Norman Green hasn’t been to his office in Reading in two weeks. He’s been eating dog food in various destinations around the globe – South Africa and Dublin to mention just two. Not literally, of course. It’s a phrase coined by Larry Ellison, the charismatic head of Oracle, to mean using the company’s own technology, in this case to keep up to speed with the goings on at his base camp in Reading thanks to his trusty mobile work tool – a PDA.
‘Not a very nice term,’ confesses Green. ‘But it sums up Oracle’s IT strategy. I’ve been out to different customer sites, yet the business hasn’t stopped. I think that’s the impact that technology is now having.’
Although current mobile technologies have the potential to make the working day ‘very long’, Green, 48, is adamant that IT has driven up the efficiency of how his time is spent. But then as finance director of business and financial software giant Oracle UK, it’s perhaps not surprising that Green is so technologically minded, although he’s the first to admit that’s not always been the case.
‘I remember working at Andersen, commuting into London, when the train journey was the time you used to read the paper. I’m probably now the commuter from hell, constantly doing my emails on the train, plugged in, the phone’s ringing, lots of talking, while everyone else is trying to sleep.’
Green’s desire to make the most efficient use of his time, and his focus on getting out and about to extol the virtues of Oracle, is a hallmark of his current role.
But his path to the financial summit of the UK arm of one of the world’s most successful software companies is a far cry from his commercial beginnings, studying for an engineering degree during an apprenticeship with British Leyland in the seventies.
‘In those days, they took you all around the different parts of the company,’ Green explains. When he arrived in Leyland’s costings department, Green admits it was an element of greed that encouraged him to stay.
‘I looked at how much they were paying graduate engineers, and the thought of putting together an engineering background with a finance approach, which obviously paid more money, actually fitted together quite nicely.’
But more than just a means to pay off his overdraft, Green discovered that he found the accounting side very interesting. ‘I like numbers and it actually worked pretty well for me.’ Green worked in the costings department for a year and started his CIMA qualification.
Green left Leyland to join paper and paper products manufacturer Bunzl, where his in-depth knowledge of accounting was cemented. ‘I really got a good understanding of what it means to produce the P&L and really get into the details of how to interpret the numbers.’
Even though Green’s mathematical brain stood him in good stead for dealing with what was a ‘pure accounting way of business’, he appreciates that times have changed. The UK’s top finance directors can no longer succeed with a ‘chief accountant’ mentality, he says.
‘The days of beancounters and “Monty Python accountants” are gone at the top level. There is an absolute role for people getting into the numbers in real detail. But if you’re going to be the top finance person you have to think strategy and think business. You have to spread beyond just the normal finance route.’
A brief spell at Granada preceded his appointment in 1983 as one of the very first non-chartered accountants at the then Arthur Andersen. ‘They brought me in to look at the internal accounting, management reporting and all of the back-office side of the business. They were very much looking for someone with industry experience who could get into budgets and forecasting and have some real knowledge and background.’
Green was offered the role as manager of Andersen’s management accounting team. But unlike his predecessors who tended to view it as a stepping stone, he relished the role. ‘Tremendous company, tremendous people and the intellect and knowledge that I learnt there was tremendous and it was a very challenging environment as well.’
Green’s new job also coincided with a technological revolution at Andersen and the use of PCs for spreadsheet analysis, resulting in significant changes in the way accountants worked. ‘It was a great time because finance, not just within Andersen, but in general, was starting to change. Accountants were becoming added-value finance professionals and it was during that time with Andersen that I started to see the transition.
‘It was at that time that the firm separated its back-office finance processing functions into a shared service centre – a model now widely replicated but seen as quite innovative in the late eighties and early nineties,’ beams Green. The biggest drivers for this change were a huge increase in costs in London, and the technology wasn’t in place to do so, he says.
‘The kind of systems and processes in place at the time did not lend themselves to a shared service centre-type approach – it was very paper based. If you ever went into an accounts department then, you’d be lucky to see someone through the stacks of paper.’
Green spent 15 years with the now defunct firm culminating in his promotion to the heady ranks of finance director for its UK operations. But when the finance director job at Oracle came up for grabs in 1998, Green jumped at the chance. Unlike the internally focused nature of his role at Andersen, the biggest attraction of the job was the chance to get out and work with customers.
Although he left long before Andersen was dragged into the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the after-effects of its collapse still make him shudder. ‘What happened at Andersen was unfair,’ he says. ‘They had some tremendous people, and at an individual level I feel very sorry for what happened there.’
Although Andersen did ‘some things wrong’, he says the firm’s demise was bad news for industry. ‘Is it right that we have just four major accounting firms? Absolutely not.’
Even as a technology evangelist, and despite the fact that his industry has jumped aboard the corporate governance bandwagon as a means to sell technology as the silver bullet to stop accounting scandals, Green is quite clear about its limitations.
‘IT will never stop fraud,’ he says. ‘What IT will do is to help the transparency and the simplification of businesses, such as to enable the board and managers to have better control, get better information out of your business. Every business needs to look at technology to make sure that it is providing the right information to meet its corporate governance standards.’
Needless to say, as finance director of the subsidiary of a major US parent, corporate governance issues and complying with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act are a huge part of his job.
‘Subsidiary MDs and FDs must sign off accounts that are true and fair and accurate, just as Oracle CFO Jeff Henley and chief exec Larry Ellison must.’ And although Green spends a great deal of time making sure that the right processes are in place, run by a central team, ‘at the end of the day it’s my neck on the block if it’s wrong,’ he says.
Oracle UK produces statutory accounts in UK GAAP, and Green also produces accounts under US GAAP, yet the situation has become more complicated with the onset of international accounting standards.
‘It is crazy when you think that as an organisation we have to report to the US obviously in US dollars, I’ve got UK local accounts in sterling, we’ve got new management accounts in euros. Not only do we have different accounting standards, we’ve have different currencies and the complexity of all that is mind-boggling at times.’
‘Thankfully,’ says Green, ‘the software helps enormously,’ reverting comfortably back to ‘dog food eating’ mode. ‘We only use the software in its simplest form. It used to take us anything between six and 10 days to close our UK accounts when we customised the software. We’re now doing it in two, and trying to get down to one.’
Speeding up processes is a means to an end, argues Green. Closing accounts quickly frees up time to focus on strategic activities such as forecasting and developing sales models.
‘It’s not a product sale,’ he says unflinchingly. ‘I’m not particularly good at selling, but I do think Oracle has done a fantastic job in terms of implementing its own software and I think there are lessons there that other companies can learn from in terms of the approach we’ve taken to simplify things.’
Spending less time on the books has had a huge impact on the day-to-day job. For someone who claims to struggle with an Oracle sales pitch, he spends around a quarter of his time visiting customers and clients to help them be more successful by using Oracle’s software, or to talk to them about business issues such as corporate governance.
When he’s not on the road, he’s helping Oracle develop its corporate and social responsibilities. ‘I’ve got a lot of interest in this area because it’s going to become an increasing requirement on companies to demonstrate their social impact on the community, which has a knock-on effect to our staff,’ he explains.
Not that his CSR work would necessarily indicate the direction his career is heading: ‘I’ve never planned my career. I could still be in Oracle in 10 years time but equally I could be elsewhere.’
One thing’s for sure, wherever Green is in 10 years time, you can bet that his work will be just the push of a button away.
With finance directors becoming even more influential, we have introduced three FD categories in this year’s Accountancy Age Awards. If you believe you have what it takes to enter this year’s Blue Chip, Enterprise or Public Sector FD of the Year award, go to www. accountancyage.com/awards
As business transactions go, Oracle’s hostile takeover bid for business software rival PeopleSoft has done little to reassure a technology market only starting to show signs of recovery.
Given he is finance director of Oracle’s UK office, it’s no surprise that Green is banned from discussing the long-running, and touchy, saga of Oracle’s battle for control of software rival PeopleSoft, which has included well-publicised spats between CEO Larry Ellison and PeopleSoft counterpart Craig Conway.
But he denies that the situation has had any adverse affect on Oracle’s UK operations. ‘From a subsidiary point of view, we try to make sure we are focused on the business, and because all of the things going on are being dealt with by the US, we’re trying to not let that distract us.
Inevitably, Green admits that there is ‘discussion’ about the things that are going on in the US, ‘but the impact from an internal point of view is negligible’.
He’d even go as far to argue that Oracle’s takeover bid has had a positive effect on the company’s perception among existing and prospective customers.
‘It’s raising our profile in the market generally and it’s enabling us to have some good conversations with customers about what’s going on in the software world.’