As a Somerset lad who left school with one O-level and ended up playing golf with Microsoft founder Bill Gates in his role as UK finance director of the software giant, Steve Harvey rightly feels he has come a long way.
He is clearly an ambitious man, blaming the ‘devil’ inside him for driving him on to ever greater things, and a hardworking one – his average working week is 60 hours. But then this CIMA-qualified accountant has a lot to do.
His role as UK director of people, profit and loyalty – Microsoft-speak for director of finance, HR and admin – encompasses a wide range of activities in a company where business performance and knowledge is demanded – even on the golf course.
Recalling a round he played in the UK a few years ago with both Gates and Microsoft’s ‘Mr Motivator’, chief executive officer Steve Ballmer, he says conversation during the first half-hour consisted of the pair giving him a ‘complete grilling’ on Microsoft and its financial performance.
‘Steve and Bill are both maths geniuses so you have to understand your numbers,’ he adds.
Not that Harvey minded. He says of Gates, who has now returned to designing the company’s software: ‘It’s just surreal to play golf with him, but you knew he was a real golfer because he moaned about the quality of his hire clubs.’
But Harvey says he gets left largely alone when things are going well.
‘As long as you are ahead of budget they never talk to you. If you are below budget then you have quite a lot of conversations. That’s how the US works.’
The role of Microsoft UK’s 800-strong UK workforce is basically to sell, market and service the products that the company designs in the US. And given the ubiquity of Microsoft products, it is no small job.
Microsoft is secretive about what the UK contributes towards Microsoft’s worldwide income – which amounted to more than $25bn (#17bn) for the year ended 30 June 2001.
And technology-obsessed Harvey is now helping to prepare the company for the launch of Windows XP, Microsoft’s latest operating system, on 25 October. ‘It creates a way of signing into all the different web services in one go. It is the first time we have had one core operating system,’ he says.
Harvey has to manage the company’s finances, as well as the HR function and what he describes as ‘loyalty’, making him the number two in Microsoft UK to managing director Neil Holloway. Both of them joined Microsoft on the same day, and were wearing the same tie. ‘When the boss is away I stand in. In other companies I would be like the chief operating officer.’
Harvey says he enjoys his dual roles as head of both finance and HR, though he doesn’t like the names.
Explaining his unusual-sounding job title, he says: ‘I hate the word HR. I am not a resource. I am a person. Profit is there because that’s what we are in business for.’
Semantics aside, he argues that the roles complement each other.
‘It’s a lovely balance about seeing how to invest resources to get the best out of people and on the other hand making sure there is a business reason for anything you invest in people. You are constantly investing in people, but with a business head on. So you are doing it from the brain and not the heart. It works really well.’
Given the size of Microsoft’s UK operation, Harvey’s finance team is relatively small, numbering just 12. The low headcount is sustained because much of the company’s day-to-day finance activities are outsourced.
Accounts payable are looked after by Microsoft’s manufacturing plant in Ireland, while accounts receivable, facilities and employee benefits management are all outsourced to third parties. Andersen carries out both the company’s statutory accountancy and tax work.
Although a fan of outsourcing, he says that any finance director considering the issue would have to look at his business and weigh up the costs versus the benefits. But he feels it is the right model for Microsoft. ‘To manage an accounts payable person takes as much energy as to manage a senior finance guy.’
The result is that Harvey’s finance guys all operate at quite a senior level. Most of them, like Harvey, are CIMA-qualified.
However, he says their jobs are quite different from functionaries in more traditional finance departments. Most of them, he says, spend a great deal of time supporting the sales team and going out to see customers with them.
‘We are lucky because the systems do most of the donkey work for us so the finance guys go out supporting the sales guys. The finance guys spend a lot of time showing customers how the systems work.’ He adds: ‘It’s not a place where a pure accountant, who doesn’t interface with customers, survives. You have to be out there living and breathing the business day in, day out.’
Such comments seem to back up Microsoft’s image as one of those employers to which staff surrender both their soul and most of their free time.
And his revelation that most of his finance team spend most of their time in Microsoft T-shirts seems to provide further evidence of this, particularly as he adds: ‘I don’t think they have anything else in their wardrobes.’
Harvey comments: ‘We set people very clear outcomes of what is expected. It is up to them to deliver against those targets. Beyond that we don’t care what hours people work.’
He is also defensive of chief executive Steve Ballmer, whose ebullient and emotional performance at a recent company gathering enjoyed a period of world fame. Emails shot round the globe showing a video clip of the bullish businessman jiggling on stage to the music of Gloria Estefan, whooping ‘come on, come on’ and telling the audience, apparently by now whipped up into a fervour, ‘I have four words for you: I love this company’.
Harvey had what some consider the dubious privilege of being in the audience.
He says: ‘That’s him – it’s not an act. He’s our idol,’ adding that the incident represented the real Steve Ballmer and not some sort of act about what a chief executive should be these days.
Indeed it his colleagues that Harvey says are the best thing about his role. ‘The good thing about my job is working with very talented people and the inspiration they give you. And the technology is phenomenal.’
Microsoft’s website is at www.microsoft.com
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STEVE HARVEY ON:
… prospects for the IT market
‘We are still feeling the impact of the millennium bug. People spent a ton of money upgrading systems in that time period and they are not ready to go back there yet. Later this year or next year we will see the market recovering again.’
… the future of technology
‘There is a fun example of where we are going. Starbucks in the US doing things with pocket PCs. As you walk in the technology will recognise what your regular order is, and what magazine you read. The magazine will appear on your PC as the coffee is brought over. That is the sort of world you are trying to create through technology. Connecting to information any time, any place on any device is what we are working towards.’
… recession and the impact of the US attacks
‘I think in the UK we will be OK. I think the market will pick up, but the US is the one to watch – we haven’t really seen the impact of all the interest rate cuts. There are a lot of people sitting and waiting to see what the economy is going to do.’
… the dotcom boom
‘We have gone back to really good sound base economics. For a while Microsoft was not seen as sexy any more, but we thought: ‘Hang on, we have a really good business model’. We didn’t have the crazy valuations you had in the marketplace, but they have gone and we are still solid. There was gold in them there hills, but it’s real base economics now. People are more cautious.’
… being a good accountant
‘You have to have at least one experience in your life when you see the real downside – when business is in trouble. If you live your life just with successful companies you never really see accountancy in its full-blown glory and appreciate how good systems need to be.’
… finance directors
‘Too many FDs just worry about what the numbers say … not about life outside their own world.’
HARVEY’S PATH TO THE TOP
Steve Harvey decided on his career choice after an accountant came in to give a careers talk at his Somerset school.
‘He was really snappily dressed, had a lovely watch and looked the complete business,’ he recalls.
Leaving school at 16 with just an O-level in maths, Harvey did a business studies course before joining the accounts department of agricultural machinery company Massey Ferguson in his home town of Bridgewater. He then moved to the Electricity Generating Board where he completed his CIMA exams.
He had a spell with Habitat in its heyday when Ikea – which now owns Habitat – was just a little upstart. Harvey claims he gained valuable experience, working through a downturn and seeing the impact the rapid growth of Ikea had on the more established furnishings retailers.
He was also put in charge of bringing PCs into Habitat, allowing his fondness of technology to develop. ‘I got Microsoft products in,’ he says.
He joined Microsoft, then a much smaller operation than today’s behemoth, when he saw an advert for finance manager. ‘No-one had ever heard of it, and that was 11 and a half years ago,’ he says.
‘Basically I fell in love with what I was doing,’ he says, describing his role as his ‘perfect job’.
Now number two in the UK and based at Microsoft’s Reading HQ, he says ‘the big part of my job is making sure people are pointing in the right direction. My job is to keep ahead of them.’
Harvey says he has ‘scrapped his way up’ and thinks he can still ‘go on and do more’.
His interest in Microsoft, however, is not all consuming. Harvey has also set up a dog-breeding business in Henley. Its web address, for those that are interested, is: www.ridgewaylabradors.co.uk.
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