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Business spotlight: how to juggle a portfolio

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 19 Jun 2020

Nick Tiley, a portfolio FD, helps to run the financial affairs of multiple companies at the same time. He shared his experience of juggling the needs of several firms through the coronavirus lockdown with ICAEW Insights.

Nick Tiley, a part-time portfolio finance director (FD) for ten different companies. thinks of himself as the Robin to his MDs' Batman. "I'm running alongside an MD in a slightly smaller cape, making sure they are heading in the right direction," he says. "The flamboyant boss is there to lead, but owning a small company is a sparse world to exist in. The buck stops with you. You don't have a large peer group around to help, which is where I come in."

After training in audit and specialising in insolvency at what is now Deloitte, Cambridge-based Tiley went in-house for several companies throughout his career, including Dutch multinational conglomerate Philips. Carving out a niche in production engineering support, friends and contacts in small businesses began asking him for financial advice.

Then seven years ago, after meeting various portfolio FDs, he took the plunge and quit his full-time role to look after the financial affairs of several different companies part-time. Over the years he has worked with 27 different companies and currently has ten on his roster, including charity work.

"I think in terms of projects when I am taking a job on, and I like to see myself as a contractor, not an expander," he says. "I will go in, fix processes, change things, and add the capabilities necessary to turn the business around, but in a part-time capacity."

When trouble strikes

The primary skills Tiley brings concern forecasting and planning and coaching a financial controller through painful periods. Usually, as company fiscal years are spread throughout the calendar, those rough spots are scattered over 12 months. Then, coronavirus (Covid-19) hit, roiling financial markets and presenting an immediate emergency to businesses of every shape and size like nothing else in modern history.

"I'm lucky in that my work is spread out in terms of teams and budgets, with different dates for end-of-year," he says. "Suddenly, in the middle of March, everyone wanted the same questions answered at the same time: where is the company, where is it going, and will we run out of money? I had about four or five weeks from mid-March onwards that were utterly frantic."

It was a memorable time, if frenzied, he says. "The government support schemes were changing during this period day-by-day, so even if we came up with half of a plan, furloughing pops up, then loan schemes, deferments. I must have gone around the ten plans for each company three times in three weeks. My Excel spreadsheets were smoking."

From his experience navigating previous financial downturns, Tiley's advice is to stop and think before acting too quickly.

"Don't panic," he says" It's tough for everyone, but be brave enough not to make a decision for a week." Use that time to absorb what is going on, get the facts, talk to other people and your customers, and don't leap into action.

"I'm a big believer in making decisions, but sometimes the best decision is to do nothing," he says. "When the world is uncertain, if you can afford a week of wages, take the time to consider the options, do the inevitable Zoom calls. The next phase is to see things opening up again, so we can strategise about that and think about the growth plan."

Fresh thinking

For many businesses, he said, survival may mean pivoting, changing models and reconfiguring physical premises, and using ingenuity to shift focus.

"I work with a cardboard packaging company who are active in construction, retail and general industrial," he says. "Retail is quiet, construction is quiet, but general industrial is 40 percent up." Seeing the demand for alcohol gels and signage, the company decided to make their own.

"[The company has] a microsite and are now selling it to everyone else as a new product line. They have added a significant income stream during the crisis."

Other sectors he is active in, such as retail, may have to reconfigure their premises, and even consider shifting some business online, he said.

"It could be that instead of having four stores, you just have one as a showroom," he says. "It's not a new idea, but can be a remedy against people who come inside, look at products and buy them somewhere else online, which I know can be soul-destroying for a small business."

Lessons learned

As the UK winds down the support schemes and the world of business tries to resume, he said there are several things he has learned during the lockdown.

"Supporting clients working from home is possible; it's the only way I could help multiple different companies at once," he says. However, one thing I have found is that the washing machine is invariably on a spin cycle when I'm on a video conference call."

Having a good relationship with your bank manager is crucial, he said, as that will get you to the front of the queue. Having up-to-date integrated business models means future modelling scenarios will be quicker and more reliable, he adds.

"We need to see what the autumn will bring, subject to future initiatives," he says. "Long-term issues have not gone away even if the landscape has changed in ways we do not understand."