018 financial year 

1. My role: “It’s a balancing act” 

I’ve always been interested in the creative side of things, but nevertheless I studied accounting. I used to look at the cultural institutions in Canberra and dream of working in their finance departments. When this role came up I jumped at it.

To be able to have the two halves of my personality in one role is awesome. I get to do the strategic planning, business management and accounting for the organisation, but I also get to have a bit of involvement in the creative side of things.

I have a team of five, a great group of people. We also have good relationships with the rest of the business, so everyone is aware of what we can do to work together for the benefit of the business.

We received a A$13.6 million capital funding injection for the next three years in the Australian 2017 budget. It’s one-off funding, which is urgently needed to undertake critical capital works around the building and in the exhibitions. This takes us up to a total of A$21 million in operating and capital funding for the 2017-2018 financial year.

We’re also experimenting with different ideas to generate our own revenue to contribute to the organisation’s financial sustainability over the long term.

We have to balance this with being able to provide experiences for visitors, including exhibits and learning programs for schoolchildren and the public.

2. My challenges: “Old versus new”

One of the challenges early in my career involved learning how to manage people with different communication styles. One role involved working in a male-dominated environment with colleagues who had varying communication styles. I had to adjust my communication in order to be heard. This has helped me tailor my style as I have progressed in my career.

In another company I worked for, I was implementing a new financial system and encountered real resistance from one of my team members. When I involved him in testing it and providing feedback, he became a great supporter of the project.

Being innovative and looking at new ways of doing things within a government framework can also be a challenge. We have to work within frameworks that are probably a bit tighter than in private business.

Professional Development: Thinking like a CFO - mind-set and financial priorities. Learn basic tips to get you thinking like a CFO and the importance of having this perspective.

One of my biggest challenges now is managing our heritage-listed building in a way that balances the expenditure needed to preserve the fabric of a heritage building with keeping it open to the public, and the need to upgrade facilities to ensure they have, for instance, disability access.

Upgrading such access to the museum carries a significantly increased cost compared with a typical office building because we need to adequately research, plan and carry out any works while looking for ways to enhance the understanding of the heritage values for visitors.

3. Career highlights: "Learning new skills"

I grew up on a farm outside of Goulburn, New South Wales. When I turned up with 400 other first-year university students at my first accounting lecture in Canberra, I knew I had to differentiate myself.

When a tax accounting traineeship came up at Boyce Chartered Accountants, I jumped at the opportunity to work and study at the same time. It gave me a good knowledge of the fundamentals of financial statements, tax accounting and what goes into running a small business.

My first job after university was at insolvency firm Ferrier Hodgson. There, I saw the other side of accounting – what not to do. I learned how not keeping an eye on cash flow or not keeping your books tidy can get a business into trouble.

I was also fortunate to work with an Aboriginal land council, which was starting up new businesses to support the local community. Very few people in the business came from an accounting background, so I had to start from scratch and help set up their accounting package, establish financial management systems, teach them how to keep their books, pay tax and complete their business activity statement and payroll, as well as help the business prepare the books ready for audit.

4. What I value: "Broad skill set"

CFOs need to have a broad range of skills to be relevant and of value to the organisations for which they work. 

From my previous roles I’ve learned consulting, tax, management accounting, budgeting, implementing financial management information systems, project management and financial accounting skills. 

These skills have given me the ability to be innovative and flexible, understand new concepts, and bring fresh ideas to the table. 

Lessons learned & best advice

Trial and error
Don’t be afraid to experiment with new ideas, even if it’s on a smaller scale. In the government space there can be many rules and guidelines around how to do things from the finance point of view, but you can still be innovative by considering the risks associated with certain courses of action and put mitigations in place to allow you to grow as a business. 

Move on from mistakes
The lessons you learn from mistakes you can use to roll out a larger project in the future or change the project altogether. 

Live life
Develop a work-life balance. At work, think about what’s important and focus on doing things that are important, but don’t neglect the other side of your life, because you need to be well-rounded to achieve consistently at a high level.

Be civil
Be confident and clear about your role. It’s not hard to be a nice person to work with, or a good colleague. Some of our functions are compliance-driven, but a certain amount of flexibility is needed in other areas of our work.

Read next: Meet the CFO of GE Australia

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August 2017
August 2017

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