Transitioning to a Portfolio CFO: Interview with Martin Eberhardt, Owner, FD Resource & Support

Hi Martin. Please can you provide a quick overview of your career to date, including your impressive experience as a Portfolio CFO?

After some years with Big 4 firms, I spent over 10 years in FD and CFO roles in the SME sector, both private and public. From 2011, I moved into the portfolio CFO arena which allowed me to focus on the aspects of CFO work that I both most enjoyed and could best add value to clients.

Being a portfolio CFO may mean different things to different people; in my case, initially that centred on short-term projects of up to 18 months focused on change programmes such as re-configuring and improving finance functions, executing M&A or restoring stressed organisations.

More recently, that has transitioned into a portfolio of part-time roles, often where previous interim clients have wanted me to provide more strategic advice.

Which types of companies typically look to appoint Portfolio CFOs?

Obviously all CVs speak to a certain market; in my case, SMEs. In my experience, it has been those companies with a skill gap such as those mentioned above, where the incumbent FD or CFO may not have the bandwidth, experience or skill set to address a specific business need. Or companies who need the input of a senior-level CFO, but where the size and development stage of the business simply does not justify a six-figure salary.

I was surprised that it was not normally distressed companies who needed support, but rather those who recognised that they needed help to move to where they wanted to be.

Which are the most important elements of the Portfolio CFO role?

Whether as a part-time FD or interim, the client will want to know that you will fit in with the culture as well as possess the relevant technical skills – we are there to fix rather than break things! I see myself as standing in the gap to support the business team and their objectives.

Whereas an interim role may require quick action, a part-time longer-term role will likely involve taking more time to listen and get alongside existing teams.

Whatever the circumstance, strong interpersonal skills are particularly important compared to a traditional full-time role.

Do you have any tips for how best to transition from a full-time CFO role into a Portfolio CFO?

Firstly, ask yourself if it really is for you. It may seem superficially attractive in terms of lifestyle and I really enjoy it, but it won’t suit everyone. There will be fat years and lean years, rather than a constant salary.

Also, one of the most challenging aspects I have found is building a great team only to bid colleagues and friends farewell as you move on. Or if it is a longer-term but part-time role, the challenges of managing different client demands may sometimes remind you of why you left the profession in the first place. Maybe not a great career choice then for someone who treasures stability.

Geographical flexibility is also key as the roles that will fit one’s profile will almost certainly not always be near home! It took me nearly a year to land my first substantive role, which requires the resilience to build and work your network, but I found that persevering for the right role worked in the long run as I was able to build a track record in the areas I wanted to work.

What should a Portfolio CFO do to impress a new client?

Listen and empathise with the challenges they face and make sure you know what their need is – if possible, before you meet them. Don’t rush at solutions but be able to demonstrate how skills and experience you have could be part of their solution. I’ve been fortunate to work in a variety of sectors so I tend to focus on skills I can bring to bear, but obviously if you have relevant industry experience, that will be well-received. If not, then do your homework!

Often the client will be fronted by a CFO themselves. They will be quick to pick up bluster, so be genuine. They are also likely to be more open to your involvement if they are comfortable that you really are a career interim looking to support their role, not supplant it.

Or you may be facing an MD without an FD. They may take your technical expertise as read, but will need to be reassured that you can support them, even though you may not always be present.

What are your top tips for adding value as a Portfolio CFO?

It was tempting to use a scattergun approach to get the first role, but I quickly learned to focus on businesses and projects that interested me and where I was confident I knew I could deliver step-change improvements.

For me that meant a focus on SME in terms of size, focusing on my key skills and experience in finance function transformation, cash management and M&A. Also, targeting industry sectors where I have either had previous experience, or which shared similar features with those that I have been exposed to.

Any other final tips for Portfolio CFOs?

Before starting down this road, I was warned companies looking to hire an interim or part-time CFO are wary of those with long and stable career histories, fearing that the candidate is looking for a “fill-in” role. Doubtless, that was a barrier to my entry, but after my third role, it became much easier.

My reflection from this is that unless you are lucky, using this as a stop-gap while you search for the longer-term role may end up a waste of your most valuable resource: time.

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