Profile: Karen Dicks, FD of Specsavers

karen dicks, specsavers

Karen Dicks, the CIMA-qualified director of finance at Specsavers, likes to
talk telephone numbers. No surprise there really; finance directors enjoy

But the numbers Dicks refers to reveal the company’s expansion plans. With
Dicks at the helm of finance, the Guernsey-based private company is looking to
grow the number of stores from 800 to 1,000 internationally, and increase
turnover from £750m to a cool £1bn.

The numbers Dicks speaks of in an almost mantra-like fashion are not the
company’s key business performance ratios. Instead, she has a host of data to
call on to illustrate how the finance function of Specsavers has been overhauled
since her appointment more than two years ago.

She has helped to transform the function so that it can now cope with filing
6,000 VAT returns a year, operate a business with 1,000 legal entities, run 40
separate IT projects in the finance function alone, and incorporate another 40
stores into the company structure – with 250 accounting staff to watch over it

Dicks runs the department as an internal outsourced finance function – and
implemented a world class finance organisation – a scheme she set up when she
took on the role of updating the function three years ago.

‘We’re concerned with lifting the customer service, lifting the value add to
them, while separating those things from the purely transactional technologies
and processes.’

Dicks explains that over the 22 years the business has been in operation
accounting has been centralised completely and is now based in Guernsey,
allowing the stores to focus on the running of their businesses and leave the
finance to her and her team.

‘We do all the finance services for our stores, which are essentially our
customers,’ she explains. ‘From here we give the strategic direction of the
company, and provide our 840 stores with everything from monthly management
information to published accounts. We are always looking at ways to optimise our
services. There’s always an opportunity to find better ways to offer services.’

Specsavers in Guernsey looks after 1,700 partners across the 840 stores. The
partners keep their profits, but pay a management fee to the company. ‘This
model keeps us honest, focused and driven – basically so that we won’t rest on
our laurels.’

Keeping down costs is one of Dicks’ primary goals. An option for any function
looking to lower costs and extricate staff from working on basic processes is to
consider the controversial move to outsource or offshore. While the FD does not
rule out this option for the future, she says it is not currently being
considered. ‘You can never say never, but in the short term we’re not thinking
about it.’

Instead Dicks and her team are busy running the rule over every single
process the function operates, end-to-end, to see whether they can make finance
tasks quicker, easier or cheaper. ‘It’s important that we go back to the
beginning of every process and re-engineer it from that point, if we have to.’

Finding solutions

Self-service payroll online is one example of the re-engineered processes she
has set up at the company. The payroll information is no longer scribbled out on
paper then faxed to finance and input again. ‘The stores use a KCS online system
instead of filling payroll out on paper – it illustrates that there isn’t a
piece of finance that won’t be untouched.’

Systems aside, there are other perhaps more pressing issues at stake,
specifically the impending change in Guernsey’s tax rules.

Known as Zero – Ten, corporation tax will be rated at zero for business,
except those that come under the regulatory remit of the Guernsey Financial
Services Commission, which will face a 10% rate.

Forecasts suggest Guernsey will lose tens of millions in corporate tax take,
but it hopes new indirect taxes on individuals will make up the difference. ‘The
cost of employing staff will increase as the general cost of living will
increase,’ Dicks explains.

What this will mean on a day-to-day basis for the company, and in the longer
term, is unclear. But Dicks says that part of the finance restructuring is about
making the company more agile, and able to react to changes in the environment
in which the company operates.

Dicks’ focus on what makes an efficient business process, and how to get to
that stage, is borne out of what seems like classic management and
organisational theory. No project is undertaken in an ad-hoc manner.

When Dicks joined she pooled together an overarching project team – her elite
bunch – within which are teams for each individual project. On each project will
be at least one IT expert. ‘They’re at the table from the start. It’s us telling
them what we want to change, but it’s also about the IT individual saying “have
you thought of using this, or we have this type of software”.’

From the start, involving IT with business change has been a success, so she
has extended closer working ties with software companies. Both CedarOpenAccounts
and Version One have provided software for some of the company’s most
fundamental changes to its accounting systems (see box).

Rather than deal with them in a conventional ‘transactional relationship’,
they are treated as partners. ‘The relationship is more open, adult-to-adult.
Then we can come up with solutions.’

Conflicting agendas

Dicks admits that this is not always an easy situation, with both client and
vendor having their own agendas, but good results have emerged from this

Another unconventional aspect of the company’s IT is its total lack of use of
any Microsoft products, due to the sheer cost of licensing across potentially
thousands of Specsavers end users.

For example, the company uses a version of a Linux-based Progress database.
‘We avoid Microsoft-based products as they are very expensive, and that has been
the challenge for the IT companies working with us. Version One had to rewrite
its software in an environment other than Internet Explorer.’

Dicks’ analytical, pragmatic and project-based approach to her work is borne
out of previous FD roles at Nova Chemicals Corporation and Georgia Pacific, and
has made a habit of running huge business process re-engineering schemes.

Her operational approach to the finance function has certainly rubbed off on
her staff. While many are studying for their ACCA qualifications, she also
encourages them to study project management theory Prince II and best practice
methodology Six Sigma.

‘On a transactional level, understanding accounting processes will transfer
no matter what company you work in.’

But scale can change. And Dicks’ next ambition is to ensure smooth expansion
in Europe. Specsavers already has stores in Holland, Denmark and Sweden, and the
company has opened its first store in Spain.

Despite no obligation, a move to international accounting standards may also
be on the cards to help the company compare its performance with European

Controls implementation will be vital as the group expands and Dicks is keen
to manage that aspect of expansion as well, no doubt with IT as an enabler.

But even with the theory and project experience behind her, she still
acknowledges that change cannot be achieved without the right people in place.

‘You shouldn’t allow IT to bog you down. We have a new IT director who’s not
bogged down in Specsavers’ history, who will ensure the best interests of the
company as sometimes individuals do get very attached. It’s good to mix that up.
But a lady on my team has been here from day one of the organisation and she is
very open-minded.

‘So make sure you get the best team together and take them along with you.
People are the key.’

The IT factor

Key to Karen Dicks’ restructuring efforts were two big recent deals with
business IT vendors Cedar Open Accounts and Version One. The £500,000 COA
contract was the most fundamental of the two projects.

The goal was to integrate the company’s financial processes across its head
office departments, regional offices and stores.

‘We have to recognise that IT is integral to our business,’ says Dicks, ‘but
it’s important the business drives IT.’

Current core accounting IT efforts are focused on transaction processing,
automatic bank reconciliation and automatic VAT returns. The Version One
contract saw automated entry of information from paper invoices into the
accounting systems, while electronically archiving the invoices.

In just five weeks, and with the same number of staff, the new technology
reduced the time it took to process an invoice by 66%. In the future, Dicks
expects the IT will help Specsavers to save in storage space and data-entry

Future plans include integrating its supply chain, and looking at decision
support processes within the business.

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