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Podcast episode 3: The Fractional Finance Director.

Shaun Walsh, Founder and CEO of the Business Growth Institute talks about his 15 year old distributed business, fractional roles and business marriage counselling

Transcription Episode 3: The Fractional Finance Director

We use AI to record and transcribe our podcasts, so while we give it a whizz through to make sure there's nothing shockingly wrong, the below is our verbatim conversation so it might get a little odd to read in places...


David Coghlan, Richard Johnson, Shaun Walsh

David Coghlan 00:03 Hi, everybody, and welcome to the latest IMG podcast. My name is David Coghlan, and I'm joined by my co founder, Richard.

Richard Johnson 00:13 Hello, how're you doing?

David Coghlan 00:15 And this month on the podcast, we're really excited to be joined by a friend, a client, and an excellent all around person as well as an accountant. Apart from being an accountant he is generally Okay. Thank you. And welcome Shaun Walsh.

Shaun Walsh 00:32 Thank you. Yeah. Good. Good to be with you i'm the one in the top right. The handsome one.

David Coghlan 00:40 You always got to get that in Shaun.

Richard Johnson 00:43 But actually on my screen I'm in the top right. So that could be anybody, so thanks for that.

David Coghlan 00:52 The wonders of Zoom. So, yes. So So yeah, thank you for joining us really appreciate it. And the reason why we were really excited to have Shaun on the podcast was, we are big advocates of distributed working, flexible working, remote working. And Shaun, you've actually sort of been using this model for years. How long have you been working like this?

Shaun Walsh 01:17 12/15 years, I guess. So, everybody's walking around saying that COVID's a big change for them. For me, it's actually business as usual. In some ways. It's actually made my work life easier in that clients don't expect me to come and see them anymore.

David Coghlan 01:35 Ha ha so now actually, everybody's now caught up with you.

Shaun Walsh 01:40 Yes.

Richard Johnson 01:42 It was interesting. We were speaking to someone the other day weren't we Dave and they said that actually, the world, via COVID has caught up with their way of working. And as you've said, you were ahead of COVID

Shaun Walsh 01:54 Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, 15 years ago, it was goto meeting. And, I'm sure there's other ones around at the time. How on earth they've missed the COVID surge and zoom's captured it all, somebody needs shooting at that business!

Shaun Walsh 02:12 But yeah, we work on cloud based systems, so it all works extremely well online. It's absolutely brilliant

David Coghlan 02:25 So tell us about your business. What do you do? Where do you come from? What's your experience etc?

Shaun Walsh 02:34 Yeah, so I'm a chartered accountant former PwC (Price Waterhouse Cooper). And I do strategic finance director work, I've got a number of different businesses; Business Growth Services, where we work with clients, I've mentioned the cloud based accounting system Xero, and that really enables the whole remote working with clients piece.

Shaun Walsh 03:00 I'm just launching a coaching business The Business Growth Institute to coach clients in financial management and managing profit and cash flow. And I'm doing acquisitions as a CFO for a private equity group. And we are hoping to complete on a 20 million turnover acquisition next Wednesday. If that goes well.

David Coghlan 03:27 Wow. So pretty busy then.

Shaun Walsh 03:30 Yeah, yeah, very much so. But really, really enjoying myself at the moment. And I guess the whole, you know, theme, in terms of what I do with clients and for my own businesses is Build, Buy, Exit. We're looking at helping the current business and getting that really streamlined as a profit and cash flow machine and optimising that. Buying other businesses to build out the offering and then helping business owners exit for high value over a five year or more period.

David Coghlan 04:15 So that's really interesting, and I know your background in PwC and consulting and all that kind of stuff. But the services you offer feel really, hands on, face to face, very personal. So how have you managed to carve a niche out where you can have a remote team, work online, etc. How does that work for you?

Shaun Walsh 04:38 Well, I mean, very, very well. If I think about the clients first, when you're a finance director and you're helping a business owner grow from A to B, there's often problems in the business, it's distressed. They've got cashflow issues, and actually the relationship with business owners is extremely close and intimate. It's almost like marriage counselling sometimes.

Shaun Walsh 05:04 And 12 months ago, I would have said, Yes, the the online stuff helps, but face to face helps as well. And of course it does. But I've got clients that I've never met, and we are extremely close, and I would count them as friends as well as clients.

Shaun Walsh 05:28 I suspect the COVID thing has helped in that regard, in that people are much more expecting to relate online. So it's very hands on, and it's very intimate and close. It's not a hands off thing at all.

Shaun Walsh 05:50 So that's clients, staff, I've got some staff I've been working with for three years, I've never met in person!

David Coghlan 05:59 You're joking!

Shaun Walsh 05:59 No, before the podcast I was thinking about where my staff actually are. I've got staff in Spain, and France, expatriates, and I've got staff in South Africa for different bits and access to a big team of accountants and bookkeepers in the Philippines. And I've also got people I work with a few miles away, yourself included Dave, somebody in Ilkeston, Lisa, and so it really is international. And because we've got common systems I haven't met some of them. In fact, most of them face to face or in person.

Richard Johnson 06:55 I think the thing that really crystallised the model to me and testament to how it works is that you introduced us to Sue, to help us with our accountancy and stuff like that. Me and Dave were on a call with Sue, just like we are now. And I think she randomly dropped into the conversation it's quite sunny today, and I was looking out my window going, really?

Richard Johnson 07:20 And this is probably our third meeting with her. And she turned around and said 'oh, I'm in Spain'. And I was almost like, dumbfounded and gobsmacked because it had no impact on the service, or anything like that. As far as I'm concerned, she was, well I naturally assumed she was in the UK, because that's the default thing. And it's only when people tell you, it's like, wow.

Shaun Walsh 07:44 Well, now, you know that she'll probably start winding you up by saying, 'Oh, it's 42 degrees on my patio!'

David Coghlan 07:51 Yeah, yeah. I had a call with Sylvie, the graphic designer based in South Africa. And I was getting all excited because it's spring. I was like 'The sun's out and it's lovely it's 13 degrees!' She said 'Oh yeah, it's Autumn here and it's 34 degrees.'

Shaun Walsh 08:10 I think that's another aspect of it, actually. Because taking the point of Sylvie, our graphic designer in South Africa. I mean, you've seen some of the stuff she does Dave and she is absolutely awesome.

Shaun Walsh 08:26 It's the ability to access best in class talent.

Shaun Walsh 08:34 I don't need a full time graphic designer, it's just a few hundred pounds a month. But she's doing some phenomenal stuff to support the launch of The Business Growth Institute. And just the ability to be able to get that talent on tap, when you need it. It's based on how good the talent is not, where they're located.

Richard Johnson 08:58 That's exactly it.

Richard Johnson 09:02 Working in the old corporate world, you would constantly compromise yourself by location, and it would be like, 'You're brilliant. Do you fancy moving from Oxford to Leicester for this job?' And they'd be like, 'Not a chance, no' But now, you would just be like, great!

David Coghlan 09:18 Nothing wrong with Leicester though!

Richard Johnson 09:20 Well, yeah. No, I'm not saying there was but yeah. Okay, hang on that might have just alienated Leicester people, I didn't mean that sorry!

Shaun Walsh 09:27 Yeah, and I think the other thing is, and it'll be very applicable to your business, when somebody says they want an accountant. That can mean a lot of different things. It might mean a bookkeeper, it might mean a management accountant. It might be somebody that manages cash, Treasury, it might be an FD that does the forecasting, it might be somebody can go raise money. And if you are stuck with one person, if you can only afford one person, trying to get that range of skill in one person is well nigh impossible. But being able to get a few hours of an FD and a few hours of a management accountant and three days a week of a bookkeeper for the same sort of budget, because it's a distributed team it means that you're probably spending a lot less and you get the precise amount of skills you need for that particular function. Being able to break it down from one person to multiple people for that role really maximises the capability big style in my world. And in your world, with marketing, I think if you dabble you lose. You have to have the best Facebook marketeer the best Google Marketeer the best of all of these things to really breakthrough in those technologies and the spread of skills in your world is even greater than mine and the payoff for expertise is extremely high and the tax for dabbling is prohibitive.

David Coghlan 11:21 Yeah massively. I think that was something we called out on our website in terms of the atomization of marketing. When I first got into it as a digital marketer, I did a bit of everything; SEO, Pay Per Click, there wasn't really much social but you just kind of pick it up. And now each of those disciplines, which i've got a little bit of knowledge in, you can spend your whole life just in one of those areas. I can't keep up which is why our model works well because we've got lots of different people that are very bloody good at all of the different areas.

David Coghlan 11:58 So I guess the parallels between our businesses in terms of setup are undeniable and I think it's really encouraging to hear that your clients are seeing exactly the same benefits that we see. What would be really interesting for us to discuss is what's going on out there? We've obviously, recently been working corporate side on the client side in a business and now we're doing this, but what's what's happening elsewhere? What's happening with your clients were they making any moves towards this sort of model before COVID or has this lit the touchpaper that's changed how your clients operate.

Shaun Walsh 12:41 I mean case in point really, we were looking at an acquisition about 15 months ago of a firm of engineers, I'll just have to be careful what I say here, but it was just sort of break even, not making a lot of money and you looked at the P&L and the rent was about 15 grand a month's which was about 10% of turnover. So 10% of your net profit was going to a landlord, which if i was in that business would really piss me off! Excuse me if i shouldn't be swearing but

Richard Johnson 13:27 We'll put adult appropriate on it that's fine ha ha

David Coghlan 13:29 Ha ha yep a disclaimer on Shaun's podcast yeah

Shaun Walsh 13:34 Yeah! So I said 'Well we've got to make some money in this business, particularly if we're going to buy in. The office rent is is 10% of turnover what can we do about that? Can we work remotely can we reduce the size of the office so that we can save money?'

Shaun Walsh 13:55 There was a lot of pushback from the engineering directors to say 'Well you know that might work for other businesses, but we need the big 3D maps on the table, everybody needs to look round and see what the drawings are telling them blah blah blah' So it was it was no go.

Shaun Walsh 14:16 Three weeks later COVID hit and about three weeks after that the business was functioning fully from home on microsoft teams. It was the burning platform right, they had to do it and i think that's what the whole COVID thing, and what i've seen, is that those companies who were not open to remote working and some of the cloud based type stuff that we're very familiar with, they were forced into it. And actually found that it wasn't as bad as they thought it was going to be.

Shaun Walsh 15:02 Now in this, I'll just tell you a bit more about how that's developed. So we've managed to restructure the office, so that cost has now reduced from fifteen grand to four and a half grand.

David Coghlan 15:21 Wow!

Shaun Walsh 15:22 So, that is... 7% net profit savings over a very small period of time. We've had to remodel the office so there's a bit of CapEx to get to that, but we've now right size the office to their team and we're working remotely. It's all on Microsoft Azure, ignite and Microsoft 365, all that type of stuff.

Shaun Walsh 15:48 But there are problems, it's not so easy for everybody in their different homes. I mean, some people have got good home environments, and some haven't. We had to buy laptops for everybody, that was a bit costly, but you know, and were we're getting to is that actually, we were going to be offering a hybrid arrangement where people can work a couple of days in the office, and two or three days at home, that sort of thing.

Shaun Walsh 16:24 There are some businesses like mine, probably like yours, where you can go all the way. And it works. And you can make it work to be fully remote. But I think some some businesses and particularly ones that have been a bit more traditional in the past, they do want face time with their staff and sometimes the information flow can take a lot longer, virtually than if you were just face to face. So, in that business, it's based in central London, massive savings and the staff are not having to do an hour and a half travel each way.

David Coghlan 17:08 Yeah. Yeah.

Shaun Walsh 17:15 But in that particular business, the hybrid thing of one or two days in the office a week with a bit of face time, I think that takes some of the edges off the inefficiencies that come with working remotely, if that makes sense?

David Coghlan 17:27 Yeah, 100%. I think the phrase that you've coined there, 'right sizing' is probably the critical term. Because there's definitely going to be a need for space. Obviously, Richard and I have set this up remotely, I haven't seen in six months, but I'm desperate to go and see people!

David Coghlan 17:50 Because just looking at these four walls is crazy. But we can go anywhere. And I think that it's absolutely going to be that hybrid, but like you say it's about having a space, which is not prohibitively expensive for your business, which is appropriate.

David Coghlan 18:08 There's a friend of mine who works in retail, in central London, he works in the head office for a fashion brand and they were bursting at the seams of there office. They were thinking the lease is up soon, we'll need to get a bigger office. Then COVID hit, everybody was sent to work remotely, all of a sudden they're not moving, they're going to keep the office the same size, everyone's going to hot desk, and they're just going to come in and go as they please. So the model for that business has now shifted in exacty the same way you did.

Richard Johnson 18:40 I think it's attitudinal, though isn't it. I get what you're saying, Shaun, there will be that need for a hybrid. And we've talked before about how the younger generation, how are they going to learn how to interact with people if it's remote. But to my point of view, a lot of it is attitudinal. You meet leaders or owners of businesses who say, 'It's just not possible to work from home.' And COVID just blew that apart. They were forced down that change.

Richard Johnson 18:44 Something my dad always used to say to me was 'Do you believe it? Or were you just told it?' I think there's a massive difference there. It's like, 'Oh, you can't work from home'. But what's driving that? A lot of it is unfounded belief really. And the COVID bang means it's now got to happen. And actually, it's not too bad!

Shaun Walsh 19:40 Yeah. as people have said in the news, COVID brought the changes that were going to happen anyway just a lot faster. That's absolutely right. I think some of the industries like marketing and there's a whole stream in my world of the financial accountants who are very cloud driven, there's a whole early adopter thing in in my world. But there are the still traditional minded people in my world, but also in some industries that will come a lot slower. But COVID has really forced that upon them in a way that if left to their own devices wouldn't have happened for a long time.

Richard Johnson 20:27 There's definitely ease in certain things. If I go back to our corporate world, what I would call 'shared services', they're easy ones to move so your finance, your marketing, your HR, your legal teams, there is no need potentially for them to ever be in an office again. But your your call centres etc. that takes time, but there are certain simple ones, which can do and probably will never potentially go back post this.

Shaun Walsh 20:57 Certainly from what I see in the businesses I'm involved with, there is a real fed-up-ness with COVID, frustration and people want to go out and see people again. Particularly sales guys who want to go out and meet customers and that type of stuff. So I think there is clearly going to be as the lockdown hopefully comes off, there'll be a bit of a swing back the other way. But I don't personally see this changing at all. The genie isn't going back into the bottle, it ain't going anywhere.

Shaun Walsh 21:38 Some of my colleagues that go into London to some of the offices there, they're saying that the tubes are absolutely empty, so it's a bit like ghost town. It will reverse as lockdown comes off, but let me put it this way, I wouldn't want to be in commercial property in London at the moment! As a business I don't think that would be a great place to be.

David Coghlan 22:04 What are your thoughts on the wider, economic sort of things have happened as a result? I guess over the COVID period it feels like there's been plenty of money around and support from the government. When that sort of winds back a bit. What are your views on what might happen there in the business world?

Shaun Walsh 22:32 Well during COVID, we've all heard of industries that have been absolutely decimated. Retail, hospitality, airlines, etc. when the tectonic plates move so aggressively against you, it almost doesn't matter how good at management you are, you may well be going down and there's not much you can do about it.

David Coghlan 22:57 Yeah,

Shaun Walsh 22:58 But a lot of businesses, some I own and business I'm involved with, have actually done quite well out of COVID, not least, because of the government support around. Which I have to say, in my mind has been absolutely fantastic and has stopped a lot of companies going under. Again, the client I mentioned earlier, the engineering consultancy, we're 20 staff, London wages and with the drop down in turnover, we could not have kept people on. But the furlough scheme enabled us to manage the cost to the revenue and kept those jobs. And it would have been terrible to lose them because they're real jobs and they will come back.

Shaun Walsh 23:51 So I think the governant supports been phenomenal, I think some companies have actually got more cash than they've ever had before. And they're actually looking for things to do with it. So the balance sheet of UK Government, as shifted a lot of cash to the balance sheets of individual companies. And I think the companies that is the situation for, as the demand picks up, I think you're going to see a lot of activity in the next six to twelve months. But also, clearly the ones that have got weak balance sheets there's going to be a lot of companies go bust as the support gets lifted off as well. So it's a real mixed bag, I think.

David Coghlan 24:46 Yeah, it's really interesting isn't it because it's almost accelerating the shift from what you would class as sort of 'traditional' to modern business and I guess that's across all sectors.

David Coghlan 25:00 The high street, flippinheck, I've no idea what the high street's going to look like, John Lewis again announcing they're shutting another eight stores and like you said commercial property, who's gonna pay that? Then you have the massive hoovering up that these online retailers have done of Debenhams, Top Shop and all that, so there's a shift there. But then also you've got businesses on the other end of the spectrum like Goldman Sachs, what's his name? David Solomon he's like the antithesis or the antichrist for the remote flexible working model and has stated that this is just an abnormality before we go back to normal.

Shaun Walsh 25:40 I think he said aberration didn't he?

David Coghlan 25:43 Yeah! My view is that's a bit of an old school view, and some of the stuff coming out of Goldman Sachs at the moment is nuts, but is that the old world talking and do you think that's going get eaten up? I mean Goldman Sachs isn't going to get eaten up but the model...

Richard Johnson 26:11 My view on this is that businesses need to listen.

Richard Johnson 26:15 Shaun's just talked a lot about businesses made this decision to do that or to do this. But that decision, like COVID, may be forced on them because actually has there been a shift in power here? Loads of recent research has come out and again, there's a difference between saying you're going to do it and doing it, but basically in a recent survey half of brits have turned around and said if they were forced to go back to the office post pandemic, they would resign and they would try and find a company that adopted, let's call it 21st century business practices.

Richard Johnson 26:49 I think the world is changing and actually the power is changing. If you want the best people, like you talked about right at the beginning of this podcast, if you want the best people you've got to attract them in the right way. That used to be wage, that used to be perks, but actually now it's probably about flexible working, home based, remote for a percentage of your working week

Shaun Walsh 27:13 Well i think there's a couple of things there. The value transfer from old business-practice type companies to new business-practice type companies i think is absolutely huge. I think as you say the power of the employee, I think they realise they can have a life now as well as a career

David Coghlan 27:34 Yeah

Shaun Walsh 27:35 The Goldman Sachs model, perhaps for those who don't know about Goldman Sachs, the chairman's come out and said that remote working is an aberration and everyone's got to get back in the office as soon as possible, but there's been stuff coming out of goldman sachs after that as to how many hours some of those people are working. They're saying 'Can I have a cap on my hours of 100 hours a week please?'

Shaun Walsh 28:06 That's young people who are just starting out in their career for a few years etc but i just think there is a real change with people actually wanting a life and not just money and a career. It's actually a problem for professional service firms and actually trying to find nowadays people that want to buy the current partners out of the business and become directors and owners. People don't want to do that so much anymore. That was the normal thing when I grew up, you want to become a partner in an accounting firm or whatever it was, but people are more valuing flexibility, time with the family, living locally etc. and i think that will be something that's a very key trend in the years to come

David Coghlan 29:09 You said something similar to that the other day Rich, when we were chatting about wage, you can't just throw money at the problem. Everyone says at Goldman Sachs they do 100 hours a week but they earn really well, but actually when you work out what the hourly wage is, it's just minimum wage. You're just being sold the dream almost and Rich you said that 'money's a sticking plaster' so you can hate your job or you know you've got to grind and you'll get paid well for it, but it only goes so far.

David Coghlan 29:44 There's more to life than that and i think that's where the difference probably is between the new and the old model

Shaun Walsh 29:52 When i started at Price Waterhouse, you'd leave home at seven and if you got home before seven you'd be lucky, It's probably more like eight or nine, and then you've got professional exams to study for. And we did it. Everybody was very motivated to get qualified etc.

Shaun Walsh 30:12 My daughter who joined Deloitte, and she was working in tax department in Birmingham some years ago, and she used to phone me up and say 'Dad, Dad I'm just trying to get out of the office, it's 5:30pm it's really frustrating I'm still in the office!' and I'm thinking, you're in Deloitte, this is nothing like Price Waterhouse was 20 or 30 years ago. People want different things. And, frankly, I think the values of people wanting different things is absolutely right. You know we work to live not live to work. And actually my generation, I think there's probably a bit more of the other value, if that makes sense?

Richard Johnson 30:58 I agree. But again, it goes back to the whole world is evolving. And like you say there are leaders like yourself, who are adapting, and some people don't adapt. I remember when I was younger, and I got given a mobile phone at a job, it was rubbish but I was like, 'I got a mobile phone!' Now, if I employed somebody who was 20, and I gave them a Nokia, they'd be like, 'I want an iPhone.' So it's just different sort of expectations about what people want. And actually, businesses need to change, or else they die

Shaun Walsh 31:39 think I think there is Maslow's hierarchy of needs sort of perspective here. Because, as Dave will know, I lived in India for 12 years. And I don't know what the population is now a billion people or whatever, there's no welfare state. And people are desperate to get a decent job. And it means an awful lot for your personal securities. And when you're at the part of the Maslow hierarchy where you're trying to fulfil your basic needs, you haven't got the luxury of making some of the choices that perhaps we do in a developed economy and in good jobs, etc. But in terms of this marketplace, I think employers are going to have to be a lot more flexible and listening to their staff and working around what they want to do.

David Coghlan 32:39 That's really interesting. It's probably the last one from me, just a thinking point I guess or a talking point but are we almost it? Will this change actually do us out of jobs? Because what we've all said is that actually, our jobs can be anywhere. And yes, we're all jolly, we think we've cracked this, that we've got the life and lifestyle, and we're making money and everythings great. But actually, to your point, if there's a billion people in India, and it doesn't matter that they're in India, and they can do our jobs, in accounting, or marketing or anything. Is it inevitable, actually, that our roles will move elsewhere?

Shaun Walsh 33:23 Well, I think that's the iceberg, really and nine tenths of the iceberg are under the surface. What's on the surface, COVID, we've seen, we understand the implication of that, it's changed things etc. But actually what's coming in terms of AI and automation and all of that type of stuff. I think I saw something like 20 million jobs in the UK will go. I think there is a real competitive, you've got to really think carefully about what you're going to be doing over the next five or 10 years and whether that jobs still going to be there or not. My answer, and accounting is a key one there, that a lot of work is going offshore through software, AI, etc. My response to that is, I've just got to be at the front end of what's happening because I've got far more chance of surviving. Actually embracing those changes and taking advantage of them rather than being a laggard and actually getting your legs cut off, which is exactly what's gonna happen if you don't adapt.

David Coghlan 34:43 Yeah. Super. Really, really interesting chat. Great insight from you there Shaun. Thank you very much, for joining us today, I really appreciate it.

David Coghlan 34:54 Thanks everybody for listening, I hope you enjoyed it, there's more to come. And of course, if you want to join our community if you're an awesome marketer based anywhere in the world. Then visit the website, If you'd like to work with us and our community of marketing experts, then again, have a look at the website,, and we'll be in touch, see how we can help.

David Coghlan 35:21 Thanks very much for your time today guys, really appreciate it. And we'll see you again on the next one.

Shaun Walsh 35:25 Cheers


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