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One of the greatest challenges is making sense of that data so you can communicate it

Author: Peter Burrows, CEO at The Cambridge Building Society

Published: 03 Apr 2024

Peter Burrows is CEO at The Cambridge Building Society, where he was previously Finance Director. He is also a trustee of Astrea Academy Trust. Here, he shares the importance of a holistic view of business success, and offers his perspective on the importance of concision and clarity in board papers.
Peter Burrows
Peter Burrows, CEO, The Cambridge Society

Within Cambridge Building Society, how do you define and measure success?

We have five pillars, which together make up a balanced scorecard of how we measure success. These are:

  • Customer: this is not just about offering good, sound customer service — this is about making sure that the products we offer are right and deliver value for our customers.
  • Financial: this pillar encompasses not only trading data, but also takes into account our robustness against external shocks and forecasting.
  • People: do we have the right number of people with the skills we need to succeed? And are we able to retain our people by ensuring they are properly motivated, incentivised, and developed? Is our succession planning up to scratch?
  • Resilience/sustainability: this pillar is all about recognising that we may be OK today, but this is no guarantee that we will be doing well in five or ten years’ time — or even that we will be doing well in another six months. A crucial aspect of ensuring that we are resilient and sustainable in the future is planning how we would respond to different scenarios and external shocks. I can report on strong profits, a happy team, and satisfied customers — but we also need to be resilient enough to withstand whatever’s coming over the horizon.
  • Community: what good are we doing in the community? This comes back to our social purpose, which for us is explicit and simple — we want to help people into a home where they can be happy.

With these five pillars, the challenge for the CEO and CFO is to get the balance right. If we get it wrong, for example by spending all our money on community schemes, then we’re no help to anyone in the long term as we’d go bust. Or, if we had unhappy customers but maximised profits, that would also be unbalanced. If I can get those five pillars working in harmony so that we provide happy customers with great products in a way that is profitable for us and provides rewarding, challenging careers for our people, then I can go home very happy in the evenings.

How do you measure these pillars? What are the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is always going to concern the cleanliness of the data, and making sure that there is a single version of the truth. Having and maintaining robust and meaningful data, whilst producing reports that meet the rules and regulations that we operate under, is a huge challenge for the team. As CFO, one of the greatest challenges is making sense of that data so you can communicate it to the board and outside world. It’s very easy to just say, “Please find attached my spreadsheet, let me know if you have any questions” — but in doing so you aren’t telling anyone anything and you add nothing. As CFO, you need to have a concise report, touching on all areas of the business and pointing out the most salient areas where you think they should focus. Of course, be prepared to take questions from the board — but fundamentally it’s the job of the CFO to tell people what the data and forecasts are saying so that the board can talk about what actions we can take to optimise our future.

“Fundamentally it’s the job of the CFO to tell people what the data and forecasts are saying so that the board can talk about what actions we can take to optimise our future.”

I annoy my executive team constantly by saying that, within our monthly board pack, our task is to tell the board what they need to know on a single page. Of course, with motivated executive colleagues, they sometimes want more space — but you need to put yourself in the board’s shoes and prioritise easily digestible papers. It’s a real discipline to write with absolute precision and clarity to deliver a clean, crisp message that gives a snapshot of what’s going on. Moreover, the process of crafting these concise papers helps to sharpen your thinking, and you arrive at greater insight through developing discipline that ensures that every word on the page contributes to the story you’re telling.

What societal issues or challenges are keeping directors awake at night? And what should businesses be doing to address them?

It won’t come as a surprise that the war in Ukraine, the aftershocks of the pandemic, and the rising cost of living are keeping directors awake at night. But there are opportunities for businesses to alleviate pressures. For example, there are many people who reach the end of their fixed rate mortgage every month and are having to pay considerably more, so we’ve been gearing up to help deal with those challenges by ensuring that we offer fair rates to all, and dedicated support to those struggling, in this stressed economy.

Looking at our own people we are aware of the cost-of-living crisis that they are facing. Whilst we understand the need for pay restraint, we also need to ensure our people are being rewarded and paid appropriately. It’s one thing to say these things — you've also got to walk the walk. In recognition of our status as a mutual business and in support of our one-team ethos, we don’t have any kind of executive bonus scheme — everyone gets paid the same flat rate bonus. This contributes to a culture in which everyone pulls in the same direction, and — as success for one is success for all — motivates people to work together more collaboratively.

What things are you most proud of having done during your career?

I love seeing people who I’ve worked with go on to do great things in their career, and the satisfaction you get from helping people in a coaching or mentoring capacity is unmatched. It’s incredibly fulfilling to work with someone early in their career and watch them grow and do something impressive — it’s such a rewarding human experience.

“It’s incredibly fulfilling to work with someone early in their career and watch them grow and do something impressive — it’s such a rewarding human experience.”

Another thing I’m proud of having done is trialling our Rent-to-Home scheme, which is designed to help people who may be able to afford rent on a property but who see no way forward to owning their own home. We do this by charging people market rent and, at the end of their tenancy, we give them 70% of all the rent they’ve paid back so they are then in a position to get on the property ladder. It can be life-changing for people.

How CFOs create a fairer future

Read more interviews on how the CFO role is changing and access our toolkit to support CFOs navigate the new demands they're facing.

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