Treasurer SpotlightQ&AQ&A: Colt’s Cliff Jackson on FP&A Evolution

Q&A: Colt’s Cliff Jackson on FP&A Evolution

According to Jackson, FP&A activity helps when analysing the numbers in detail. “A large part of FP&A is forward-looking, ensuring that the future growth of a company is on track,” he says.

Colt, a network and IT services connectivity provider that owns 22 data centres in Europe and manages seven in the Asia-Pacific region, uses FP&A for management reporting purposes. Rolling forecasting is gaining in popularity, but Jackson doesn’t find it is as widespread as it perhaps should be.

Q (gtnews):  Can you explain your title, career background and how you came to work in FP&A?

A (Cliff Jackson):
I work as an FP&A contractor at Colt’s London head office and have been there six months. I started out in Canada in the 1990s, where I qualified as a chartered accountant (CA) and worked for Grant Thornton, among others. I’ve worked for numerous large public companies in Canada and firms in the UK during my career.

My first role in FP&A was as planning manager at the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold in 2003. I’ve held many similar roles since, the most prestigious being director of FP&A at Yamana Gold, a multibillion dollar company based in Toronto. Their numerous offices in South America necessitated a lot of travel, but the exposure to different cultures and ways of working was attractive.

I moved to the UK initially to work for a junior company called Cambrian Mining, then returned to London at the end of 2012 for quality of life reasons – the pull of the city was strong. I’ve since undertaken various FP&A contracting positions at Markit and BP, before this current one at Colt.

I also now possess the
AFP FP&A Certification
, which aims to become the de facto global standard for FP&A professionals worldwide. I view this as a further aid to my professional development and sat the beta exam last February.

How did you find the AFP FP&A Certification process when you sat it?  

There were a lot of multiple choice questions, so you had to be very good at time management -especially for the second paper, which had many lengthy numerical questions and a short amount of time to complete them in.

The format has changed a bit since the beta exam. In my opinion the initial exam needed some improvement, to more closely align with the study materials and so that incongruous calculations weren’t an element. Along with others, I voiced these and other sentiments on the LinkedIn message boards. That is why it is called a beta exam, however, as it potentially has a few wrinkles. It was great that the AFP provided such a forum to obtain feedback and a procedure to continually improve the exam.

The study aids and whole programme are developing apace. The FP&A certification is a great thing because a wide-ranging professional credit such as this should help progress acceptance and recognition of the FP&A function – not to mention the salary and career advancement prospects of practitioners. This is the reason why I took the exam.

How did you hear about the FP&A Certification?  

Initially through the
London FP&A Club
. I spoke to club founder and organiser, Larysa Melnychuk, about it and decided it was something I wanted to pursue.

The London Club gives FP&A professionals a chance to socialise with like-minded individuals and share knowledge, which is why I attend and how I found out about certification.

Why did you sit the AFP FP&A certification exam?  

I wanted to be sure I possessed the necessary knowledge and confidence that I could be a great candidate for any future FP&A roles. I also wanted to ensure I’d have the necessary skills that were transferable to any industry.

That seems to be a problem in the UK, with companies only seeking out individuals with experience in a particular industry. It’s a product of the last recession, when it became an employer’s job market. Although a CA designation signifies that one has transferable skills, I wanted something tangible on the FP&A side of things too. This certification serves the purpose, as it isn’t specific to one industry but covers topics applying to all sectors. The professional development requirements in AFP FP&A certification also ensure that individuals with the designation keep up with the latest advancements and are on top of their game.

Additionally, FP&A isn’t something that’s yet taught in many university or post-graduate programmes. It isn’t considered a traditional subject, so I realised that a trade certificate, developed by a practitioner body such as the AFP, would be very useful.

What would you like to see added to the FP&A certification programme?  

Moving forward, the main issue for me is how best to market the new certification. This is a duty which lies with the AFP and individuals like myself who have sat the exam. Naturally, I want to ensure that as many companies as possible become aware of it and see it become internationally recognised.

I’m involved in developing exam questions for future FP&A exams, building on the beta iterations. I’m going to Washington, DC to participate in this process during April and look forward to it.

Can the AFP FP&A certification help younger specialists in the field, or teach older professionals new tricks?  

It can help both young and old to progress their career.  It is very necessary in order to solidify this evolving finance, reporting and analytical function that we call FP&A. Many other professional finance duties have already recognised accreditation programmes – such as for treasury – so why not FP&A?

It will help younger specialists fill knowledge gaps, and ensure that more experienced professionals stay at the forefront of latest developments.

Do you have a separate FP&A department/head of FP&A job title, or is it part of your finance department? What is the reporting line for FP&A at Colt?

Colt has a separate FP&A department and recognises the FP&A job title.  We have separate FP&A titles to distinguish our activities from normal financial reporting duties; placing an emphasis on data analysis, budgeting and forecasting. The reporting structure in place runs from a group controller down to an FP&A specialist such as myself.

Cross-Cultural Differences

How is FP&A perceived in Canada and what differences have you noticed in other countries? Is the term ‘FP&A’ known and used, or is the function called something else like business control, commercial finance, budgeting and planning?  

FP&A in Canada is restricted to more of a budget/forecast and financial analysis type of role. Here in the UK, the role can involve management reporting, so there’s a little bit of a cultural difference in what’s still an evolving profession.

FP&A is a common term in both countries, but can be seen as more of a commercial function in the UK. There are a variety of other names I’ve heard it called during my career – ‘planning’ for instance – but FP&A is increasingly an accepted job title in its own right, rather than just a function that a finance professional fulfils. You can be head of FP&A now and people understand what that means.

Is there anything one advanced FP&A country could learn from another?  

The line between reporting and budgeting/forecasting is a bit too blurred in the UK. I believe they should be viewed as separate areas, which is more the case in Canada. It would give the correct amount of importance to each.

Obviously, in smaller companies separating reporting and budgeting/forecasting may not be possible due to cost issues. However, for UK-based large multinational corporates (MNCs) more of a separation of duties could be beneficial. It would enable more dedicated financial analysis of the numbers, as well as a focus on forward-looking data instead of historical information.

What is your biggest FP&A challenge?

Currently it’s to ensure the right systems are used to collate data, and the correct formats are used by colleagues and supply chain partners.

Reports that aren’t standardised or comparable impede analysis. When I was the director of financial systems and standardised reporting at Alliance Atlantis Communications in Canada earlier in my career, I had to focus on standardisation, eliminating legacy and encouraging common systems and reporting mechanisms. If this is done, life becomes much easier and my work can be much more effective.

What FP&A technology tools & organisational systems do you use at Colt? Has your tech experience been good, bad or a mixture?

SAP BPC is the budgeting/forecasting system used at Colt. At this time not many tools are available for proper analysis, apart from standard Excel. But there are future projects in the pipeline to address this and improve technology capabilities.

The problem is that these things take time and money. Sometimes tech overhauls don’t give the immediate results you’re looking for either. Time also needs to be invested into reformulating processes and working practices in order to take advantage of new technology investments. But we will get there, and it’s an interesting challenge.

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