For many experienced Finance professionals looking for greater freedoms in their work and personal lives than a full-time role can offer them, the prospect of becoming a Portfolio Finance Director (FD) or Financial Controller (FC) – an outsourced specialist working flexibly across multiple clients – can be a very attractive one.
No more 9 – 5 (and the rest!), no daily commute, and the ability to choose and work with the clients whose businesses pose genuinely interesting challenges – with strong remuneration potential an equally compelling factor, of course.
We interviewed three seasoned Finance professionals who chose to kickstart or relaunch their Portfolio careers through EFM, and asked them about their experiences of making the leap from full-time employed to working for themselves – the triumphs, the watchouts, the learnings, and the positive outcomes.
Portfolio FD: how do they start?
For corporate veterans Jonathan Wheeler and Paul Durno – EFM Associates for two years and six months respectively, at the time of writing – the drivers were very much about work-life balance. Jonathan, with a background in both Finance and Business Development in the Big Four consultancies, was juggling extensive travel with a young family and, he admits, he’d “had enough of it.”
Paul, likewise, who had greatly enjoyed his Canary Wharf career with international banking organisations, had nonetheless come to the realisation that he was becoming “a weekend dad” to his young children, and needed an alternative to his corporate work life.
An initial conversation with EFM was where both Jonathan and Paul started – and their working lives now look and feel very different!
FD, FC – the network serves both well
For Londoner Tracy Lewis – an FC, rather than an FD, with over 25 years’ experience – the exact nature of her role was somewhat different, but she too turned to EFM for guidance. A move to rural Derbyshire – where her professional network was non-existent, and the ACCA teaching opportunities she’d relied on in London to support her outsourced FC business with working capital were fewer and further between – prompted a choice.
Either she could, as she puts it, go to work for a local firm “doing the depreciation on tractors”, or she could connect with an organisation that could help her build her Portfolio network.
Once again, that connection came in the form of an initial chat with Malcolm Holloway and Gary Jesson at EFM – and almost ten years later, Tracy not only runs a thriving portfolio of clients, but holds the EFM record for the highest number of clients billed in one month (around twenty, she estimates).
Evidence, if any were needed, that the role of FC is one much in demand amongst clients – and one EFM is therefore very keen to recruit Associates into, in addition to FD positions.
But what’s it really like being a Portfolio Finance Professional?
“Busy” is the word all three interviewees use to describe the experience of being a Portfolio Finance professional – so the work is certainly plentiful – but their enthusiasm for that work is also palpable.
For Tracy, it’s all about the variety, and in an FC role that often comprises elements that differ from a typical FD remit. “I like doing lots of different things,” she says, “and in my portfolio it allows that. Sometimes it’ll be a nice easy day of bookkeeping, other times it’s having meetings all day, but it enables me to get involved in a number of different businesses and understand how those businesses operate. It entertains me!”
“With my main clients, I will be there anything from once a week to once a month, but because the portfolio business is scalable, I’m also able to take it down to the microbusiness level, and on those clients I’ll spend one to two hours a month.”
Jonathan sums his Portfolio FD role up neatly when he states, “I earn more, I work less, and I’m in control”, but he also points to the fact that much of what he enjoyed in his previous Finance career also features in his Portfolio FD role.
“Working with SMEs on a project or a consultancy basis was what I’d enjoyed doing throughout a large period of my career,” he explains, “and the conclusion I reached was that this was where I wanted to end up.”
Paul, still in the relatively early stages of his portfolio but with three FD project roles already under his belt, is keen to emphasise how exciting he found the experience of setting up his business, and the quality of the support he received through EFM.
“I’ve been hugely supported by the EFM team and network. I don’t think I could have got as far as I’ve got without them, because they’re so helpful, so structured, and so organised in everything they do, and they’ve been invaluable to me – not least for their ability to rapidly turn around bespoke marketing materials.”
Finding the work – and selling yourself
It quickly emerges from our conversations that much of the work the Portfolio professionals have taken on has come from within EFM’s own network– a ready-made pool of potential referral partners to which every new Associate has instant access.
However, the importance of both personal/professional networks and the networking events that help build them was also emphasised, with Tracy in particular – despite initial misgivings – having come to “adore” her networking with the local Chamber of Commerce, amongst others, and declaring that networking – and the networking training given to her by EFM – has caused her incoming work to “spiral up.”
Jonathan, for his part, points out the effectiveness of preserving and nurturing contacts from his previous career, who have repeatedly put work his way.
But he also reveals his strategy of setting up shop within a serviced office complex, where he mentors several incubator and start-up businesses and becomes, effectively, their first port of call for outsourced FD services as they grow.
The right mix of work and billing
Project fee? Hourly rate? Day rate? Interim? Retainer? There is significant flexibility in how a Portfolio Finance professional works and charges for it, but there are pros and cons.
Tracy, for instance, has almost exclusively retained clients – an approach that sits comfortably with many businesses, as it’s a fixed cost – but she also ups the ante by making part of that retainer fee an “ad hoc” provision for additional services only, as and when needed – and, in reality, they’re often not.
Likewise, the point is made that in the retainer model, the actual doing of the work tends to get easier over time, as the Portfolio professional becomes more familiar with the workings of the client organisation, so less time and effort is actually expended, making for increased profitability.
Both Jonathan and Paul have also acted as interim FDs – a temporary function that often comes under the banner of outsourced FD services but is in fact quite different to the role of a Portfolio FD, comes with a pronounced risk that the period of engagement can “creep” significantly, and only works if the project can be delivered part time.
Balance is therefore critical here, as too many interim assignments can unexpectedly overrun to the point where it’s no longer possible to service existing or new retained or project clients.
In reality, it’s possible to mix and match. Jonathan, for example, has blended a couple of part time interim assignments with a number of consultancy and short-term projects lasting from a few days to a year, and three or four days a month on a retained basis, billing his clients through a mixture of project fees, fixed retainers, and timesheet hours. “It works very well,” he says.
Jonathan also makes the point that the fee has to be right – because “if you feel you’ve been properly rewarded then you won’t mind a bit of to-ing and fro-ing if it’s within reasonable limits”.
Tracy, on the other hand, makes the point that the fee has to be right for the client too, because this instils a level of trust in the value she delivers that helps ensure, amongst other positive outcomes, that “there’s never any issue getting paid!”
For more information on how you can become an EFM Associate and connect to the work you want to do as a Portfolio FD or other outsourced Finance professional, get in touch today.