A finance director with a calculated and cautious outlook is not the norm for the cut and thrust world of stock market flotations and FTSE-100 businesses. But Jackie Hunt has made a career out of her measured and rational approach, which is pivotal to the insurance industry she has immersed herself in.
Hunt, group CFO of Standard Life, describes herself and the management team as “rational thinkers, not driven by emotion”.
Determined when it comes to business, Hunt says working for one of the largest insurers in the world does not mean the team can rest on its laurels. “Clearly we have to earn the right to maintain shareholder capital, and we do that by delivering on things we said we would, and, delivering it well.”
Standard Life offers a range of fund products such as personal pensions, stocks, shares, ISAs and investment bonds. Its latest half-year results for 2010 showed profits after tax of £326m and its highest ever sales figure for the first half of a year.
For Hunt it wasn’t the successful nature of the business that attracted her. It was that the products Standard Life provide “do what they say on the tin”.
Hunt was working as CFO of Norwich Union Insurance, a subsidiary of insurance group Aviva, when the opportunity for a deputy CFO position at Standard Life arose. She explains that she didn’t rush into the decision to change jobs and it was then CFO, now CEO, David Nish who enticed her into the role.
Discussions with Nish and other board members took roughly seven months to complete. In the end Hunt said the appeal of Standard Life was its very clear strategy and its customer centric ethos.
“I like to get up in the morning and feel like I’m doing something that’s efficient,” she says.
Hunt wanted to expand her horizons and craved a “much more outward facing than a heavy duty operational finance director” role.
“Really the attraction to the job was the external interface, the opportunity to get more involved in the strategy in the group.”
Hunt took the role of deputy group CFO in January 2009, a newly created position, which was dropped when she was promoted to group CFO a year later in May 2010.
Having settled in for a few months, Hunt has resisted rushing into restructuring the finance function, claiming there is “more than one way to skin a cat”. She has created two positions – group financial controller and someone to take responsibility for capital management – both of which she is in the process of filling.
Another new idea she is introducing is the finance change programme, with one of its aims to push the talented people in the business to broaden their breadth of experience. “It’s about talent management. I think growing good talented people is not an accident, it’s something you have to put a lot of energy and effort into.”
Hunt lists one of the only regrets of her career as not having more business-facing roles earlier, and believes working in sales or marketing would have helped her to be a more rounded CFO.
“I think understanding other dynamics within a business is always beneficial to a CFO.”
That said, her career has still been varied. She qualified in Johannesburg and worked in Deloitte’s South African office and, although she wanted to travel, she never had the “courage” to stop working for a year. She was encouraged by family to take a trip to New Zealand and transferred to Deloitte’s local office. Although Hunt refers to the experience in New Zealand as “fantastic”, her work there was based around small businesses and it was the larger corporate entities that Hunt wanted to get her hands on.
While in New Zealand, Hunt moved to PwC and was seconded to its offices in New York, working in the capital markets group. The firm seconded her with the intention she would be back, even allowing her a further 18-month secondment to Zurich. But all that changed when insurance group Royal & SunAlliance (RSA) approached her to take an in-house role and help list the business on the New Yo rk Stock Exchange.
Hunt loved the variety of consulting and the intellectual challenge that comes hand in hand with working in an accountancy practice, but admits the travel burden was becoming “un-doable”.
“The next role was a career choice and I thought, could I – with a child – be going all over the world?”
In what she describes as a “lifestyle decision”, Hunt put the job offer down as an “opportunity”. She felt she already knew RSA and was only too happy to join them.
Many women effectively take a step back when they become a mother rather than continue up the corporate ladder. Hunt decided, however, that moving to a business would make life easier for her compared to practice, while still allowing her to progress in her career.
Hunt shies away from the idea of being a role model for women who are faced with numerous career barriers after having children.
She believes “it’s a personal choice” and that there is “validity” both in continuing to climb the career ladder and in easing off.
Hunt remained in the insurance industry and moved to Aviva in 2003, taking on a number of roles before switching to Standard Life in 2008.
At Standard Life, she is making the move to IFRS and is, in Hunt’s own words, on a “journey”. She believes IFRS has become a suitable measure and is closer to cash generation than embedded value is. “Overall I think it’s positive,” she says.
However, there is always an underbelly when it comes to accounting standard changes: “It’s sad that we can’t seem to get convergence and certainly not in a reasonable time frame.”
“From my perspective, I think what the industry does need is an appropriate timeframe to field test. We haven’t been given that as yet and I think the interaction with the industry has been almost silent.”
She adds she is supportive of IFRS but the communication between standard setters and the industry needs some refining. “We need to understand this is what is currently being proposed.”
Speaking before the release of the exposure draft for the latest standard on insurance accounting, Hunt claims at one stage there was talk of it having lots of “optionality” in it.
“This is very difficult to field test and I think people need to have an opportunity to run it over and say does it hang together once you take all these changes, does it make economic sense?”
Hunt doesn’t want another standard that is a “hodge podge” of ideas.
However, IFRS is not the only gripe Hunt has with regulation.
As many finance directors would echo it is not standards that are the thorn in their side, but the sheer number of amendments, changes and introductions that have made accounting in business so complex.
Given the economic crisis, the finance function has had to deal with all sorts of regulatory change, explains Hunt.
From the insurance perspective there have been changes to Solvency II – an insurance risk regulation – plus changes to banking regulation and financial reporting switchovers.
This has essentially forced the finance function to focus on the books rather than growing and expanding the business.
“It’s more a kind of accumulation of these things for an organisation and we want to focus on the external. How do we drive value, how do we generate economic profit, but it gives that backdrop. We have all this kind of imposed change that I would point as being a frustration that takes a lot of energy and effort out of where I think we as a finance function could add more value.”
However, Hunt is unfazed and loves the challenges her role brings her.
Her advice to her team: “Do something that makes you want to get up in the morning, makes you enjoy it, makes you feel challenged, like you’re contributing. And there are opportunities.”
iXBRL: questions remain
New corporation tax software, iXBRL, is no “game changer” according to Hunt. From 1 April 2011, all corporation tax must be filed in iXBRL format, a computer and human-readable tagging language.
There has been much debate on the implications of iXBRL, most notably the impact on finance functions dealing with changes to their accounting systems.
Hunt believes the introduction of the new technology is “not a game changer” and wonders whether the move will push finance forward or just provide businesses with more data.
She concedes iXBRL will be useful to help analysts compare financial data. However, there are still questions as to whether having access to comparable financial data has wider benefits.
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