An Interview with Michael Ryan – Finance Transformation Leader

In our new interview series, we talk to senior finance transformation leaders to learn more about their roles, changes in the industry and hot topics in the field.

In our first interview, we talk to Michael Ryan, a leading Interim Finance Transformation Director. With over 20 years’ experience, Michael has gained a unique perspective and understanding of how Shared Service Centres can benefit an Organisation.

Can you give us a brief explanation of your role?

I currently operate as a Finance Transformation specialist through my Consulting business ‘Finance Transformation UK’. Similar to most Business Consultants I am an Accountant by profession and the majority of my work involves transforming the Finance function and also downstream operationally processes for optimum business results.

Over the last 20 years I have focused on Finance Shared Services, their feasibility, creation, ongoing operations and efficiency. The aim is to transform how Accountants operate and deliver their work from an Organisation and Process perspective. I leave the technical transformations to the IT experts.

It’s a running joke amongst my friends that none of them appreciate what I do. They’re always asking me what it is I do exactly. I tell them I am a Business Consultant focused on Finance Transformation…which elicits blank looks. They don’t give up and two pints later will ask again “go on tell us what you actually do?” then I tell them I am an Accountant, which they can understand and that pretty much kills that conversation and we can go back to the football!

I am sure all Consultants have faced questions from Family and Friends as to what it is they actually do!

How did you get into finance?

Naturally, nobody grows up wanting to be an Accountant and no one finishes school and goes I would love to be a Consultant. Like all lads I grew up wanting to play Centre forward for Man United. I certainly never thought “one of these days I’d love to work in a finance function” and “wouldn’t it be great if I was responsible for changing one.” Such desires should automatically disqualify you from the profession!

I started my Career as a Management Accountant and I moved to London from Dublin in 1996. When I first came to London I spent around 18 months working in accountancy, as people would recognize it. The typical cycle of monthly accounts didn’t set my imagination alight and I gradually gravitated into project management. This for me from the ‘get go’ was more challenging, interesting and exciting and a Career in Consulting was born!

How would you describe Shared Service Centers to an alien?

I’ll start with the story of how I got into Shared Services. At the start of my Finance Career I spent five years doing, what most people would call a regular job, first as an Accountant and then as a Finance Project Manager for Whitbread Beer company. I worked within Supply Chain Finance, where stock accounting for Beer was a great job for a young man. Whitbread gave me exposure to running my first major project implementing systems that changed how people work. I did that for about five years and it was one of the best companies a young person could work for.

After that, I decided to move on to a new challenge and I went to work for Argos who were setting up a Finance Shared Service Centre. I had no clue what Argos was about and I hadn’t even been to an Argos store before. However, I was delighted to be hired. At that point I couldn’t describe to an alien what an SSC was but I learned very fast and haven’t looked back since.

So, how would I describe it after 20 years?

To keep it simple, the clue is in the name. It’s a centralized operation where all back office tasks are streamlined and made consistent in order to provide a cost effective service to the front end of the business. It exists to allow the Business concentrate on its core activity. You basically take all your non-core tasks and deliver them from one operation. On the basis that if you have everybody together, in one location, all trained in the same way to operate a consistent process on the same system that is more cost effective and efficient than having staff spread over multiple locations working to different methods and standards at multiple costs.

In your experience, what are the Pros / Cons of Shared Service Centers?

The Pros:

  1. Cost Reduction: Shared Services deliver Efficiencies. The number one reason for establishing an SSC is to reduce the ongoing cost of non-core processing. It delivers savings that can be used to drive the core operations of the Business and make it more competitive in the marketplace; 
  2. Platform for Growth: Most Companies can’t plan adequately for growth as there are so many factors involved. A Business can make an acquisition decision at any point in time when market factors are in their favour and as such they need to be ready. Always have your own house in order. An effectively functioning SSC ensures you have all your non-core tasks organised consistently to a common approach. You then have one approach, not multiple ones, that your acquisition can be integrated with more easily; 
  3. Career Paths: It provides a defined career path for people. Processing staff that operate the same job are all in the same place where previously they may have been part of small Site Finance teams. They can now see their peers, share knowledge and experience and see a clear route to progress. People performing the same task are brought together and they become part of a team and develop a sense of belonging which is good for their personal development.

The Cons:

  1. Is it Right for you? Too many Companies think Shared Services is the answer to their problems and fail to adequately examine their current operations. They place their faith in the ‘perceived solution’ to a poorly posed question. They then embark on Shared Services projects without truly establishing a Benefits Case. Many SSC’s have been established (poorly) which should never have been allowed off the Drawing Board. 
  2. Making it work: Once you go ahead the main challenge is getting operational successfully, if you take on too much, too soon, you can create more pain then you were attempting to alleviate. Large Corporations will typically implement a new ERP system in conjunction with establishing an SSC and this involves a substantial change project with inherent risks. Poor management of Projects of such risk and complexity can lead to a ‘stillborn’ SSC which never establishes itself successfully in the ‘eyes’ of the Business; 
  3. Connectivity: Global Corporations operate large scale SSC’s on a Regional basis and it can be a challenge to ensure that remote teams servicing many Markets are truly connected to the front line Market teams they service. Technical connectivity is a given but maintaining the personal connectivity is a far greater challenge for businesses; 
  4. People: From a Business perspective an SSC creates a streamlined, efficient and consistent delivery Model but there is a large scale people fallout which shouldn’t be dismissed. In all cases the Business Case for an SSC is predicated on headcount reduction road and job losses need to be managed with sensitivity.

For every person who gets a great new Career opportunity there is someone who lost their job. In addition the jobs in a new SSC may be radically different from how they were performed previously at a local level and not everyone will want or be able to relocate. In short an SSC causes disruption to the lives of all impacted by it, some favourably, some not.

What has been your favourite project to be a part of?

To choose my favourite project, I would rewind 20 years, to my five years with the Whitbread Beer Company. My most enjoyable project was being responsible for deciding how all the legacy Supply Chain systems should integrate with the new JD Edwards ERP system. We created 7 Interfaces in total and they were my first full life cycle projects from requirement definition through to post Go live support. A great Business to work in and some fantastic people to work with made it all the more enjoyable no matter how great the challenge.

What advice would you give to someone taking up SSC Consulting up as a career?

If you want an easy regular 9 to 5 life – don’t do it. If you’re looking for a challenge, go for it! It’s stressful and challenging but ultimately very rewarding. Overcoming the challenges that arise on a project every day, from the large to the small, appeals to those who like to be stretched and tested on a regular basis. If you think your tough, then give it a go!

A key piece of advice I would give is learn how to change yourself before you try to change others. We are involved in projects impacting the lives of hundreds of people and if you don’t know how to change yourself, you haven’t got any hope of understanding the effect you’re having on those people.

When you experience resistance and challenge it’s important to consider how it would have played out differently if you had approached it in a different manner.

Is there anything else you would like to touch on?

The rise of Robotics with robots performing tasks creates a new paradigm in how services are delivered. However, what I want to reflect on is how are people affected by this?  Where previously you would have had people speaking together to get a job done, you now have a robot doing the job. There’s no human interaction in the performance of some processes which has to have consequences we just have not absorbed yet.

At a practical level entry level jobs are going to be replaced by robots.  So the nature of what the next generation of accountants and project managers will have to deal with will be fundamentally different. I somehow can’t imagine having to march a Robot off the premises!

The world is developing at a rate where the technology is providing solutions but we should always be mindful of what that means for the people in our Organisation’s and the nature of what will be defined as ‘work’ in the future.