3 tips for new CPAs

In 10 years Charley Rowley CPA has moved from being Tigerspike’s Sydney office manager to COO of a global business of over 300 employees, across 11 offices worldwide. Photo: Anthony Geernaert.

Digital services firm Tigerspike has set is sights on improving people's lives through technology. Its COO Charley Rowley CPA says it's humans, not technology, that drive the business forward.

At a glance

  • Charley Rowley CPA is COO of digital services company Tigerspike, which has offices in 11 countries.
  • Rowley runs 10 Tigerspike offices and says the COO role allows her direct influence on people and processes as they occur.
  • Key to Rowley’s strategy is hiring passionate, adaptable people and applying her financial nous to every part of the operation.

When Charley Rowley CPA arrived at digital services firm Tigerspike 10 years ago, she knew very little about digital services. She’d applied for the office manager role in Sydney, and says back then she was more inclined to take a backseat role than centre stage.

She was a young Briton whose on-the-ground knowledge of Australia consisted mostly of a stint of fruit picking. She’d been a snow coach and an office manager in London. She’d travelled a little, liked sport and hoped once she arrived she could play with the local netball team.

In those 10 years she has moved from being Tigerspike’s Sydney office manager to COO of a global business of over 300 employees, across 11 offices worldwide. She has been part of two successful rounds of investment and one successful acquisition by Concentrix, which is owned by a top Fortune 200 business – New York Stock Exchange-listed Synnex.

The company has grown exponentially in that time and its turnover now exceeds US$50 million. In that rather fraught decade Rowley completed her degree majoring in accountancy, followed by the three-year CPA Program.

At 34, Rowley’s career seems to have found a relentless trajectory, one that almost perfectly mirrors the rapid transformation of an industry that pumps out new products, apps and solutions daily – an industry that never appears to let up.

When Tigerspike was first created by Luke Janssen, Oliver Palmer and Dean Jezard in 2003, it was dabbling in ringtones, websites and mobile phone background wallpaper. By 2011 it had adapted its business to the demands of the iPhone and as 2020 draws nearer, it is exploring the world of virtual and augmented reality, considering the adaptations of blockchain and eyeing the possibilities of artificial intelligence.

Yet Rowley says the company’s success is not all about technology. Formally, the company offers bespoke digital solutions to its myriad government and corporate clients, which include Telstra, Emirates, the UK’s National Health Service and the New South Wales government agency, Family and Community Services. Informally, Rowley says, digital isn’t always the right way to go. As the digital boom gathered pace, Tigerspike developed its digital nous – but it also developed into a consultancy.

Beyond the hype

Rowley saw the changes come so fast in that decade that she is neither disrupted nor intimidated by them. It’s not always about being so very “woke” with the technology market. She describes the construction industry as not particularly sophisticated, and not all the solutions it needs must necessarily incorporate technology.

“We don’t always adopt digital for the sake of digital,” she says. “It has to be translatable to the businesses we’re working with. If we can’t find a good user case for it, we won’t invest the time and money.”

She gives the example of optimistic predictions on the uses of augmented and virtual reality. They simply haven’t come about. Businesses are not where the big consultancies said they would be by now, Rowley says. It was just another case of digital hype.

“We’ve found some good uses for this kind of technology in the HR sector,” she says. There is one application where virtual reality has been very useful. “Some companies are using it to train their staff about sexual harassment,” she says.

In a world that flips on the back of a microchip, running this kind of business must be full of guesswork. It is the people she employs, Rowley says, who make the difference. If the people have the right attitude to technology, disruptions coming at speed are always surmountable.

“You need to find the right people who will be able to nurture and add value to the team and then on to the greater organisation,” she says. “The company is built on people who have to have the adaptability to understand the changes and [who are] nimble enough to change with the needs of the time.”

Her role, as she sees it, is to inspire and motivate. You cannot divorce the chief operating job from the people who have to make it work. It is one part of her strategy. If the world of technology sets the rhythm, she must encourage the passion to harness it properly in the people she employs.

The other part of the strategy is to apply her financial nous to every part of the operation. She says she was once miffed that she was leap-frogged for a pure finance position in the company after finishing her CPA Australia qualification. She doesn’t worry about it now because she’d rather apply a financial purview upon the operational role.

“I thought after doing CPA Program my career progression would be deeper and deeper into finance, but really I am surprised by how much my financial background fits into my outlook in the current role.”

Global vision

In her 10 years Rowley has come to realise how closely accountancy fits with other C-suite roles including COO and CEO. The CFO’s largely reporting role, as she sees it, is more restrictive. The COO job allows her direct influence on people and processes as they occur.

“What I do is about understanding from end to end how the business works – not just reporting. As COO, you can influence issues that you see changing in front of your eyes – you’re seeing the numbers as they come in and making changes where and when they matter.”

Rowley is now running 10 offices, all of which are in different stages of maturity – and in different time zones. “It can be a nightmare,” she admits. “Sydney is the most advanced office, but it’s not in the most advanced market – the US and UK are tech leaders and the business over there is more mature. The environment in those markets is more competitive.”

In Australia she says the current challenge is to hire good people. The Department of Home Affairs is tightening visa controls and making fewer people available. By contrast, the UK and the US have an almost converse problem. The industry is so huge salaries are going through the roof.

"We don't always adopt a digital for the sake of digital, it has to be translatable to the businesses we're working with. If we can't find a good user case for it, we Won't invest the time and money."

Rowley has faced other logistical difficulties. Longtime CEO Alex Burke has recently departed and the company’s chief commercial officer, Doug Anderson, is acting CEO based in London. If you didn’t think Rowley’s role was varied enough, add into the mix Tigerspike’s takeover by US firm Concentrix in 2017. She had to spend time “moonlighting” to assist the takeover and bring in corporate alignment.

“We still have our own brand and our own systems and processes, but as part of a publicly listed company there’s the obvious increase in financial reporting,” Rowley says.
Concentrix has largely kept its hands off Tigerspike, and has even ushered in a number of new customer opportunities. “Two years into the takeover and we’re still working through what it all means, but there have been a lot of wins. Both Concentrix and Tigerspike have similar user-centric philosophies and it has worked well for new clients.”

One of Rowley’s most refreshing views is about the next generation. She is technically a millennial, and seems to be watching with some amusement her successors, Generation Z, vie for contention in the digital space. They have incredible digital skills, she says, which far surpass their older colleagues, but their other skills have not quite developed.

They’re a bit like toddlers. They know what they want to say, but haven’t learnt how to articulate it properly,” she laughs.

When they’re ready for leadership roles, one thing will be sure. Rowley’s softer skills, now finely honed, will be there to bring them gently into the operational fold. She may only be 34, but there’s no doubt who is running the Tigerspike mothership.

Tech women

The Tigerspike team in Sydney.

Rowley is highly self-deprecating and does not like to mention any particular triumphs. She’s very proud of bringing in a parental care scheme where the company pays 50 per cent of the cost of child care when the primary carer returns to work for at least four days a week.

Likewise, she’s honest enough to mention one of the HR platforms she brought in that didn’t work. It was meant to improve the on-boarding experience of new personnel and reduce paperwork, but it was a legacy solution. “We didn’t follow our own advice on that one,” she muses.

Rowley is currently completing a course with Women and Leadership Australia (WLA), and has been granted a A$7000 scholarship to study. It’s an advanced program for senior female managers.

“I have been pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t a male-bashing session. It has nothing to do with gender.”

Rowley believes many women have been put off the IT world because of its reputation as an industry dominated by men.

“WLA has helped me realise that women can bring to IT many things men can’t – and yes, it is about the softer skills.”

As far as Rowley is concerned, keeping staff engaged and motivated is an operational KPI every bit as important as the bottom line.

“I like to think that I have brought this way of thinking to my role as COO,” she says.

Tips for new CPAs

Don't be afraid
If you feel you have a broader skillset, look for strategic roles outside of accounting. This is where the magic happens for both businesses and our own development.

Control your own learning journey
Take all learning opportunities and continually invest in yourself.

Resilience is a key to success
Often learned the hard way, ensure you are practising how to be resilient. It is required in most lines of work, but primarily in more senior roles. It’s also needed to complete your CPA!

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