Question the status quo says this CFO

Nigel Mason FCPA, Group CFO, AirEng. Photo by Damien Pleming.

Mentors helped Nigel Mason FCPA find his direction as an accountant. Now at AirEng he has his own passion to develop businesses and people.

By Rachael McKinney

Fact file

Joined: October 2017
Based: Bayswater North, VIC
Qualifications: FCPA; Bachelor of Business, Accounting & IT, Swinburne University of Technology
Formerly: general manager, RDL Accountants; corporate accountant, Autobarn; financial controller, Haigh Australia; financial coordinator, Eastern House Publishing; graduate accounant, Moore Stephens
AirEng: US-owned specialist industrial fan manufacturer that makes custom centrifugal and axial fans for mining and other sectors
Team: 62 people
Group annual revenue: more than A$20 million

1. Game changer: “Finding my skills” 

Throughout my career I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors. When I was still a graduate accountant with Moore Stephens, there was a manager, Lewis, who was a huge advocate for you if you worked hard. I found him to be exceptionally thoughtful, wise and discerning. 

One evening, he said to me: “Look, where do you think your career is going?” We had a brief chat about some of my options and, at that stage, I thought I knew [what I wanted]. However, he said: “Why don’t we put it on ice and let’s talk about it?”

We had a few more chats and I said I really love business advisory, I love business. He said the best way to develop your business advisory skills was to get involved in audit, where you’ll get to meet some very intellectually smart CFOs and CEOs. As a result, I chose that path rather than IT, tax or compliance. 

Soon after, I went on an audit in Port Melbourne. It was a large wholesale business, and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the managing director. I learned so much from him about the business. It confirmed that I’d made the right choice.

These days, business advisory is almost a hobby, and it’s something I get involved with through my voluntary roles. I was treasurer for the Australian Centre for Mission Aviation, a training organisation for pilots and engineers in remote locations, and I’m a committee member of the Overseas Aid and Relief Fund. I love getting involved with those I can help strategically, and I can actually make a bigger difference.

2. Challenge: “Setting a business direction” 

When I was the financial controller at Haigh Australia, its managing director, Barry, developed brain cancer. It was completely unexpected. As his health deteriorated, I was called on more and more to take over his responsibilities. Eventually, when he passed away, although there was another managing director interstate, I pretty much took over his workload.

Until then I had been a traditional backward-looking accountant, banging away producing a profit-and-loss and a balance sheet at the end of the month. Taking over Barry’s responsibilities meant that was no longer enough and, instead, I had to roll up my sleeves and get strategically involved in the business. 

It forced me to develop my business acumen and a greater understanding and appreciation of business and how business works. During that time, I found that finances took on a different dimension. I was no longer reporting historical facts, I was actually in charge of setting the direction of the business.

I’d had a really good working relationship with Barry; he’d also been something of a mentor to me. I was able to use what I had learned from him, mirroring his behaviour, and step up when the role demanded it. 

Professional Development: Thinking like a CFO - making financial decisions. Learn how a CFO perspective is applied to many of the activities and financial decisions you make on a daily basis.

3. Role: “Root-and-branch review” 

I deal with a lot of the day-to-day aspects of the finance function in my role as CFO, including preparing, developing and reviewing budgets, forecasts and cash flow. Since I’m fairly new, I’m also leading a root-and-branch review of the systems and processes, and the organisational structure and culture. When a business is very entrepreneurial, at some point in time unless you’ve got your back-end – your stumps in the house – secure and strong, it will just crumble.

For example, the business has outgrown its current accounting software and too many hours are spent pulling together the monthly financials. We are looking at alternative enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that will meet our expanding needs.

4. Passion: “Helping businesses grow” 

My passion is developing businesses and educating people to make well-informed business decisions. When you’re dealing with business owners who have, say, 30 staff, seeing the positive effect you can have on those staff through the owner is just so exciting.

I like questioning the status quo, really asking what’s going on and having a greater understanding of what’s driving things. For example, it’s easy to say “you’re short of cash”, but cash-flow problems are symptomatic – often it’s got nothing to do with cash. Getting to the heart of the problem is my passion.

I also really enjoy mentoring, and I’ve mentored many accountants. Books by Jim Collins, Stephen Covey and Dale Carnegie are tools I use regularly. I’ll suggest a book my mentees can read and I’ll actually read it with them. Some of these books I’ve read a few times now. 

Lessons learned & best advice

Embrace technology
It’s never been a better time to be a CPA. There are some brilliant technology changes such as artificial or assisted intelligence (AI) that are already affecting the way we work, and there are more changes to come. Technology is a tool that can help businesses really nail the basics such as reducing costs and improving the timeliness of outcomes.

Lead by example
If you lead just by telling people, it won’t work. You have to let people follow your behaviour. When you lead by example, it provides clear direction, helps build organisational alignment and guides your team to focus on the sustainable achievement of goals.

Focus on people
Develop and value people’s capabilities and help them release their skills, resourcefulness and creativity to change and improve the organisation. It’s not just about you or me, it’s about passing it forward. I do kayak instruction on Saturday afternoons and there is nothing like seeing someone’s reaction when they’ve made it down a whitewater course, and they think “If I can do that, I can do anything”.  

Bring the data
The management consultant and statistician W. Edwards Deming famously said: “In God we trust, all others must bring data”. You have to use data to improve business performance. Information and knowledge help us understand variability, identify outliers and improve strategic and operational decision-making. Use it wisely to question the business status quo.

Read next: How to make mentoring work and why your workplace will benefit

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