Profile: Carolyn Bresh, chair of the ICAEW’s finance and management faculty

As a self proclaimed ‘spreadsheet jockey stuck in the corner of the room’,
Carolyn Bresh’s career has transformed remarkably to see her become a finance
consulting expert to top businesses.

Her recent appointment as chair of the ICAEW’s finance and management
faculty, in addition to her partnership role in Everymind, a specialised finance
consultancy, has been a marked affirmation for the finance whiz.

Everymind is aimed at improving business performance and, for Bresh, success
in the current climate is underpinned by the ability to assess a company’s
finance function objectively.

‘Sometimes you need to step outside and look at other businesses through
someone who has seen the good and the bad. That was the problem I had at
Reuters… you become so deeply embedded in it that you can’t see the wood through
the trees. It’s good to be able to step outside the politics of a business as
well,’ she says.

Bresh and her three fellow partners assume a mixture of diagnostic-based
work, where an analysis of the business’ systems, processes and people is
offered, as well as projects involving targeted implementation of changes
needed. This can include physically improving the business’ management
information function, or steering the company through an acquisition.

The relevance of the service is quantified by the fact Bresh hasn’t borne an
unchargable day of work since May 2007. But her path to Everymind and new role
at the ICAEW has taken many twists and turns. After qualifying as a chartered
accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1990, Bresh moved to Blenheim
Exhibitions, a mid-sized company which she describes as ‘highly inquisitive with
rapid growth.’

Her three year tenure with the company consisted of a stint in the US, where
she assumed the role of company CFO.

Returning to the UK, she took on a business development role, exploring
acquisition opportunities across parts of Asia in a bid to expand the company’s
international presence.
By this stage, the exposure to global finance issues had whet her appetite for
something more weighty and, driven by greater responsibility and professional
development, she was craving something that a mid-sized firm, however
innovative, couldn’t offer.

News angle

Enter global news wire service, Reuters [now Thomson Reuters]. Bresh concedes
her inception into the world of corporate blue chip companies wasn’t seamless.

In fact, her introduction into the information powerhouse listed on the stock
exchanges of New York, Toronto and London soon left her questioning the move.

‘The transition was shocking. I thought I was going to die of boredom. I’d
had lots of responsibility before, I’d been able to follow through my own
vision, and it was very autonomous and entrepreneurial. Then I went to something
that was very corporate. I didn’t realise how different it would be, so I
thought I’d last three months,’ she says.

Reuters then sponsored Bresh for a MBA at the London Business School before,
just one year into the course, they realised her management capacity and raw
knack for finance was too great to ignore and she was promoted into steering a
business planning team.

Several years and a number senior finance positions later, Bresh’s career
reached another milestone. It was 1999 and the Reuters share price had dropped
from £17 to £0.90p, an event that was to herald
Bresh’s part in an unprecedented restructuring project, which included 3,000
staff redundancies. ‘Revenue was falling off a cliff. The company made a loss
for the first time in 150 years,’ she says.

At the time, Bloomberg had also emerged as a genuine threat to the success of
Reuters, with Bresh being at the forefront of witnessing just how swiftly a
large, successful business can get complacent and surface as a takeover target.

‘I was right at the centre of things. It was hard losing all those people – I
had to sack people in my own team, so it was pretty tricky. I learnt how quickly
a business can go from being very successful to being right at the edge of being
taken over, despite the fact it has all that history and a fantastic reputation
in terms of journalism. All of that can suddenly count for not very much. They
[Bloomberg] essentially came in and ate our lunch,’ she says.

The restructure instilled in Bresh the skill to rationalise when faced with
difficult business decisions, and it’s only now in her current role as partner
of Everymind that she’s able to apply this knowledge to a range of businesses.

After 12 years with Reuters, Bresh was fearful she was in danger of being
institutionalised, and harboured reservations about the prospect of ever
becoming group CFO.

David Grigson, she says, was very competent and the plausibility of stepping
into his shoes wasn’t realistic.

‘I’d outsourced staff and taken work to shared service centres in India and
implemented IFRS and done Sarbanes Oxley and improved all the management
reporting ­ I felt like I had a fantastic toolkit that many businesses ­ not
just one, could benefit from.’

With her Reuters background, her partnership role in Everymind has paved the
way for a strong emphasis on media and technology clients, however the business
engages with a cross-sector of clients, incorporating smaller SMEs and starter
businesses, right through to the larger, corporate clientele. Baker Tilly,
British Museum, BT, Sony Ericsson, Vodafone and Tesco all employ the assistance
of Everymind.

Citing obvious cost cutting issues as the real concern for businesses, Bresh
believes FDs, more so than ever before, need to be heavily focused on the
management of working capital and short-term cash flow.

She says that during the downturn many businesses are also getting close to
banking governance, and FDs should be directing the business through this and
engaging with their bank.

‘Because of the uncertainty the horizon comes in. At the moment there’s no
time to react, so the time scale is shortening. Finance teams don’t have time to
turnaround information to the business. Should they go to the banks and
negotiate banking governance now?

‘Uncertainty is the real challenge. No one knows how long this will go on
for, so it’s a matter of protecting cash flow. FDs shouldn’t be wishing on a
prayer,’ she says.

So, with demand for the service at a premium, the internal business focus
lies in maintaining quality of output and retaining the existing staff
structure. Expansion of the team, she says, would dilute the quality of the
people in the team.

She’s also intent on producing a successful two-year term at the ICAEW, with
a personal remit to increase the Institute’s membership.

In addition to her position with Everymind and the part-time discretionary
role with the ICAEW, Bresh is intent on continuing with her work at Headliners,
a children’s news agency charity where she’s recently been appointed onto the
board as treasurer, as well as guest lecturing at Astrid Management School.

‘Switching off? I’ve worked very hard to get better at it but it’s still very
hard,’ she says.

Bresh on…

Horseracing: ‘My real love outside of the profession is
horseracing. I’ve owned horses in the past. I owned a share in a horse that’s
won seven Orient Expresses. I use it as a way of keeping in touch with friends.
There’s a group from Reuters who are all big gamblers and it’s a social thing as

Being discriminated against:
‘I don’t know whether I should be saying this. There have been instances where I
know I haven’t been paid as much as the men doing the same job but it hasn’t
held me back at all. It does still exist – it’s a fact of life.

I’ve never been one for positive discrimination so I would never want anyone
to think I got the role because I’m a woman – that’s not what I’m about at all.
I’ve actually viewed the fact I’m female as a positive advantage, because you
can wear a red jacket and distinguish yourself from the grey suits. I stand

An aging profession:
‘The accountancy institutes have been adaptive to
changes. It’s hard for everyone at the moment to keep pace with adapting. They
now offer online groups and online chats. It’s hard for everyone at the moment
to keep pace with the changing technologies but they are becoming more
commercial in their outlook and they have to, however in the current economy
there’s value in things that have been around a long time, there’s credibility.’

‘I’d been on the finance and management faculty committee
for two years before assuming the chairperson role, so I’ve seen the events they
run and the publications they produce. The organisation represents exceptional
value for money for FDs who are in line roles. There’s less support out there
for FDs and CFOs out there – people in the day-to-day roles, which is
essentially what I’ve done for the last 19 years. There’s plenty of support for
people in audit and people in practice.

‘Outgoing, direct, no bull-shit, very focused, approachable,
practical. I’m not a theoretical person. I get embedded in staying with clients
longer. I like to see things through. That was a concern going into the
consultancy… I didn’t want to be leaving Powerpoint presentations on the shelf
collecting dust.’

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