From crowdfunding cattle to an ethical tech firm… we meet three CAs transforming the world of finance with their disruptive mindsets…
Disruption. Until recently, it was a word only heard muttered to parents of noisy kids at PTA meetings or colleagues grumbling about miserable train journeys to the office. But over the last decade, it’s become the ubiquitous business buzzword: think Uber upending the taxi industry, Airbnb forcing hotels to up their game, or budget airlines changing aviation’s business model forever.
Disruption is probably the defining business concept of the 21st century so far; today even the most staid corporations are appointing ‘chief disruption officers’.
It is much more than a staple of venture capitalists’ PowerPoint decks though. We’re accustomed to hearing it in accountancy too, sometimes skewered with a more negative tint: gloomy prognoses that automation will replace our jobs, new technologies such as blockchain threatening to make ledger sheets redundant, or cloud-based accounting platforms loosening the grip of the Big Four.
Yes, the 2020s could be a turbulent time for some chartered accountants, but with the right mindset, it could be one that generates many more opportunities than threats. Here, The CA speaks to three ICAS trained disruptors who, by attempting to break the mould, are helping to reinvent their sectors…
Tech City needs more CFOs – it’s a great way to develop your career. – Jakub Kohout CA is Finance Director for investment platform Seedrs. ICAS qualified: 2012
East London’s Tech City is the UK’s obvious nerve centre for wannabe disruptors: an estimated 5,000 tech firms – including Moshi Monsters and Deliveroo – are clustered around Old Street’s roundabout. One of its biggest success stories is crowdfunding platform Seedrs. Since 2012, its model of allowing backers to make an investment from as little as a tenner (in return for shares of a business) has helped turn equity-based funding on its head. In the process, it has, at time of writing, raised more than £756m (the website proudly displays the figure on its home page) for fledgling start-ups, ranging from artisan cheesemakers to Happy Days musicals. Tennis star Andy Murray is a Seedrs investor.
But it was funding seeds of a different kind that convinced Jakub Kohout to join Seedrs from his managerial job at EY, where he spent six years. He took a sabbatical to volunteer for the MicroLoan Foundation in Malawi, helping villagers start small businesses – usually securing loans to buy seeds.
When Kohout arrived back at his EY desk, he decided it was time for a life change. “I wanted to grow both myself and a company,” he recalls.
Lo and behold, in 2016 he went from “the comfort and linear career progressions” of EY, with its plush offices and 270,000 employees, to a company boasting just 25 staff (Seedrs has since scaled to nearly 100). With many entrepreneurs needing a quality finance director to act as numerical yin to their risk-taking yang, Kohout believes working for disruptors is a fantastic way for new CAs to boost their career prospects.
“The value CAs can bring to these businesses is what they often lack in their early stages,” says the 32-year-old, who currently runs a five-strong finance team at Seedrs. “You can definitely develop quicker within a smaller organisation; you get a broad awareness of the entire business.” Indeed, Kohout says his role as Finance Director sees him “involved with everything. So far this week, I did recruitment and HR stuff on Monday, data accuracy on Tuesday, and then presented 2020 planning to the executive management on Wednesday.”
Along the way, Kohout also experiences the buzz of seeing unlikely businesses receive funding. His personal favourite is the agritech firm Hectare. “It’s a marketplace for cattle,” he says. “These farmers use tech to make something that’s been around forever [cattle marketplaces] more efficient. It [epitomises] the wonderful democratisation of private equity that Seedrs can bring.”
State of independence
Kohout’s background appears every bit as disruptive as the company he works for. Born in the Czech Republic, he went to school in Slovenia and Poland, before winding up at Royal Holloway University and an internship at EY. He believes this itinerant upbringing “helps with my independence, which drives disruption. I don’t want to do the same things twice, whether going to the same restaurant or [the same place on] vacation.”
The value CAs can bring to these businesses is what they often lack in their early stages. You can definitely develop quicker within a smaller organisation; you get a broad awareness of the entire business.
He also credits his ICAS training with fuelling this self-sufficiency. “ICAS teaches you the commerciality and awareness of the entire business,” he says. “It doesn’t just equip you with technical reporting, but also the softer side – your own confidence, people management, and ensuring teams develop. It teaches risk, too – a big issue for FDs and CEOs in the future.” Today, Seedrs fosters a disruptive mindset among staff by getting non-tech employees to attend ‘hack days’ and revamping the recruiting process by staging “culture interviews” in which “somebody who isn’t from HR chats with the interviewee on their values, beliefs, interests and disruption-thinking. It helps ensure a more diverse environment.”
He also believes the success of companies such as Seedrs has forced the more established players to think differently: see KPMG’s entrepreneurial hub in Camden or Barclays’ tech-based Accelerator programme, both designed to reproduce the dynamism of Tech City.
“In 2008, everybody was applying for the big jobs at big banks or the Big Four,” says Kohout. “But since then, fintech has exploded and there’s more distrust in traditional banks. The big corporates are seeing the benefit of being identified as a disruptive firm, which explains these quasi-hubs.”
For CAs concerned about the changes of the future, he has some promising words: “Back in 2008, everybody talked about the financial crisis. But sometimes, crisis means good things; it drives innovation. Seedrs might not have existed without it.”
I left Deloitte after 22 years to join a small start-up. – Debbie Thomas CA is group CFO at London fintech firm Bibimoney, which provides financial services to people in developing nations who have no access to banks. ICAS qualified: 2004
Twenty-two years, four months and 17 days.” Debbie Thomas can reel off the exact length of time she spent at accountancy giant Deloitte. She could have stayed longer, perhaps receiving a carriage clock one day. Instead, in 2016, her life changed when a friend, “fond of hare-brained schemes”, showed her an innovative new product: mobile wallet Bibimoney. “Once I saw this product, a light-bulb went off in my head,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘I need to be part of this.’” Thomas met with Bibimoney CEO Shiraz Jessa; a week later she handed in her notice.
Using a patented piece of technology called the SIM-Skin, which Thomas describes as a “sticker that sticks on top of your sim card”, Bibimoney lets users install an app on their mobile, even if it’s not a smartphone. These can be used to access money wallet services, such as mobile banking. For people in remote areas of developing nations, often with no access to banks, such financial services can be genuinely lifechanging. This is a big market too: nearly 60% of the world’s population don’t have smartphones.
The framework is changing the whole time. There will be some in the industry, just like Blockbuster when streaming happened, that will be left behind. But that is all part of the progress that occurs with disruption.
For the father in Botswana whose house is plunged into darkness at 10pm when his generator runs out, it means he can pay for his electricity immediately rather than having to drive to the nearest kiosk the following day. For the schoolteachers in the Solomon Islands undertaking dangerous two-day journeys across shark-infested waters to capital Honiara to withdraw salaries from their bank accounts (seven people recently died when a boat capsized), it means their wages can now be transferred directly into their mobile bank accounts, ready for them to spend. It’s monumental too, for the people in Lesotho whom Tomas recently visited, who “have to walk miles every day to charge their phone, let alone visit their bank”.
Born in South Africa, Tomas arrived in the UK in the late 1990s. Her London office bears the influence of the continent, whether it’s her green narinabird- inspired Ardmore wallpaper or the book on ‘kasinomics’ (township economics) on her shelf. Yet, despite having already spent 10 years at Deloitte (in both the UK and South Africa), and becoming a partner, in 2004 she had to sit her accountancy qualifications again – this time at ICAS. “I had to go back to college with all these third years,” she says. “I was terrified – what if I didn’t pass?” As it happened, Tomas fared extremely well, achieving the third-best results in the UK for that year.
Leaving Deloitte in 2016 was liberating. “I’ve always been a creative person – disruptive, if you will, always trying to do things differently. In the confines of Deloitte, I felt caged. Coming to Bibimoney changed my life and the way I look at things.”
This disruptive ethos also runs through Bibimoney: Tomas even recruited one employee, a bright maths graduate, on Brighton beach. Today, her role sees her handle cash control and cashflows, assess risk and prepare business models for different countries. “[At start-ups], everybody has to get their hands dirty,” she says. “I’m involved with everything now – even stacking the dishwasher!”
Working at a disruptor firm has made Thomas realise companies need to be future-focused. “Many accountants are wedded to the old ways,” she says. “But the framework is always changing. There will be some in the industry, just like Blockbuster when streaming happened, that will be left behind. That is all part of the progress that occurs with disruption.”
We might be one of the biggest businesses in the world, but I still see Visa as a disruptor. – Claire Sunderland Hay CA is Chief of Staff at Visa Europe. ICAS qualified: 2009
Visa Inc is one of the planet’s most venerable firms: according to Global Finance magazine it’s the world’s ninth-highest-valued company by market capitalisation, worth some $389bn (£291bn). It processes 100 billion transactions a year, while the advertising of the 61-year-old American payment giant is splashed over hoardings at the Olympics and World Cup. It hardly fts the scrappy upstart archetype of disruptive firms.
Not so, according to Claire Sunderland Hay, Visa Europe’s Chief of Staff: “In the 1960s Visa was one of the original fintech firms, enabling us to use cards in a way that wasn’t possible before. The disruptive businesses of today are focused on ensuring consumer experiences are as easy as possible. Being focused on end-user experience is something we do all the time.”
Sunderland Hay is speaking to The CA from the Visa London Innovation Center, a 1,000 square metre creative space, full of glass walls, Aaltoesque chairs and breakout pods where designers on beanbags hammer away on laptops. It’s here – and in Visa’s other innovation centres across the globe – that Sunderland Hay says many Visa innovations are hatched, such as a recent biometric card that uses a fingerprint scanner instead of a PIN number.
If not for the copious Visa branding, you’d think it was the office of a flashy Silicon Valley unicorn. It’s clear the fintech revolution has changed the way Visa thinks, not just its choice of workplace decor. “Rather than developing a product and saying, ‘This is the best thing for you to use’, fintech firms want to develop a product that helps people and makes their experience easier – an awful lot of [traditional] firms have learned from this,” says Sunderland Hay, who pitched – and subsequently helped to establish – the award-winning FinTech Accelerator at the Bank of England. “That is why many other traditional players are setting up challenger banks within their existing bank framework to demonstrate that they’re learning from the fintech sector.”
Doing the maths
Sunderland Hay joined Visa in summer 2018. “My career has been disruptive – I haven’t followed a classic career path,” she says. Since graduating from Oxford in maths in 2006 – the self-confessed “maths geek” also did a Master’s there – Sunderland Hay has worked at EY, Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Services Authority.
She regularly uses her degree discipline. “With business being increasingly data-driven, it enables you to feel very comfortable. [Maths is] the building blocks on which we build the world, and interpret it.”
Her ICAS training has proved equally useful. “I remember our TPE exam tutor telling us, ‘issue, implication, recommendation’. It roughly translates as: never just find an issue or problem. Instead, ask ‘What does this mean?’, ‘What should we do about it?’ ICAS also helps students develop a commercial mindset, which is fundamental for business success.”
The ability to question and challenge the status quo is a quality she wants to cultivate among her team at Visa Europe. “I try to create an environment that fosters learning and questions,” she says. “That constant mindset of challenging oneself is what brings a disruptive mindset… Open banking, plus regulatory and tech changes means the world of payments is a dynamic environment at the moment. To keep up that pace, you have to keep on evolving.”