Profile: Robert Kirton, interim FD of the British Library

To be a successful interim finance director is about grasping opportunities,
rather like the manner in which this interview with Robert Kirton came about.
Queuing for a taxi after November’s Accountancy Age Awards was the ideal
opportunity to strike up conversation with the British Library’s FD, and before
long business cards were exchanged and a meeting provisionally arranged.

Kirton, as it happens, had just picked up the Annual Report and Accounts
Award, Public and Voluntary sector. It’s a well-deserved accolade, not just for
the attractive presentation of the British Library’s figures, but for the huge
strides the organisation has made in adding value, not just to those who use its
services but to the UK as a whole. The report even manages to put a value on the
library’s output. For every £1 of public funding, it claims to generate £4.40 of
value for the UK economy.

As interim director of finance and corporate services at the British Library,
Kirton is more than aware of the new strategic priorities facing his
organisation, as the information economy gathers pace, and the ability to access
knowledge in all its forms is recognised as central to economic and social

But he’s just as excited about the fact that he works a stone’s throw away
from the Magna Carta, has a bird’s eye view of construction work on the new
Eurostar terminal building, and is about to embark upon the next exciting stage
of his career.

Kirton has been in his current role for the past two years, but is just about
to hand over the financial reins to the former FD of Bradford Metropolitan
Council, Steve Morris. Given the interim nature of Kirton’s job, the move has
long been on the cards and he is complimentary about his successor.

‘It’s appropriate for a long-term interim to have a say – I put together the
job spec – but I didn’t get involved in any of the interviews. I prefer not to.
I think it’s intimidating,’ he says.

This might smack of a rather public sector approach, and a glance over
Kirton’s CV shows that the interim career he has forged over the past eight
years has a distinct public sector vent to it – including numerous interim roles
across the NHS and the housing sector.

‘My role here is to be in charge of a major public sector organisation and a
medium-sized FMCG trading organisation,’ Kirton explains. ‘We run a website to
access extracts from the collection and run a remote information service to
individuals and companies – the average cost of documents is £9. It’s a high
volume, low-cost business that generates revenues of about £17m a year.’

The library’s new mission is to make the vast majority of UK research
material available in electronic form by 2020. It represents a ‘seismic shift’
in the world of publishing, according to British Library chief executive Lynne

Part of Kirton’s job has been to oversee the infrastructure necessary to
store, manage, preserve and provide access to digital material. A new
tamper-proof storage facility at Boston Spa in Yorkshire – the largest of its
kind – will hold 260 linear kilometres of material in a low oxygen, automated
retrieval environment.

Despite taking up a huge chunk of his time, this task wasn’t originally on
the job spec. ‘Initially my job was about improving the customer focus of the
finance team. But I have a fair amount of exposure to public sector construction
projects, and after three or four months I was in a position to offer my
services to take on the project management of the British Library construction

But making the transition, from keeper of the nation’s books to a globally
accessible gateway to the nation’s memory, is no mean feat. For one,
communicating the British Library’s achievements is an external communications
challenge, particularly

when you bear in mind that the library’s biggest news story this year was its
ban on pens in all of its reading rooms to protect its precious collections.
It’s a worthy enough story, but not necessarily one that will get the business
world reeling.

Kirton joined the British Library in October 2003, but he denies that his
appointment as a replacement for the previous full-time finance director – was a
troubleshooting role. It’s the exception rather than the rule, even by Kirton’s
own admission. ‘As an interim, you have to accept that even when it’s not
transparent or declared, there will be some troubleshooting to any assignment.
It’s naïve to think that the job is to keep the seat warm.

‘The current CEO arrived in 2001 and she spent a good part of her first, and
maybe even her second, year selecting her team and restructuring. When the FD
left in 2003, she wanted continuity of service. There wasn’t a particular issue
that needed sorting out, but she wanted someone who could hit the ground

In short, he says it was quicker and easier to appoint an interim FD. But
Kirton’s established track record of restructuring finance departments to
improve their efficiency, and perhaps his hands-on involvement of major
construction projects, made him an obvious candidate.

For anyone considering interim work as a stop gap, Kirton’s advice is simple
– don’t. ‘It’s not temporary work. If you want a serious interim career, I would
suggest you don’t apply for non-interim work. It can confuse the market. There
have been a couple of occasions when clients have suggested I apply for the
full-time role. That’s risky unless it’s clear what the process is. Often it’s
them just being polite or wanting a benchmark.’

Thanks to his interim career, he became involved in a potential claim on Jimi
Hendrix’s estate. He was taken on as interim director of finance at University
Hospital Lewisham NHS Trust, in this case as a six month stop gap between two
permanent FDs, to concentrate on production of the annual accounts and to put
together the business case for a £45m site redevelopment. Then Jimi Hendrix’s
producer was killed in a plane crash.

‘At the time he had been pursuing a claim to royalties. After the crash, his
estate reverted to his father who left it to 10 charities, including Lewisham.’
As it turned out, the case came to nothing. ‘It could have been millions, but we
didn’t win,’ Kirton says.

Not all of his assignments have been quite so rock’n’roll. Take the
assignment at Barking and Dagenham Primary Care Trust, the first hospital in the
UK to operate under PFI. Two weeks before he took on the job, its chairman and
chief executive resigned after the trust received a zero rating for failing to
reach service-level targets.

He also warns that, as an interim, you can get a bit of a raw deal when it
comes to your working environment, and the office space you’re allocated. ‘One
of the problems with being an interim is that you can end up in a shed,’ he

Kirton doesn’t have a replacement assignment set up as yet, although he would
like to work in central government or a post with an arts or media bias.
Whatever, the outcome, he’s confident that the right opportunity will crop up.
‘Clients always seem to leave it late to realise they need an interim. It’s
often a short window of opportunity and you need a bit of patience.’

But it’s also about hitting a nerve with the companies he approaches.
‘Sometimes it’s about saying, “you might not recognise the similarities between
the experience I have and the person you’re looking for”. It involves thinking
slightly laterally.’

Ready for anything

As the average tenure of interim FDs and their permanent counterparts
continues to blur, the most obvious rationale behind the interim career route –
the desire for continuous change and a project-based approach to career
progression – is no longer the differentiator it once was. So what draws people

It is a lifestyle choice, Kirton says, but not one without its downsides.‘You
don’t get an annual leave entitlement, sickness protection or a pension. It can
be difficult to take time off because the client expects you to resolve things,
although with longer term interim contracts it’s easier to negotiate something.’

Similarly, interim managers need to be much more proactive about their own
continuing professional development, particularly if they’re looking to branch
out from a well-established niche.

But Kirton believes it’s a small price to pay for the flexibility and variety
that interim management offers. ‘It’s faster moving and a good way to gain
experience rapidly. You become more independent and more self confident. You
rely on your gravitas and not just your job title.’

It’s certainly not a career choice for those happy to leave their career to
fate. ‘You have to look for opportunities where you can grow,’ Kirton says.
‘Clients want to engage someone who has a track record of doing what theywant to
do. They won’t giveyou the benefit of the doubt. It’s about looking at projects
on a portfolio basis and demonstrating your willingness to get involved.’

Assignments can vary enormously but they all have one thing in common. ‘It’s
always a steep learning curve,’ he says. Kirton offers some tips for making
maximum impact from the word go. A good starting point is to ask, in what
direction is the working capital moving and is there an issue with debtors?

‘These are areas where you can be seen to make rapid progress by the
organisation while you’re still learning the ropes and working out who you need
to get to know.’

Ultimately an interim FD role tends to be very action-oriented. ‘It’s not
about taking all the annual reports and board minutes and locking yourself away
to read them. One management theorist says in the first 100 days of a job, you
should set out what you want to do. With an interim role, it’s to do the job –
you don’t get that warm up period.’

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